The Philadelphia 76ers (19-10) played host to the Chicago Bulls (12-15) on Friday night. The Sixers were looking to establish a winning streak after beating the Rockets on Wednesday. The Bulls were looking to push their current winning streak to three games. That, however, would not happen, as the Sixers pulled out a 112-105 victory behind a career-high 50 points from Joel Embiid.
Before we get to the action, some notes
Shake Milton remained out with a sprained left ankle. Ben Simmons missed his second consecutive game with what Doc Rivers described as a “stomach bug” on Wednesday. Rivers started Seth Curry, Danny Green, Matisse Thybulle, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
The Bulls were without Chandler Hutchison (right lower leg contusion), Lauri Markkanen (sprained right acromioclavicular), Otto Porter Jr (lower back spasms), and Adam Mokoka (not with team). Billy Donovan started Coby White, Garrett Temple, Zach LaVine, Patrick Williams, and Wendell Carter Jr.
The opening minutes of the game were a slugfest between Embiid and Wendell Carter Jr. The Chicago big man feasted on some early nap-time defense from Embiid. But, Embiid asserted himself early on the offensive end. Carter’s hot start was impressive, as he is one of the league’s talented young big men that doesn’t get much attention. However, Embiid’s ability to just physically move him in the post stood out in their early matchup. Even when Carter Jr dug into a deep defensive stance, Embiid had no problems overwhelming him with size and weight. He physically dominated the Duke product on the offensive end of the floor.
Stopping On A Dime
Embiid has grown quite proficient at barreling into the lane, stopping on a dime to lose a defender, and then elevating for a relatively uncontested finish. That simple consistency is a testament to Embiid’s footwork and intelligence. Many players–bigs and non-bigs–have trouble disciplining themselves to maintain the pivot foot when they pull out such moves. Embiid stops, locks the pivot to the floor, and powers through the shot with the other foot.
Many players struggle with offensive fouls or travels because they pick up their dribbles and try to do too much to create space. They fail to implement jump-stops into their normal routines. When Embiid senses a defender on his hip, he knows he can create space by just stopping in front of the rim. He knows the defender will fly by in a knee-jerk effort to block the finish. They bite the immediate stop, and Embiid gets an easy layup or dunk out of it. Simple, yet brilliant.
As a general rule of thumb, when your bench offense consists solely of a rookie guard jetting into floaters or Dwight Howard collecting garbage on the offensive glass and turning it into gold, you have a bench problem. Relying on Furkan Korkmaz as a playmaker off the dribble is fatal. Putting the onus on a rookie to manufacture all of the offense is asking for trouble. Now, some of that pressure will be alleviated when Milton returns. But, it’s pretty clear to everyone who watches the Sixers play more than once every two weeks that they do not have anything resembling even a playoff-level second unit.
Tyrese Maxey has struggled with anything that isn’t a floater or pull-up jumper from fifteen feet. He’s obviously on a learning curve and has to bulk up to maintain his presence on both ends of the floor. Even through his struggles right now, it speaks volumes to his mentality that he doesn’t become deterred by contact at the rim despite rarely ever benefitting from foul calls. It would be very easy for a rookie guard to stay away from the paint because of unfriendly whistles. But, Maxey doesn’t get discouraged, and that’s a promising indicator of his toughness. Those calls will come with experience, but the whistles are silent right now for the rookie.
“On top of Doc being such a good coach, putting myself in positions, his staff has been able to help me get better out there.”
Tobias Harris played rather timidly in the first half of this game, and even opened the second half with some indecision. But, he quickly snapped out of it and put on quite a show in the third quarter. Particularly impressive was Harris’ feel around the rim, as he powered his way through contact and crowded contests at the rim and was able to convert his looks through it. He’s still playing quite timidly from beyond the arc, but Harris is identifying and punishing smaller defenders on post-ups at a much more pervasive clip.
He’s also growing more comfortable with attacking close-outs and pressuring the rim. Those plays are critical in a half-court setting when moving the ball well. When you swing the ball, you’re going to eventually tire the defense and get them out of position. It is on those late recoveries when the ball reaches Harris that he has to execute with those bursts off the three-point line.
While Harris certainly deserves credit for stepping up and elevating his play this season, he doesn’t forget who has helped him get back into the All-Star conversation. “Doc has been always a coach that is able to find ways for me to be effective,” Harris said after the game. “Keeps the game simple for myself. On top of Doc being such a good coach, putting myself in positions, his staff has been able to help me get better out there. Me and Sam Cassell talk on the daily of different ways to be better in those positions. That has helped me get better throughout the season, game after game. So, I gotta give credit there, too. But, it’s good to be in the flow and the rhythm that I’m in, and I just want to keep it going.”
“If me being on the court plays a role in us getting a win, then I’m proud regardless of what my numbers are.”
LaVine managed to get his 30 points. But, he needed 28 field goal attempts to do so. LaVine connected on just nine of those attempts, and made up the difference with ten free throws. You can credit Thybulle with pestering the Bulls’ alpha dog into that inefficient of a performance. Thybulle played 37 minutes and scored just 2 points to go along with 1 steal and 3 blocks.
But, his impact often goes beyond the box score. On Friday, Thybulle did a tremendous job of putting pressure on LaVine’s outside hip as he attacked the rim. He made it uncomfortable for him to push downhill. When offensive players have that level of discomfort whilst attacking, it usually results in misses around the rim. Such was the case for LaVine through three quarters of this game. Thybulle also did an incredible job of taking away the space that LaVine needed to square up on jumpers. It effectively made it more difficult for LaVine to capitalize on his looks from the perimeter, and he connected on just two of his ten three-point attempts.
Thybulle isn’t worried about the box score, though. “I hope it’s obvious that I take pride in winning,” Thybulle said after the victory. “If me being on the court plays a role in us getting a win, then I’m proud regardless of what my numbers are. My goal at the end of each game is just come off the court feeling like I had an impact on the game that helped us win.”
“All my goals when it comes to basketball are related to the city of Philadelphia.”
At the end of the day, Joel Embiid is almost always the focal point when the team emerges victorious. Friday night was no different. Embiid scored a career-high 50 points on just 26 field goal attempts. He also converted fifteen of his seventeen free throw attempts, and pulled down 17 rebounds. That was accompanied by a nice side dish of 5 assists, 4 blocks, 2 steals, and just 2 turnovers. He was simply dominant from tip-off to the final buzzer. Embiid wrapped up his career night with a beautiful bow. He iced the victory by converting a jumper fading towards his left, away from a double-team, with a foot on the three-point line with under a minute left in the fourth quarter. Sometimes, all you can do is clap. I have a feeling that, if fans were in attendance, they would’ve clapped on Friday night.
After the game, Embiid spoke about the presence of fans. “Fans are always there for me when I play,” Embiid said. “I always mention that playing in Philly, I have a lot of pride. I play for the fans, I play for the city. All my goals when it comes to basketball are related to the city of Philadelphia. So, I always feel like they’re here with us even though they’re not. So, I always feel their presence.”
With the victory, Doc Rivers clinched his position as head coach of Team Durant in this season’s All-Star game. He will be the first Sixers head coach to receive the honor since Larry Brown coached the team in 2001.
The Sixers (20-10) will head to Tampa to play the Raptors (14-15) on Sunday. Tip-off is set for 7 PM EST. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.