Joel Embiid
Joel Embiid

The Sixers (16-16) visited the Washington Wizards (17-15) on Sunday night. It was the first matchup between the two teams since the first round of the 2021 playoffs. Philly was looking to recover from a brutal loss to the COVID-stricken Atlanta Hawks on Thursday. Washington intended to push its winning streak to three games. A dominant night from Joel Embiid from start to finish powered the Sixers to victory, 117-96.

Before we get to what I saw, some notes.

Contextual Notes

Danny Green, Shake Milton, and Andre Drummond were in the NBA’s COVID-19 health and safety protocol and were unavailable. Georges Niang returned from the protocol and was available to play.

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

Doc Rivers started Tyrese Maxey, Seth Curry, Matisse Thybulle, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.

Bradley Beal, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Raul Neto were in the COVID protocol and were unavailable for the Wizards. Thomas Bryant is recovering from a torn left ACL and was out. 

Rui Hachimura was available to make his season debut for the Wizards.

Wes Unseld Jr. started Spencer Dinwiddie, Aaron Holiday, Corey Kispert, Kyle Kuzma, and Daniel Gafford.

First Quarter

Joel Embiid had a fire in his eyes from the opening tip, and he devoured Washington in the first quarter — from within and beyond the arc. His first step was electric against Daniel Gafford, who had no chance of stopping him in the post. Embiid did an excellent job of leveraging his size to protect the ball and guarantee that there would be a field goal or a foul. It didn’t get much better for Washington after Gafford was forced to the bench with a pair of early fouls. Montrezl Harrell will wear you down on the defensive end of the floor with his physicality. But, he’ll give it right back when his team is defending. Embiid certainly didn’t blink.

What did hurt Embiid and will continue to hurt the team regardless of whether the big man is on the floor is the lack of respect defenses have for Matisse Thybulle. When the ball isn’t in his hands, defenses are helping so far off that you’re not quite sure whether Thybulle is their primary assignment or their help assignment. When the ball is on the strong side of the floor, the helper takes away the driving lane from the wing with how far they help off the third-year wing. With the ball on the weak side, they help off Thybulle enough to effectively deter cross-court passes just by roaming near the lane.

There was one instance in the first frame in which Embiid drew out a double-team and rifled the ball across the court, only for it to be intercepted by a roaming defender that should’ve been assigned to Thybulle. He’s likely never going to garner enough respect to bring a helper within an arm’s length when the ball swings away from him. But, he’s unplayable if helpers can stray six footsteps away from him and essentially take away a side of the floor.

The Sixers ran a beautiful right side-pick-and-roll to get Tobias Harris a layup after a ball reversal midway through the first quarter. What followed summarized much of what is frustrating about their offense. They have the personnel to sprinkle even a modicum of creativity into the actions they run. But they simply don’t do it enough. It isn’t like they have to play outside of their normal offense to be creative, either.

They are religious in running pick-and-pops between Embiid and Curry and double-drag actions with Harris or anyone else. The play they ran was just a pick-and-roll. The creativity stemmed from embracing Harris’ versatility and utilizing the second side of the floor. Those are the things they should be doing regularly to alleviate mounting pressure when the offense stops flowing. Instead, they regressed back into using only half the court they were entitled to. And as it usually does, the offense slowed to a halt. Rivers’ reputation is as a motivator, but Xs-and-Os don’t have to be his expertise in order for his team to feel empowered to experiment within the regular actions they run. 

Second Quarter

Harris certainly played to his size advantage against smaller defenders in the second quarter, pushing his first-half contributions up to 15 points and 6 rebounds before halftime. But, there seemed to be some scarring from an 0-for-6 showing from deep against the Hawks his last time out. He looked like he was carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders upon catching the ball beyond the arc.

I don’t have any problem with him favoring midrange jumpers since he’s more efficient on such shots than two-thirds of the players at his position. But if he catches the ball from deep and his man is going under a screen or stopping short of a close-out as a dare, he has to let it fly. You can’t pass on all of those looks when each is worth 1.5-times the number of points it is if Harris takes one or two steps in to get to his comfort zone. 

The Sixers have never been a good team in non-Embiid minutes since his career began. When they have been good in those minutes, Philly usually adds a “W” to its record. After Embiid started Sunday evening with a dominant first quarter, Furkan Korkmaz and Georges Niang kept the Sixers alive while Embiid re-charged.

The Sixers were plus-6 in the non-Embiid minutes between the first and second quarters. Niang and Korkmaz (combined for 17 points before halftime) did the heavy-lifting for the Sixers in that stint. They catalyzed a 38-point quarter for Philly and turned a 6-point deficit after the first frame into an 8-point lead heading into halftime. You don’t need the bench to outplay the opposition. You just need them to play those non-Embiid minutes to a tie. Even that has been a rarity in this era. Winning them is a bonus. And the Sixers did enough to earn that Christmas bonus this year.

Third Quarter

Embiid and Harrell had themselves an exchange akin to two drunk relatives with bad blood bringing up their differences after Christmas dinner. It initially appeared as though Embiid put his hands around Harrell’s neck as the skirmish escalated a bit. But upon further review, he was just trying to keep Harrell at an arm’s length:

There’s probably an element of pent-up frustration from getting your butt kicked all night by the same guy. But, Embiid also knocked his counterpart to the floor with a bit of an elbow earlier in the play. The real trouble starts when Harrell returns the physicality as Embiid goes up for the finish at the rim.

Each was assessed a technical foul for his involvement in the exchange. But, Harrell did not last much longer in the affair. The very next possession, Harrell recorded a dunk with some one-upmanship. Three seconds later, Embiid one-upped him with and-1. That was enough, as Harrell delivered a shove to get himself expelled from the affair. 

I can certainly appreciate the passion, but that’s not an extended battle you’re going to win. Embiid is worlds better and bigger than Harrell, and the former Sixth Man of the Year is already a revolving door as a defender. Embiid is an artist at dominating his matchups between the ears, and it did not take much for him to get in Harrell’s head enough to cause him to lose his cool.

That wasn’t even the focal point of Embiid’s domination in the third quarter. His rim-protection was outstanding as the Sixers took control of the contest after halftime. Embiid’s discipline in keeping both feet planted and his body completely vertical is one of Embiid’s best traits. Embiid allows his physical profile to do most of the work for him. His lurking presence worries ball-handlers around the rim, forcing rushed shots and even perturbing dribble penetration. Even when Gafford or Harrell caught the rock at the rim, they were often forced to re-establish themselves because Embiid prevented them from getting baskets on their first attempts. Gafford, in particular, had opportunities to score on Embiid at the cup and was left empty-handed because of his counterpart’s timing and motor in protecting the basket.

Fourth Quarter

The Sixers wouldn’t constantly hemorrhage points and allow teams to get back into games in the fourth quarter if Rivers would simply stagger the back of his rotation with some of his starters. The Sixers were never at any real risk of blowing the lead. But, you don’t want to give the opposition any momentum. And if you stagger your starters, the fruitful outcome will likely be that you get to rest all of them as the game closes instead of having to recover a lead that you relinquished.

The perfect summation of the night for Daniel Gafford was pivoting to face the basket for a relatively open dunk and then missing it.

Philly closed out a rare blowout victory with the first NBA buckets in the careers of Myles Powell and Jaden Springer. Merry Christmas to those guys.

And while we’re recognizing some individual good moments for the Sixers tonight, I will give a golf clap to Tyrese Maxey, who put forth 13 points and 4 assists, with no turnovers — and was a game-best plus-31 — less than 48 hours after his house suffered significant damage from a fire. He didn’t let an incredibly unfortunate personal situation get in the way of being an effective player. Here’s to hoping he and his family are able to save some precious items and re-build the life they’ve started in Philly.

The Sixers (17-16) will head to Toronto to visit the Raptors (14-16) on Tuesday. Tip-off is set for 7:30 PM EST. You can catch it on NBC Sports Philadelphia.