Tobias Harris, Photo By Austin Krell/The Painted Lines

Your Philadelphia 76ers (43-21) were back in action on Monday. They faced the Chicago Bulls (26-38) on the second leg of a back-to-back. The Sixers narrowly escaped the first game of the back-to-back thanks to some last-second heroics from Ben Simmons. Philadelphia was looking to win its fifth consecutive contest and take a 1-game lead over the Nets for the top seed in the East. Chicago was looking to snap a three-game losing streak and rise within 2.5 games of the final play-in seed in the East. The bench coughed up a big lead again, but the starting unit was able to close out another victory, 106-94.

Before we get to what I saw, some notes.

Contextual Notes

All Sixers were available for a fourth consecutive game. Doc Rivers started Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.

The Bulls were without the services of Zach LaVine (health and safety protocol), Nikola Vucevic (tight right adductor), and Troy Brown Jr (sprained left ankle). Billy Donovan started Coby White, Garrett Temple, Patrick Williams, Thaddeus Young, and Daniel Theis.

First Half

Let the record show I am extremely high on the Bulls’ city edition uniforms. The red shadow around each of the gold characters pops out against the all-black threading, and the faint allusion to the nearly-two-decades-old flick Chicago on the front really makes the jersey a marketable piece of clothing.

The Sixers were not too keen on getting into their offense early in the game. Instead, they were content with attempting to throw touchdowns to teammates leaking out in transition. The problem, of course, was that the throws were closer to those of Carson Wentz than they were to those of Patrick Mahomes. It ultimately wasn’t that big of a problem, as the Sixers were able to take a comfortable lead by the end of the first quarter. If anything, you would hope the sense of urgency would be higher given Rivers’ comments after the way Sunday’s game played out. They clearly weren’t feeling too motivated early on.

Making The Extra Pass

Once they actually allowed their halfcourt offense to actually develop, the game started flowing quite well for Philadelphia. Particularly noticeable was that they weren’t trying to make heroic plays. As Rivers said after the San Antonio game, the Sixers’ willingness to play ‘iso ball’ was what helped the Spurs get back in the game. In the first quarter of this game, the Sixers were simply moving the ball. It wasn’t even necessarily that dribble penetration was generating open looks because of a caving Bulls interior. They were just progressing the ball towards the paint and getting looks around the rim or kicking out to shooters.

The catch was that the perimeter looks weren’t even necessarily open ones. Seth Curry just continued the torrid shooting he displayed the previous night in San Antonio. Curry’s reputation is such that he’s going to draw help defenders away from the lane, as is. But, if he can find a rhythm and grow his confidence, his threat is going to create a bit more spacing in the playoffs. Every inch of space added allows for the introduction of interesting wrinkles to the offense. So, even an uptick of confidence for Curry can have a domino effect in the flow of a game.

“I just like anybody with Ben as the roller.”

Over the last few affairs, you’ve seen the Sixers throw Ben Simmons into pick-and-rolls as the roller and any of their non-Embiid scorers as the handler. It has largely been effective, even if it’s more a function of the opposing defense being uninspiring. Nonetheless, Simmons is running it with confidence and knows where he needs to be. The end result is that he’s also finishing those plays with more confidence. If that’s what it takes to milk an extra two or three baskets out of him in the playoffs, incorporating those pick-and-roll combinations into the offense more heavily is certainly worth a discussion amongst the coaching staff.

It would seem that that is something Doc Rivers would be comfortable doing, too. “I just like anybody with Ben as the roller,” Rivers said after the victory. “It doesn’t matter, tonight he just turned out in our movement that it happened to be Danny in that corner. That could’ve been Seth or Tobias. Teams go under. They’re so off of Ben, and so that guy comes off Ben’s screen with a shot. That always brings up Ben’s guy, and Ben slips behind. So, we don’t mind where it’s at. We do like it a lot.”

After Philly’s first push to put the Bulls to bed, Chicago really bothered them with length in the passing lanes. The Sixers committed a number of live-ball turnovers just on risky passes across the court. Chicago was able to deflect those passes and get out in transition. Rivers, the players, and the media have spoken endlessly about the team’s transition defense. Chicago was able to get themselves back in the game by exploiting that weakness.

Second Half

Furkan Korkmaz tweaked his right ankle in the first half and did not return.

“The last couple of games, it just feels like I’ve been going through the motion, or just trying to make sure I get to the playoffs healthy.”

It certainly seemed like Embiid coasted through much of this game until departing with a few minutes remaining in the third. It’s understandable given that the game quickly spiraled into a blowout and that he did the brunt of the work on Sunday in San Antonio. He also seemed to tweak his ankle early in the third quarter, and was visibly affected by it a bit. He did make a few aggressive moves after the incident to put any fears of significant injury to rest. So, we’ll see what his status is over the next few days.

After the win, Embiid acknowledged that he’s been doing some in-game load management. “I’m okay, just managing it [his injuries and health]. The last couple of games, it just feels like I’ve been going through the motion, or just trying to make sure I get to the playoffs healthy,” Embiid said. “We’re getting guys a lot of confidence. We’re going to need those guys to come into the playoffs with a lot of confidence to help us win a championship.”

The Bench Implosion

Just when Rivers thought it was safe to relieve his starters for the night, his instincts failed him. For the second night in a row, the all-bench unit regurgitated a significant lead. This time, it was 23 points. While the all-bench unit had been particularly good in the previous couple of games, they’ve been terrible over the last two games. Last night, it was largely a product of isolation play on offense. The lack of ball movement stunted Philly’s scoring, and the Spurs were able to swing the momentum. In this game, live-ball turnovers and atrocious three-point defense enabled the Bulls to cut a 23-point deficit to a single point early in the fourth quarter, and thus the starters had to come to the rescue.

If we’re going to be in the business of positive-but-rational thinking, it’s obviously a great thing that the starting unit can grunt, get off the bench, sub in, and put a game away like they did against the Bulls. As soon as the Sixers’ premier five subbed in, the Bulls were done. But, that’s the expectation when you have three All-Star level players and two veterans in your starting unit. That’s the expectation when you’re in first place. So, I’m not going to write that the starters came in and played hero. They cleaned up the mess that the bench created, and that’s what they’re supposed to do when needed.

“It was just the second half is where they didn’t finish the game, and they’ve been finishing games all year.” 

The negative-but-rational thinking is that Rivers needs to re-assess whether he can afford any all-bench minutes at all come playoff time. The unit, as a whole, is wildly inconsistent and doesn’t have anyone that can get 15 points in his sleep every night. They have to rely on playing team basketball. But, that is something that has escaped them lately. When it’s nut-cutting time, having a consistent means to registering stops and generating scores is everything. The all-bench unit doesn’t have that, and they don’t have the discipline to be trusted with playoff minutes, either.

Rivers doesn’t seem to be losing sleep over those bench units, though. “It’s probably all those above [finding consistency and accountability amongst players]. I’m not that concerned by it,” Rivers said after the game. “I can tell you that they’ve been great, overall. Last night, they were great in the first half. Today, they were great in the first half. It was just the second half is where they didn’t finish the game, and they’ve been finishing games all year. So, again, I’m not that concerned by it. We’ve just done it two games in a row.”

If you ask me, he’s probably not worried about those units because he probably doesn’t plan on playing all-bench units in the playoffs. 

The Sixers (44-21) will travel back to Texas to play the Houston Rockets (16-49) on Wednesday. Tip-off is set for 8 PM EST. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.