The Sixers (21-16) hosted the San Antonio Spurs (15-22) on Friday. Philadelphia wanted to extend its winning streak to 6 games. San Antonio looked to establish a winning streak with a second consecutive victory. Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris, and Seth Curry combined for 77 points and 19 assists to power the Sixers to a 119-100 drubbing of the Spurs.
Before we get to what I saw, some context is due.
The following Spurs were in the NBA’s COVID-19 health and safety protocol and were unavailable to play:
- Keldon Johnson
- Tre Jones
- Doug McDermott
- Devin Vassell
- Derrick White
- Thaddeus Young
Zach Collins has a stress fracture in his left ankle and was out.
Gregg Popovich startred Dejounte Murray, Bryn Forbes, Josh Primo, Keita Bates-Diop, and Jakob Poeltl.
Tyrese Maxey, Paul Reed, and Jaden Springer remained in the health and safety protocol and were unavailable for the Sixers.
Shake Milton is nursing a back contusion after a hard fall in the Sixers’ win over the Rockets and was out. Isaiah Joe was out with pain in the right side of his back.
Ben Simmons is not mentally ready to play and was not with the team.
Doc Rivers started Seth Curry, Furkan Korkmaz, Matisse Thybulle, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
The Sixers opened the game with an ATO-like play for Embiid to dime up Harris for a dunk as he slashed to the cup on a backdoor cut. First, it was a gorgeous touch pass upon which Embiid threaded the needle. Secondly, it was an unusually aggressive play to open the game for the Sixers. That it was run for Harris to get an early dunk might make you think that the intention was to get him a bucket early after a night to forget against the Rockets and with the Philly faithful earlier in the week. After the victory, Doc Rivers admitted that the first play was specifically intended for Harris. When asked for his perspective, Harris opined that it wasn’t anything special, adding that they’ve run plays for him to start games before.
Harris seemed to get off the shneid a bit in the Orlando game. And he registered 8 points at the rim in the first five minutes against the Spurs. The Sixers, particularly Joel Embiid, could use someone else stepping up to carry the load on offense. Everyone from Harris’ teammates to the people signing the paychecks hopes that it’s the guy with the biggest salary on the roster who will go on a heater to balance the burden.
On the topic of Harris, it was the best quarter of decision-making he’s had in quite some time. A good rule of thumb for Harris is that not thinking yields the best decisions. If there’s no one around you on the catch, shoot. If the opponent is giving you a driving lane and playing a bit high, attack it. When there’s an open teammate, pass it. In the first quarter, the decision was full speed to the cup. And it yielded 8 points in the opening frame.
The Spurs found hell on earth in the first quarter in the form of Joel Embiid. The big man got to the charity stripe 9 times in the frame. He averages 10.3 free throws per game. You expect a big with Embiid’s physical profile to overwhelm most individual defenders in the paint to get to the line. Part of what makes Embiid’s offensive repertoire at his size such a wonder is that he can bait defenders into shooting fouls on jumpers the same way a guard can.
The Sixers mostly sat idly in the second quarter, save for a short run to close the half out. In that run, Embiid detonated on the Spurs. First, his chemistry with Matisse Thybulle took center stage. Embiid dimed a baseline-cutting Thybulle with a behind-the-back, over-the-head pass out of the post.
I don’t know if Embiid feels himself creeping into the MVP conversation or it’s all just clicking. Last season, he was a thoroughly dominant scorer. This season, you’re seeing the playmaking take a step. Earlier this week, the big man registered his third career triple-double. On Friday, he had 21 points and 6 assists at halftime. It’s neither simple reads out of double-teams nor inviting helpers as a means of manipulating defenses into leaving shooters unattended. He’s starting to make advanced passes from the elbows and post. That is manipulation, but in a different way. He leverages his imposing size to lull helpers to sleep as they camp out in the paint, waiting for the primary assignment to get crushed. And with those secondary defenders asleep, his teammates have runways to the basket.
If the Jokic-esque pass wasn’t enough to get the juices going, he also rattled the rim with a thunderous dunk out of an isolation against Drew Eubanks.
Doc Rivers decided to insert Thybulle into the game while the Spurs were sitting in zone on defense. When the opposition goes zone, you want your itchiest trigger fingers on the floor. What good is a trigger if the shooter has no aim?
The ‘Point Embiid’ experiment has mostly panned out because of both the selectivity with which Embiid brings the ball up the court and the speed with which he makes decisions. It’s also something opposing centers are not used to guarding. Given Embiid’s unique ball-handling skill for a big, his shooting prowess, and his speed, that’s an advantage to the offensive player. Most centers just aren’t built for that type of challenge. That especially makes sense when you consider that centers in switch schemes are a point guard’s dream. So when you have a physically overwhelming, like-sized player directing the offense, that’s just an overload.
On Friday, ‘Point Embiid’ yielded some emphatic dunks down the middle of the floor. I almost want to say that Embiid took his own “over” on dunks on FanDuel. But in all seriousness, you could tell being the victim of the highlight reel was wearing on the Spurs a bit. After perhaps his best dunk of the night, Jakob Poeltl visibly sighed and shook his head so as to say, “How am I supposed to stop that?”
One of the byproducts of how slow and small the Sixers are without Ben Simmons is that they’re extremely vulnerable on the back-line if the rim-protector is lured out of the paint. Ball swings can be particularly painful for Philadelphia, and the Spurs made good use of those passes in the third frame. Ball swings naturally rip weak perimeter defenses out of their proper positions. But when an offense is able to navigate the ball away from the depths of the strong side of the floor and get it to the deepest parts of the weak side in one or two quick passes, a helper is inevitably going to be out of position.
That’s the case for even the best defenses. You just aren’t going to always stay connected under pressure. And that passing left San Antonio with alleys to the rim without any helpers in the way. When offenses are able to freely attach driving lanes for paint points, it means your help defense is lacking. ‘Once and awhile’ is a normal frequency. The problem arises when it happens as often as it does to the Sixers.
It was a really impressive debut for Charlie Brown Jr. He didn’t stuff the box score by any stretch of the imagination. But, he made a handful of hustle plays. The Sixers have been brutal on the glass all season long. Brown Jr hit vacant spaces at just the right times to secure long rebounds off the rim. Brown Jr also leveraged his wingspan to get to some loose passes and create transition opportunities for the Sixers. That’s how a 10-day signee can make the most of his opportunities, and those hustle plays — especially in the team’s areas of weakness — have some staying power.
The Sixers (22-16) will visit the Houston Rockets (11-28) on Monday. Tip-off is set for 8 PM EST. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.