Joel Embiid after victory over Celtics
Photo by Austin Krell/The Painted Lines

The Sixers (26-19) visited the San Antonio Spurs (17-29) on Sunday night. Philadelphia wanted to right its wrongs from a horrendous collapse against the Clippers on Friday. San Antonio planned on righting its own wrongs from a loss to the Nets on Friday, as well. Another absurd night from Joel Embiid powered the Sixers to victory, 115-109.

Before we get to what I saw, allow me to set the scene.

Contextual Notes

The Sixers were without the services of Seth Curry (sore left ankle), Danny Green (right hip pain), Shake Milton (back contusion), and Matisse Thybulle (sprained right shoulder).

Paul Reed was on a G-League assignment with the Delaware Blue Coats and was not available.

Ben Simmons is not mentally ready to play and was not with the team.

Doc Rivers started Tyrese Maxey, Charlie Brown Jr, Furkan Korkmaz, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.

The Spurs were without Devontae Cacok (Two-Way), Joe Wieskamp (Two-Way), and Josh Primo, who were on assignment’s with San Antonio’s G-League affiliate.

Zach Collins is reconditioning for a return to competition and was out.

Gregg Popovich started Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Keldon Johnson, Doug McDermott, and Jakob Poeltl.

First Quarter

Charlie Brown Jr made his first two layup attempts of the game, which is more than you could say for him on Friday. I can understand if maybe a certain opponent catches an inexperienced NBA player off guard or the speed of a game causes an inexperienced player to rush shots. But Brown Jr was flat-out atrocious on the offensive end on Friday, botching numerous layups in a 1-point loss. If you can’t finish around the rim and you can’t make jumpers, you might find yourself living out of a hotel room in your NBA life.

Tyrese Maxey had good looks at corner threes twice in the first quarter. Instead, he opted to throw shot-fakes and attack close-outs towards the baseline and dribble into more difficult looks. Don’t love that decision-making. Sure, he’s more comfortable around the rim. But, Maxey has made significant progress as a perimeter threat this season. And when his teammates are attacking the interior defense and kicking to him when helpers roam too far away, he needs to make them pay for converging on the penetrator.

Beyond that, if there are a bunch of helpers and a primary defender in the paint to stunt the dribbler, deciding to then take the ball back to where all the defenders are makes no sense. I’m all for high-quality shots and getting to your spots, but when you have an open three and choose to attack the paint — where the defense is — instead, you’re deciding to take the lower-quality shot.

Second Quarter

It was interesting to see the Sixers go zone against a Spurs team that didn’t really have anything going on offense. San Antonio began the game 1-for-7 from deep. They’re a little better than average from deep this season, so the Spurs are worth respecting from deep. Going zone when it’s unnecessary seems like a cute adjustment, but it’s probably venturing toward tempting fate. The only logical reason I can think of that would explain that adjustment is to give your defense a bit of a rest. But, going zone isn’t really Rivers’ MO. And giving your second unit defense an excuse to be lazy after an embarrassing home loss just doesn’t seem feasible. 

The Sixers made a concerted effort to run their offense through Embiid and Maxey by way of middle pick-and-rolls. Maxey would clear the screen and then lay a bounce pass to Embiid as he stepped to the free throw line to operate. From there, he was attacking the paint regularly. Perhaps more valuable was Embiid’s passing as an extension of the pick-and-roll. He was making reads out of the short roll and kicking to his shooters on the perimeter, even entrusting the ice-cold Furkan Korkmaz late in the second frame.

That type of trust in his teammates, through thick and thin, is part of the proof that Embiid has legitimately grown as a leader. He and the Sixers love to talk about how he’s become a great lead man. Trusting Korkmaz to make the next shot, despite the slump he’s struggling through, is the essence of ‘actions speak louder than words’.

Speaking of Korkmaz, my goodness. It’s quite good that he has grown as a driver and finisher because the guy just can’t hit the broad side of a barn with a beach ball right now. I’m typically not one to pin a player’s value on the binary of “do his shots go in”, but his role is to be an adequate shooter. He’s simply not that. No one’s asking him to pump in contested triples off screens. But, he lacks the shooting gravity the Sixers need because he doesn’t capitalize on open looks.

Third Quarter

The Spurs came out of the break ready to play more uptempo and the Sixers just weren’t ready for that speed. Regardless of whether Philly scored, San Antonio pushed the pace and simply beat the Sixers up the floor for quick scores. Transition defense has been Philly’s kryptonite this season. They often get punished for live-ball turnovers, conceding open triples on run-outs. There was a little bit of that in this game. But, the poor effort revealed itself after the Sixers scored. The Spurs collected the ball, rapidly made their inbound passes, and pushed the ball up the court before the Sixers could get back.

That left corner triple courtesy of Embiid to end the first half really seemed to light a fire under Korkmaz. He deposited a pair of triples and scored 8 points in the frame. I suppose that capacity to go from frigid to hot on a quarter-to-quarter basis speaks to just how streaky Korkmaz is.

You get a sense of just how powerful Embiid is when he can attack the chests of multiple defenders, complete a dunk over their contests, and throw it down with enough authority to pull on the rim. He’s just ridiculous.

Fourth Quarter

I don’t love the entire offense deferring to Tobias Harris to open the fourth quarter, especially when Maxey is on the floor. It should be a two-man game, or a balance between who controls the possession. But to Harris’ credit, he responded with 6 big points in a stint to open the fourth frame with a non-Embiid unit. Of course, he played within his aptitudes. He attacked a mismatch in the post and kissed a layup off the glass. He spun his way into the lane against a smaller Spur and twirled in a floater. Then, Harris dropped a post fadeaway.

The Spurs made a push to get back into the game right before Embiid came back in. But as soon as the big guy re-entered the affair, the game’s complexion changed. On the first defensive possession after returning, Embiid scared Dejounte Murray away from the basket and forced a pass out to the perimeter. It was promptly intercepted by Tobias Harris. Then the Spurs got a look at the rim, but Embiid’s presence altered the shot. He then locked down the rebound, holding San Antonio to one shot. 

Just as he’s done all season long, Embiid was there to clean up his team’s offense. Mixed in with an emphatic dunk, a pump-fake and careful drive to the cup for a finish, and a jumper was a gorgeous wrap-around pass to a cutting Korkmaz for a late layup. That growth as a passer has really changed the offense. The only thing that would make it better would be if guys would cut around Embiid more often. 

Perhaps I’m a basketball weirdo (I absolutely am), but I had to laugh when Embiid cut to the rim to help release the pressure on the left side of the floor. His teammate found him on the dive and hit Embiid for a finish. Embiid does literally everything else on the offensive end, he might as well cut, too. Maybe then his teammates would get the memo.

The Sixers (27-19) will host the New Orleans Pelicans (17-28) on Tuesday. Tip-off is set for 7 PM EST. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.