The Sixers (15-6) finished their road trip with a stop in Charlotte to play the Hornets (10-11). The Sixers were coming off one of their more impressive victories to date, a twenty-point comeback win over the Pacers in Indiana without Joel Embiid on Sunday. The Hornets were beginning to heat up, looking to extend a three-game winning streak. Joel Embiid poured in 34 points and pulled down 11 rebounds, as the Sixers swept their three-game road trip with a 118-111 victory in Charlotte.

Before the action, some notes.

Contextual Notes

The Sixers were without Terrance Ferguson (h/s protocol), Mike Scott (right knee swelling). Paul Reed and Rayjon Tucker were both on G-League assignments. Joel Embiid returned to the lineup after missing Sunday’s game with back tightness. Doc Rivers started Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and Embiid. 

The Hornets were without Terry Rozier (right ankle sprain) and PJ Washington (right foot sprain). Vernon Carey Jr, Nate Darling, Jalen McDaniels, and Grant Riller were all on G-League assignments. James Borrego started Devonte’ Graham, LaMelo Ball, Gordon Hayward, Miles Bridges, and Cody Zeller.

First Half

The Sixers are making strides in improving their rotations in help defense. In their man coverages, there will be times when an athletic wing slithers to the rim on a thin angle and is able to get around his man. A few weeks ago, that dribble penetration would be redeemable for two points or a foul. Now, they’re making timely rotations. The Sixers are actually suffocating that space that invites the ball-handler to elevate for layups prior to reaching the rim. It forces an awkward floater or a pass to a cutter or the perimeter. But, with the activity between the on-ball defender and the helper, it’s actually resulting in deflections and steals.

There will undoubtedly be lapses on nights the Sixers would rather be elsewhere when they’re matching up with an uninspiring opponent. But, that they’re making opponents hesitate and change course as they pressure the rim is a tremendous sign for the progressions of Philly’s collective defensive intelligence.

Tobias Harris spoke on the dominant first quarter after the victory. “We were active out there, defensively. Our pressure was there. That’s where a guy like Ben, I think, doesn’t get enough credit. Defensively, his intensity. How about Joel tonight, bringing it from the beginning of the game on both ends. He was huge for us. So, we got all our guys locked in and communicating out there on the defensive end with our team, especially in our transition.

Joel Embiid had rested five consecutive days leading up to this Wednesday matchup with the Hornets. Let me tell you, he did not miss a single beat. The MVP candidate was initiating offense for the Sixers, hitting triples, pump-faking and pivoting through for finishes, and just putting on a showcase of absolute dominance against an ill-equipped Hornets squad. He may have to rest once every couple games to get some extra time off his feet. But, fans should be more than accepting of the circumstance if the outcome is the guy scoring as many points as the entire opposing team by himself.

There were a handful of possessions in which Miles Bridges was able to circumvent Dwight Howard in the paint for putback dunks off of misses from his teammates. Howard, as we all know, has not consistently played well this season. The offensive fouls are never going to subside, as his reputation with officials makes for a sore thumb every time he’s on the court. The turnovers, at his age, are what they are. The free throw shooting is not suddenly going to blossom. The shooting fouls around the rim are not going away. So, he needs to do three things really well.

First is using his vertical athleticism under the rim to convert putbacks, oops, or deep catches in the post. Second is legitimately good rim protection (more than one block per game). He’s not going to be anywhere near as good as he was in his prime. But, he needs to spike the ball at the rim to establish his presence for those attacking the interior. Third is grabbing every defensive rebound he can realistically get. He has been fine with the first two items. The third needs to be better. There’s no way, with his experience and frame, that Miles Bridges should be getting around him under the rim as easily as he was in the first half of this game.

Milton Hyper-Extends His Knee

Shake Milton left the game after hyper-extending his knee when planting on a drive to the rim. He would ultimately return to the bench a few minutes later and be declared available to return. Something to monitor in the near future, nonetheless. After the game, Milton gave an update on his leg: “I feel good. Just a little tweak, but I’m alright. Thank God it wasn’t [a serious injury]. Went back, checked it out, felt okay. I was ready to play anyways and was good to go. I’mma play [tomorrow].”

Second Half

Seth Curry did not take a shot in the first half, and that’s just fine. Snipers don’t have to be gunners. In fact, gunners are harder to trust as games hang in the balance. Curry has never been the type to force shots. He is very calculated and conservative, perhaps to a fault at times. But, if the look isn’t there, I have no problem with him patiently waiting for the right moments to strike, especially if it’s not a game in which the Sixers are cold from the field. 

All the good the Sixers did in the first half was almost entirely unwound in the third frame. The Hornets, once trailing by 26 points in this game, were able to cut the lead to single digits late in the third quarter. To their credit, they’ve largely erased that tendency for blowing leads that plagued them throughout the Brett Brown tenure. But, this game was fixing to be a thirty-point victory by the start of the fourth quarter. Instead, the Sixers actually had to close out the game.

In each of the last two games, the Sixers have exhibited some level of success with the Simmons-Thybulle-Howard lineups, despite all odds. The key is incredibly active hands from Simmons and Thybulle. Whether they’re in man or in zone, the duo is making it very difficult for perimeter players to advance the ball past the three-point line. The two wings are swiping the ball away from the opposition. Those deflections are generating offense by creating transition opportunities. Whether it’s sustainable is another story. It feels unlikely that that lineup will be able to survive perpetually on deflections and transition offense, but you do what works until they solve it. At least, that’s how Doc Rivers operates.

“When he makes quick decisions, decisive, goes downhill with the power he has, he’s a force, and he’s been doing that.”

Tobias Harris scored thirteen of his 26 points in the fourth quarter. That makes three out of the last four games in which Harris has been a go-to scorer for the Sixers in crunch time. Not too trustworthy last season in such situations, this season he has certainly shown a capacity to be that three-level scorer down the stretch of close ball games. 

After the game, Doc Rivers talked about Harris’ play of late: “He’s gotten back to the way we used to have him when I was in LA. Quick decisions, straight line, decisive basketball. When he’s a decisive player, he’s really good. When he gets himself in those indecisive moments, you can literally see him where he’s hesitating. dancing with the ball. That’s just not him. When he makes quick decisions, decisive, goes downhill with the power he has, he’s a force, and he’s been doing that.”

The Sixers (16-6) sweep their three-game road trip and move to 6-5 away from Philadelphia on the season. They will host the Portland Trail Blazers (11-9) on Thursday in the second leg of a double-header. Tip-off is set for 8 PM, EST. You can watch on NBC Sports Philadelphia.