Embiid free throw

The Sixers (29-19) hosted the Sacramento Kings (18-32) on Saturday night. Philadelphia intended to push its winning streak to four games. Sacramento hoped to snap a five-game losing streak. Joel Embiid scored 36 points to help the Sixers stave off the Kings, 103-101.

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

Contextual Notes

The Kings were without Terence Davis (ECU tendon injury in right wrist) and De’Aaron Fox (sore left ankle).

Alvin Gentry started Tyrese Haliburton, Davion Mitchell, Harrison Barnes, Marvin Bagley III, and Richaun Holmes.

The Sixers were without Shake Milton, who is still recovering from a back contusion.

Paul Reed and Jaden Springer were on G-League assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats and were not available.

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

After missing a handful of games with a sore left ankle, Seth Curry made his return to the starting lineup alongside Tyrese Maxey, Matisse Thybulle, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.

First Quarter

The Sixers ran a pick-and-pop with Tyrese Maxey and Matisse Thybulle, with the former popping out and canning a triple as the shot clock expired. I’ll say it again — the Sixers ran a pick-and-pop with Tyrese Maxey and Matisse Thybulle. 

That’s exactly the kind of diversity of which Philadelphia’s offense needs more. Non-traditional pick-and-rolls are amongst the hardest to defend in the NBA, given the versatility and athleticism of the players involved. Thybulle isn’t a playmaker, and his dribbling the ball is usually a crime against basketball. But if he rolls and there’s an obvious read to be made immediately in front of him, Thybulle can do that. In the scenario where he’s popping out, no one respects Thybulle as a shooter — nor should they yet — and it’s rightfully an open shot. If the third-year wing can up that three-point percentage to just the league average, a pick-and-pop with him as a the screener would ostensibly give defenses fits.

The Sacramento Kings, the 29th ranked defense in the league, gave the Sixers fits on offense. Sacramento was more than happy to sell out on Embiid whenever he caught the ball with his back neglecting one side of the floor. On the catch, the likes of Davion Mitchell or Tyrese Haliburton rushed to Embiid’s outside hand to poke the ball away and create live-ball turnovers.

Part of it was the Sixers’ own sloppiness and lack of effort. When help defenders are rushing the blind side, it’s on the ball-handler’s teammates to warn them of the impending help defense. Instead, Embiid was very unaware of the helpers coming over. Beyond that, when the ball escaped Embiid, he was the only Sixer giving up his body to keep the possession alive. Even when it wasn’t Embiid turning the ball over, his teammates were loose with their dribbles and letting the Kings slap down to create turnovers. 

Second Quarter

The Sixers let themselves fall behind by as many as 17 points in the first half mostly due to horrid defense. Sacramento was teeing up the threes, and the Sixers were happy to stray two footsteps off on contests. Some of the three-point shooting came off swings in transition. The Kings whipped the ball up the court urgently, and the Sixers coasted back in transition. Even if a defender was back in time to stunt penetration, the Kings were one pass away from getting a good look from deep. The Kings knocked down 8 of their 18 attempts from deep before halftime.

That wasn’t the only area of issue for Philadelphia’s defense. In a half-court environment, helpers were late to slide over and reject dribble penetration. That inevitably forces Embiid to step up and walk a tightrope to protect against the lurking big while simultaneously denying the ball-handler. With speedsters like Mitchell facing little resistance en route to the rim, Embiid had to crack. And when that happened, Sacramento’s cutters were able to crash to the rim for dump-off passes.

Philadelphia was able to wake Embiid up before the half with some Delay action. That action gets Embiid the ball in the middle of the floor, thus alleviating the pressure he faces on just one side because it’s harder to effectively double-team when no one can flank the ball-handler. Out of Delay action, Embiid had success taking individual defenders off the dribble and getting to the line, if nothing else.

Third Quarter

I’ve tried to quiet my criticism of officiating because the Sixers are usually their own worst enemies in losses. Whether it’s questionable coaching, Tobias Harris’ play, or the rest of the non-Embiid players laying eggs, the officiating rarely affects the outcomes of their games. But my goodness, it was impossible for the Sixers to escape a defensive stanza unscathed without hoping for missed Sacramento free throws.

All third quarter, the Sixers were whistled for feather contact. I totally understand the occasional soft call. But when it happens every possession, two things happen. First, it slows the game’s pace down to a crawl. No one wants to watch that. It’s a garbage product. Second, it disincentivizes one team from defending. Why would you try to defend if you know the slightest bit of contact might get you benched until the fourth quarter or give the opponent free shots? It’s a horrible way to have to play.

The Sixers got back into this one almost entirely by riding the shoulders of Embiid. A few games ago, it seemed like he was just running out of gas and needed a break. But now, my theory is changing. Embiid has looked markedly better after halftime of the last few games. He looks bored in the first halves of games. So, perhaps that means he has learned to pace his dominance. Rather than trying to take the game over from the jump, Embiid felt it out. That gave him the chance to get accustomed to what the Kings were doing on defense. Then, he prayed on the opposition in the second half.

On the box score, 38 points is 38 points. But as we’ve seen before, Embiid dominating from start to finish has a finite battery. He can do it some nights. But, take the Hawks series for example. In game 5, Embiid came out and made his first 10 shots. As the game wore on and the Sixers’ 26-point lead evaporated, Embiid ran out of energy and simply couldn’t close out the series-changing victory.

Fast forward to this year, where he’s learning when to assert himself. The Sixers trailed by as many as 15 points in the third frame. They trailed by just 2 heading into the final frame.

Fourth Quarter

The Sixers’ offense slowed quite a bit as Embiid recharged to start the fourth quarter. Sacramento pushed its lead to 6 points early in the fourth frame. Only when Philadelphia decided to run its offense through Maxey did the Sixers erase the deficit and actually take control of the affair. He simply leveraged his speed as a ball-handler to pressure the rim, whether it be in transition or in a half-court environment. If he wasn’t sticking floaters or getting to the line Maxey was catalyzing the team’s offense by kicking out to teammates off of the drive.

And Maxey didn’t go on cruise control when Embiid checked back into the affair, either. As soon as the big fella came in, Maxey buried a triple to punish the defense for going under the screen. The respect will come as long as Maxey continues to sustain or grow as a shooter. The bigger story is that his first instinct when defenses disrespect him is to punish them. That speaks to his preparation and his confidence in himself. When was the last time the Sixers had a point guard who checked both those boxes?

You have to tip your cap to Tyrese Haliburton, who never gave up on the game. There might’ve been some extra motivation, with fellow Iowa State product Georges Niang on an island with him. Or, it might’ve been his way of making sure the Sixers saw him. Everyone with internet knows the Sixers have been in conversations with the Kings about trade packages centering around Ben Simmons and Haliburton. Scoring a career-high 38 points on Saturday, he did everything but march into Daryl Morey’s office and ask him to #DoTheDeal, as the folks on Twitter would say.

The Sixers (30-19) will host the Memphis Grizzlies (35-17) on Monday. Tip-off is set for 7 PM EST. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.