The Sixers (2-4) visited the Chicago Bulls (3-3) on the second half a back-to-back on Saturday. Philadelphia wanted to win its second consecutive game. Chicago wanted to right its wrongs from a loss to the Spurs on Friday. Joel Embiid’s late triple gave the Sixers a lead they would not relinquish in a 114-109 victory over the Bulls.
Before we get to the game, some notes.
The Sixers were without the services of Two-Way signees Julian Champagnie and Michael Foster Jr., who were on G-League assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats.
Doc Rivers started James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, PJ Tucker, Tobias Harris, and Embiid.
The Bulls were without Lonzo Ball, who is recovering from left knee surgery.
Andre Drummond was out with a sprained left shoulder. Ayo Dosunmu was unavailable due to a thoracic contusion.
Kostas Antetokounmpo (Two-Way) was on assignment with Chicago’s G-League affiliate and was unavailable.
Billy Donovan started Alex Caruso, Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, Patrick Wiliams, and Nikola Vucevic.
The offense continued some of the gelling it exhibited on Friday. The early standout in the cohesion was Embiid, who made a concerted effort to function more as a screener within the offense instead of waiting for the ball to find him. He pin-balled around the floor, setting an early floppy screen for Maxey, offering to set a pin-down for Tucker, and setting up wide for high pick-and-rolls with Harden throughout the first quarter.
That pick-and-roll with Harden fueled the Sixers’ offense for the better part of the first frame. Harden’s passing touch was in sync with Embiid’s roll, and the big man made good decisions out of the roll. The best the starting five looked on offense all season came with Embiid doing his best Draymond Green impression. He caught a Harden pass on the move, pushed the rim in the middle of the floor, and then swung the ball to Maxey in the weak corner for an open triple off of a pin-in screen from either Tucker or Harris.
Embiid was also his aggressive self out of the pick-and-roll. He recognized that he could get anything he wanted at the basket, with Vucevic as the lone big on the floor for Chicago. So, he used that weakness to his advantage, coasting to the rim for a handful of layups out of the pick-and-roll in the first frame.
The Sixers saw some success with an early all-bench lineup of Shake Milton, De’Anthony Melton, Matisse Thybulle, Georges Niang, and Montrezl Harrell. They didn’t exactly face any type of imposing lineup, but you’ll win those minutes any chance you can. The formula was ball movement. Philadelphia took advantage of a rather putrid Chicago offense, running on misses at the rim and sloppy live-ball turnovers.
They did a particularly good job of using the whole floor instead of keeping the action all on one side. And when they cut across the lanes, their teammates relocated to make themselves available for spot-up threes. Melton, in particular, led the charge in that all-bench unit. He functioned largely as a slasher, attacking close-outs and finding his way to the rim or kicking to an open teammate for a three. But, Melton attacked with confidence and purpose, moving swiftly and challenging Chicago’s interior defense instead of shying away from a crowd. The movement created open shots for numerous Sixers, and none of the three best players were even on the court.
I thought the Sixers did a much better job of using their athleticism on defense in the first half of this game than they did at any point to start this season. With both Thybulle and Melton on the court, the Sixers junked up Chicago’s offense by being active in passing lanes. They deflected or intercepted numerous errant passes to spark Philly’s transition defense. It wasn’t just them doing it, though. Harden picked off a bad cross-court pass, too. Others made concerted efforts to tip away entry passes to Vucevic and knock the ball into their teammates’ hands. It really helped that Chicago’s playmaking depth is painfully shallow, especially with Ball out. Nonetheless, exploit any and all shortcomings.
Even when a 19-point lead dwindled to three points when Embiid went to the bench with foul trouble in the first half, the Sixers didn’t panic. Harden turned to his playmaking instincts, and the Sixers went to guard-guard pick-and-rolls with Melton screening for the bearded guy to create switches. Harden sprayed two great passes to each corner, hitting Harris for a triple in the left pocket and Tucker for a triple in the right pocket late in the first half.
Melton’s defensive IQ has sneakily been one of the Sixers’ best storylines in the early season. Tonight, he had a tremendous pivot to the rim for a pin-down block off the backboard after the driver snuck a pass to the cutter when Melton shut off his lane to the rim. He’s a bit like Danny Green, in that regard. Offensive players don’t expect him to sneak up, and then he finds a way to neutralize them with force. While Green’s weapons were timing and height, Melton’s are length and athleticism. You don’t think he’s going to challenge a play, and then he jumps out of the gym to get the stop.
Montrezl Harrell drew a couple of charges in this game. One of the biggest takeaways from watching him closely thus far is that he’s surprisingly a good charge-taker. It’s fascinating that the Sixers have had two backup bigs in the Embiid era that were remarkably adept at drawing charges — Ersan Ilyasova, and now Harrell. But, Ilyasova was more of a stretch big, whereas Harrell is more of a brute force big. Neither was an overall defensive asset, though.
Both were slow-footed and lacked agility. Knowing that, it’s just a fascinating note that two bad defensive bigs are so adept at that one specific facet of defense. It doesn’t make sense, seeing as foot speed and defending in space are their biggest problems. I guess the best way to explain it is that you try to be really good at one thing that doesn’t require a ton of spacial mobility to not be a complete disaster on defense.
Niang seems like he’s driving a lot more this season. I would guess he feels like he’s a bit faster than he felt last season; it’s not like he’s more athletic. Just a trend worth noting.
Paul Reed didn’t play in this game, but he certainly brought a lot of energy when his teammates had nice moments. It can’t be easy, still being out of the rotation after working your hardest to develop over the last two years. As discouraging as that probably is, Reed still seems to have a positive attitude and continues to support his teammates. That shows character and maturity.
The Sixers were hell-bent on making sure anyone but DeRozan beat them in the fourth quarter, trapping him right after the halfcourt line. They forced him to give up the ball, and I liked that aggressive approach from Rivers. Don’t let one of the best clutch players in the league beat you. Even if you lose the game, at least it’s not death by a thousand paper cuts from the same piece of paper.
The offense got really stagnant when Chicago made its run in the second quarter. Much of that was because Harden leaned into isolation play. That would’ve been fine if shots were falling for him. But, Harden was 1-for-7 in the first half. His shot selection created run-outs for Chicago, and the Sixers, as we’ve seen, want to defend in transition as little as possible.
The offense stagnating when both Embiid and Maxey ran into foul trouble isn’t exactly surprising. But, you can’t just concede a 19-point lead on the road. It felt like Philadelphia played just to hold strong until halftime instead of playing to maintain control. It didn’t help that Rivers didn’t call any timeouts to break Chicago’s momentum, either.
Tucker committed three offensive fouls in a four-minute span in the third quarter. Certainly bizarre, and made it difficult for the Sixers to build rhythm. They were pretty obvious calls, too. Tucker complaining about each one certainly doesn’t help his credibility amongst referees, either.
The Sixers didn’t do nearly enough to counter Chicago’s shooting in the third quarter. I thought one of the easiest things they could’ve done was involve Maxey more in the offense early in the second half. Philadelphia’s defense was really disappointing after the intermission, and that was mostly because Embiid looked gassed. He dared Vucevic to knock down threes throughout the third quarter, and the big man did just that. But, the Sixer’s offense didn’t have to go down with the defense.
Embiid’s eye test isn’t great even though his box score numbers are relatively strong. Harden didn’t have it in him on the second leg of a back-to-back to take over this game as a one-man offense. It seemed like the Sixers tried to force a round peg into a square hole while simultaneously falling apart on defense. That allowed Chicago to dig back into the game and take the lead in the third quarter. The Sixers finally did go to Maxey in more of a pick-and-roll game late in the third quarter and took back the lead. But, there was no need to let Chicago steal momentum before doing that. It was an obvious call to go to the 21-year-old speedster when it was clear Embiid wasn’t going to be able to do it by himself. Shouldn’t have taken so long to recognize that and redirect the offense.
This has been a problem for years and I’m pretty sure this is the first time I’ve written about it, but Harris’ awareness of the shot clock is horrendous. He constantly dribbles or posts his way into shot-clock violations when the hot potato finds him.
Maxey has a bad habit of complaining about fouls instead of getting back on defense. As a net-negative defender, that would be a really easy way to improve upon that shortcoming. But, you play next to Embiid, Harden, and Harris long enough, you’ll start wanting every call. He probably has more of a gripe than Harris and Harden do on a call-to-call basis. Maxey takes a ton of body contact as a byproduct of being so fast. Nonetheless, this team needs all hands on deck to improve as a transition defense. Get back.
On the topic of fouls, Harden stops playing as soon as he senses contact. If he doesn’t get the whistle, it results in run-outs that are very difficult to recover from and defend. It’s probably not a habit he’s going to break at this point in his career, but it really hurts his team every time it happens.
The Sixers (3-4) will visit the Washington Wizards (3-2) on Halloween. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 PM, Eastern time. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.