The Philadelphia 76ers (7-2) were back in action on Saturday night as they visited the Windy City to face the Chicago Bulls (6-2). The short-handed Sixers were looking to push their winning streak to six games, while the Bulls were looking to avenge a loss to Philadelphia earlier in the week. Joel Embiid put up an efficient 30 points and 15 rebounds to lead the Sixers to a 114-105 victory.
Before we get to what I saw, some notes.
The Sixers were without Tobias Harris, Matisse Thybulle, and Isaiah Joe, who remain under the league’s health and safety protocol. Danny Green, who is still nursing a tight left hamstring, was not available. Grant Riller was unavailable as he recovers from surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee.
Ben Simmons missed another game due to personal reasons. There remains no public timeframe for his return to play. However, the Sixers have resumed fining him for a lack of cooperation.
Due to the Sixers being short-handed, rookies Aaron Henry (Two-Way) and Jaden Springer were recalled from the Delaware Blue Coats and made available in Chicago.
Doc Rivers started Tyrese Maxey, Seth Curry, Shake Milton, Paul Reed, and Joel Embiid.
The Bulls were without the services of Coby White (left shoulder injury management) and Patrick Williams (ligament tear in left thumb). Devon Dotson (Two-Way) and Marko Simonovic were on assignment with the Bulls’ G-League Affiliate.
Billy Donovan started Lonzo Ball, Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, Javonte Green, and Nikola Vucevic.
It looked as though Joel Embiid didn’t particularly trust Paul Reed to hold his own against DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic early in the first quarter. It looked like Reed had no problem physically matching up with either player. But, Chicago clearly wanted to target Reed as Philly switched on screens. But, Embiid stepping out to apply extra pressure left the paint unoccupied. Poor help rotations by Philly afforded the Bulls a number of bunnies before the game’s first timeout. Fortunately for the Sixers, Chicago left a lot of unfinished business on the glass.
Embiid’s offensive struggles continued in the first quarter. He’s a superstar and you expect him to find his footing soon, but he’s been more-than-professional on the defensive side of the ball. Even when shots aren’t falling or turnovers persist, Embiid has made a number of incredible plays at the rim early this season.
On Saturday, he had a pair of early denials that prevented what looked to be easy buckets. That obviously elevate a team’s defensive prowess. But taking that importance one step further, it also sets the example for the whole roster. Eventually, the roles will change. Embiid will be back to carrying the team on offense and someone else will be struggling. But, he’s set the tone that checking out on defense because your shots aren’t falling is unacceptable. Perhaps that domino effect doesn’t shine through on game 10 of 82. But, it undoubtedly will as the season goes on.
The Defensive Glass Comes And Goes
Besides some early growing pains closing games out on offense, it’s mostly been a sparking first two weeks for the Sixers. But, the lack of consistent effort in finishing defensive stanzas with box-outs is a problem that is destined to hurt the Sixers.
Some nights, their collective discipline is outstanding and the Sixers hold teams to one shot more often than not. But, that level of accountability was lacking for a significant portion of the first half. The offensive team will inevitably get their hands on a couple loose balls off misses and create extra possessions. But, there’s no excuse for the number of long offensive rebounds, and second-chance opportunities, that the Sixers surrender on some nights. The Bulls made life harder for Philly with 11 offensive boards in the first half. A number of those extra possessions produced triples or shots at the rim.
You can point to size as an obvious disadvantage for the Sixers right now, especially with Harris and Simmons out. But the bottom line is that there are fundamental techniques — such as boxing out — that are taught at the elementary levels of the game that neutralize those size disadvantages. All it takes is a consistent bit of extra effort to smoothen that weakness.
The second quarter wrote a lot of wrongs for Joel Embiid. The big fella hit out of the post, midrange face-up, and three-point line. He had 14 points in the second frame, looking much like his MVP-caliber self. His quick heat-up put the Sixers in control, 57-47, at halftime.
A Modern-Day Bernard Hopkins
Embiid almost left his team hanging, though. Late in the second quarter, he swung his fist out of frustration on a turnover and grazed Lonzo Ball’s hair. The punch was not intended to harm anyone and Embiid was assessed a technical foul. But, it could’ve been much worse — both in terms of punishment and outcome for Ball — had his fist traveled a path one inch lower.
He’s had some technicals rooted in demonstrative gestures this season. He knows he’s being watched. The bottom line is that Embiid must exhibit better self-control. He’s the unquestioned superstar. As such, he’s too important to be forced out of a game in such a context. That also means that he must be held to a higher standard of accountability.
In terms of possession differential, turnovers really hurt the Sixers after intermission. They had a slew of such errors in the first 6 minutes of the third quarter. Those mistakes swung the possession disparity Chicago’s way. The Sixers have generally valued their possessions much better than ever before in the Embiid era. Perhaps that has as much to do with Ben Simmons being out of the picture as anything. But the improvement did not showcase itself in the third quarter. With the big possession discrepancy, Philly didn’t give itself a chance to pull away. Some nights, you’ll live in spite of that. Other nights, those miscues will keep you awake well past bedtime.
Milton’s marked improvement as an aggressive driver helped the Sixers weather their own storm in the third quarter. He attacked the basket with purpose and strength, resolved to the idea that he was going to score or get to the line trying to do so. That gravity as a driver will theoretically help open up Milton’s midrange game, as defenders will take a different approach and stance to take away such lanes. Such a textbook theory has applied to Milton early this season, as his midrange efficiency has lifted the second unit.
Some Are Calling Him The Turkish Delight
Furkan Korkmaz was lethal in the Windy City, where he splashed 7 triples on Saturday night. The eye test makes it hard to believe that Korkmaz is actually connecting on threes at average efficiency to start this season. But, his shooting gravity has seemingly improved. He’s curling around screens and hitting triples on as little as a pivot. Korkmaz is navigating ball screens and hitting pull-up triples, as well. The most impressive development has been his elevated playmaking. He’s comfortable as a ball-handler and leverages his gravity as a scorer to punish over-helpers with cross-court dimes. If he thwarts off helpers by completing one or two of those passes, Korkmaz is leveraging improved polish around the rim to execute crafty finishes in the face of rim-protectors.
I suspect the shooting will normalize (it might just be a down year for the league, with the new ball and such). More than that, it needs to do so because Korkmaz isn’t going to have the usage he has right now when Harris and Green (and perhaps Simmons) return. When that time comes, he’s going to be relegated to making decisions in an off-ball role. That means pulling defenders out of the lane as a spacer, quick releases off the catch to punish them for not staying closer in help, and attacking close-outs when the closest defender plays with heavy feet.
His newly discovered mixed bag of tricks is going to change the way defenses confront him as a driver off the catch. In turn, he’s going to be the most important second unit wing on a fully available Sixers squad this season. The rapid, all-around nature of Korkmaz’s development is going to make him one of the most valuable reserve wings in the league as this season progresses.
I don’t know where ‘The Turkish Delight’ nickname came from. I don’t think I’ll be using it too often. But, the Sixers are surely delighted by the value he’s providing at $4.63 million this season.
The Energizer Bunny
Paul Reed is still incredibly raw in the way of tangible skills. But, he preserved a number of possessions by playing with unwavering energy. Most notably, Reed crashed into the paint and deposited second-chance points by beating the Bulls to the glass when the Sixers missed their first looks. Beyond that, he dipped into the lane on a couple of defensive stands to rip down defensive boards late in the game and hold the Bulls to one shot on those possessions. I’m typically not a subscriber to the idea that energy or effort constitutes a skill in basketball. But Reed’s style of play adds some nuance to that conversation for me. If that extra energy is consistently applied at just the right moments, perhaps one’s knack for anticipating such opportunities is a skill.
This five-game winning streak has pushed past what many thought were the boundaries for this team in large part due to plain old tough shot-making. In the face of endless adversity to start this season, the Sixers have responded by making timely shots and plays of varying difficulties when they were sorely needed. That didn’t change on Saturday. Maxey, Korkmaz, Niang, and Embiid came up with monumental scores in the closing minutes of the game. On Saturday, that lack of fear in the big moments and the trust they displayed in one another to execute in crunch time pushed the winning streak to 6 games. Long-term, that response to adversity speaks to the team’s likelihood of exceeding expectations through chaos this season.
The Sixers (8-2) will host the New York Knicks (6-3) on Monday night. Tip-off is set for 7 PM EST. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.