Joel Embiid

The Sixers (31-21) visited the Chicago Bulls (33-19) on Sunday. Philadelphia hoped to end a two-game losing streak. Chicago intended to build upon a victory over the Pacers on Friday. Joel Embiid put up yet another 40-piece to power the Sixers to victory, 119-108.

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

Contextual Notes

The Sixers were without the services of Shake Milton, who continues to miss time with a back contusion. Matisse Thybulle missed the game with a sore right shoulder. 

Paul Reed and Jaden Springer were on G-League assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats and were unavailable.

Ben Simmons is not mentally ready to play and was out.

Doc Rivers started Tyrese Maxey, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.

The Bulls were without Zach LaVine, who is dealing with spasms in his right mid-back. Lonzo Ball was out with a torn left meniscus. Alex Caruso and Derrick Jones Jr missed the game with fractured right wrists and fingers, respectively.

Coby White was unavailable for Chicago with a strained right adductor, while Patrick Williams continues to be out with a ligament tear in his left wrist.

Marko Simonovic was on assignment with Chicago’s G-League affiliate and was unavailable.

Billy Donovan started Ayo Dosunmu, Troy Brown Jr, DeMar DeRozan, Javonte Green, and Nikola Vucevic.

First Quarter

Rather than laboring through the lethargy of a late afternoon showing in a market like Chicago, Joel Embiid was ready to go from the jump. He scored 10 points on 4 shots in the first 4 minutes of the game. But more impressive was his engagement on defense. He was showing moderate blitzes on pick-and-rolls with DeMar DeRozan as the ball-handler on both sides of the floor, stunting the star’s drive but also recovering to the roller when DeRozan passed out of the look. And perhaps more important, the back-side help rotation to cover the rim was there in one of the two possessions, as well.

That back-side help to the rim is so important for two reasons. First of course, you need to take away any secondary pass that creates an easy layup while the big is away from the rim. Secondarily, Embiid isn’t going to hold his blitz if he can’t trust his teammates to have his back for lifting up to stop the drive. That synchronization is how a team defense can be greater than any of the individual parts comprising it.

The only reason the Bulls were even in the game after the first quarter, however, was DeMar DeRozan. And he ate up Tobias Harris. The Sixers forward gave very little resistance to DeRozan’s attempts to get downhill to his comfort zones. As such, DeRozan had no problem pushing the lane and getting to the elbows for his patented feathery midrange jumpers. He had 14 of Chicago’s 26 first-quarter points.

Most important at a macro level is Tyrese Maxey’s growing confidence from beyond the arc. In the first quarter, Maxey twice punished defenders going under ball screens with pull-up threes. The more he can stick that shot, the more defenses will be forced to switch or fight through on the screen. Either way, you like Maxey’s chances of getting downhill and collapsing the interior.

Second Quarter

In today’s edition of the Andre Drummond experience, we have him plunging to the rim for a finish, short-circuiting mid-air, and spiking the ball off the backboard instead of attempting a layup or dunk. 

All half long, Embiid terrorized Nikola Vucevic. He made it a point to take advantage of Vucevic’s lacking foot speed. First, it was a diet of midrange jumpers off the dribble. Then, it was constant bursts to the rim, leveraging his size to push Vucevic lower and lower until he had a shot directly at the cup or got fouled. It was a dominant showing for the MVP favorite, who scored 22 points on an 83.33 true shooting percentage in 16 minutes of play.

Perhaps the most important positive of the Sixers getting healthier or making a trade for a guard ahead of Thursday’s deadline is putting an end to the minutes featuring Furkan Korkmaz at point guard. The entire unit just plays slower when he’s the ball-handler, and you never quite feel comfortable with him steering the ship. It’s been a rollercoaster with him serving as the floor general at times this season. The question is whether your team’s best value is derived with him lurking as a shooter or slasher, or with Korkmaz as a primary or secondary ball-handler within the second unit. This writer tends to believe that value is maximized in the former scenario.

Third Quarter

The most meaningful development to Maxey’s off-ball game is his confidence knocking down threes off the catch. The ball isn’t always going to be in his hands. As such, he needs to understand where to be to space the floor for his teammates. Most devastating to defenses is when those open looks off the catch originate from ball-swings. If defenses know he can bury that shot, they’re going to close out on him with heightened urgency. That lack of balance is something that Maxey can weaponize as he draws them out to the perimeter, only to blast past them by attacking the close-out. 

I understand that you’re limited with wings who can credibly defend, but showing DeRozan a drop coverage is asking for trouble. And that’s exactly what the Sixers did in the third frame, with Embiid backing into a shallow drop while Harris attempted to fight through the ball screens. The problem is that DeRozan’s game is predicated on either getting to the cup or pulling up in the midrange. So, you’re effectively giving him exactly what he wants. He had 26 before the intermission, and he added 7 points to that total before subbing out around the halfway point of the third quarter.

There are so many things that make Embiid preposterously good. But one of the perhaps underrated aptitudes he possesses is his ability to blow by opposing bigs in face-ups from anywhere on the floor. That skill is largely derived from his capacity to effectively use shoulder hesitations. Embiid will show something to make the big man move a bit. Then he’ll hesitate with his move — but keep his dribble alive — to draw the big on flat feet. And when the big takes that flat-footed step into his air space, Embiid finishes the move with a burst to the cup. He does it at least once per game, and Embiid blew right by Vucevic to soar in for a finish in the third quarter.

Fourth Quarter

The Sixers’ second unit came out with a bang to open the final frame, scoring 9 straight points to push the advantage to 17 points. But the Bulls inevitably went on their own run, scoring 13 straight points to cut the advantage down to 4 points. That’s where Doc Rivers and I (and I’m assuming many others) differ in strategy. There was a break in play around the 8-minute mark of the fourth quarter, while the Bulls made their run, and he stuck with Drummond for the sake of adhering to his regular rotations.

This isn’t to say Drummond cannot be relied upon. In fact, you could argue he’s the best backup center in the league. But, why not put the best player on either team out there to put the game out of reach? Drummond was only in for a minute or so longer anyway. But, that’s more than enough time for the opposition to add 8 points to their run. The strategy should be to bring your ace in when you feel the game shifting. Then, get him out once the game is on ice. It is those differences that go against the intuitive feel for the game.

As quiet as he can be at times, Tobias Harris showed up in the fourth quarter. He scored 11 of his 23 points in the fourth quarter. The lack of passivity in crunch time is obviously huge. But, it was encouraging to see him get to the bucket for finishes. As Harris has struggled through this season, he’s botched a number of shots right at the rim. But not on Sunday, when his feel around the basket was superb.

The only thing left to say is, why didn’t the Bulls go to a zone defense at all? Perhaps their size isn’t quite what you’d desire in a zone. But, the Sixers have shown almost no ability to beat a zone. According to Synergy, Philly averages .93 points per possession against zones this season, ranking 21st out of 30 NBA teams. It is baffling that Chicago never went to zone even when Philly made its run to seal the victory.

Nonetheless, the Sixers (32-21) will take it. And now they’ll go home to host the Phoenix Suns (42-10) on Tuesday. Tip-off is set for 7 PM EST. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.