Joel Embiid Smirks

The Philadelphia 76ers (45-21) were back in action on Friday. They played host to the New Orleans Pelicans (30-36). Philly was looking to push its winning streak to seven games and maintain their 2.5-game control of the 1-seed in the East. The Pelicans, in the midst of a fight for their playoff lives, were looking to win their second consecutive game.

Before we get to what I saw, some notes.

Contextual Notes

The Pelicans were missing Steven Adams (sprained right first metatarsophalangeal joint–shoutout to my dad, Dr. Krell), Nickeil Alexander-Walker (sprained left high ankle), Josh Hart (right thumb surgery), Brandon Ingram (sprained left ankle), and Zion Williamson (fractured left hand). Stan Van Gundy started Lonzo Ball, Eric Bledsoe, Naji Marshall, James Johnson, and Willy Hernangomez. 

The Sixers were once again without Furkan Korkmaz, who was nursing a sprained right ankle. Doc Rivers started Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.

First Half

The Sixers opened up the game with a clear emphasis on pace and ball movement. They were moving the ball up the court and attacking North to South without hesitation. To add to the pressure they were putting on New Orleans’ defense, they were making crisp, quick passes. The ball wasn’t in any one pair of hands for too long. I thought they added a healthy balance of Embiid touches to contrast with the extra passes. But, it wasn’t to the detriment of the team’s overall pace. They were playing with speed, keeping the Pelicans on their toes, but they were also going back to their foundation. It ultimately led to 32 points in 28 possessions. The offense was humming, and that balance of pace mixed in with stable touches to establish Embiid’s presence is an output the Sixers would love come playoff time.

Seth Curry ran into some foul trouble early in this game. That allowed for a lineup of Simmons, George Hill, Green, Harris, and Embiid. I don’t know how frequently they would use it, but I would venture to say a lineup with multiple ball-handlers is something Rivers would trust in critical playoff games. Hill supplements some of the shooting Curry provides, all of the playoff experience Shake Milton doesn’t have, and all of the size that Tyrese Maxey doesn’t have. Having multiple players who provide credible ball-handling and some of the versatility needed to switch across multiple positions is something that is all too valuable in the postseason for Rivers to ignore.

“But, there are going to be certain teams where going small could be dangerous. I thought tonight was one of those nights. So, we went Mike instead.” 

Mike Scott was the recipient of some early minutes, while Maxey was glued to the bench. In Houston, the rotation was quite the opposite. Scott was reduced to ‘silly time’, while Maxey was in the regular rotation. The only thing I can think of is that the Sixers know they might have to go to Scott for playoff minutes. They’ve observed how his positive impact vacillates from possession to possession. Cutting his minutes down to spot play could reduce the potential damage to his confidence. Not completely discarding him could keep him engaged for those meaningful postseason minutes. Sounds weird, but that’s all I got!

Rivers, however, seemed to have something of a rational explanation for playing Scott over Maxey. “They were just too big,” Rivers said after the win. “I actually really thought hard about still going small, but their bigs are athletic, long. It was what I said the other night. We like the small lineups. But, there are going to be certain teams where going small could be dangerous. I thought tonight was one of those nights. So, we went Mike instead.”

Just when it seemed like the Sixers were pulling away with this game, The Pelicans responded with a zone defense that seemed to stall Philly’s offense for a bit. They eventually were able to pull away with a 16-point halftime lead. But, one would hope it doesn’t take more than a handful of possessions to figure out a zone come playoff time, especially with Curry and Green on the court.

Second Half

The Sixers helped Lonzo Ball to a number of open triples by over-gambling on help rotations. This is a bit of a weird gripe because I’m basically picking on too much effort in help defense. However, it’s perfectly reasonable because high energy does not excuse poor decisions. Rivers has talked about being smart when gambling recently. He’s said that he doesn’t have an issue with gambling in help as long as the decision to do so is appropriate. Early in the second half, Ball hit a corner triple off of a poor help decision. That underscored exactly what Rivers doesn’t want–gambles that allow open looks for the player with the ball. There’s a time and a place to cheat passing lanes. An open look every once in a while is part of the gamble. Repeated offenses is an indictment on focus. Effort means very little if the focus isn’t there.

“So, it was one of those nights. It happens.”

It is important to preface this statement with the fact that the all-bench unit will likely be a rarity in the postseason. Having said that, it is quite concerning that the second unit floundered the way they did when presented with a zone in the third quarter. The Sixers built their lead as high as seventeen points, only to see that morph into a three-point deficit headed into the final frame. It is worrisome to see them struggle this way against a zone defense deployed by a sub-.500 team that was short-handed to begin with. I suppose you could spin it as “it’s about damn time they faced a little bit of adversity” after their recent slew of victories. But, they looked absolutely lost against this zone, and that’s at least a bit concerning.

Rivers wasn’t too concerned about his team’s reaction to the zone in this game, though. “We just didn’t move the ball. I thought the ball stuck the entire night,” Rivers said after the victory. “We walked the ball up the floor, and I thought we were very tentative against it. So, it affected us tonight. It hasn’t happened all year. We’ve been dominant against zones, for the most part. So, it was one of those nights. It happens.”

“One thing I noticed coming to the States, a lot of the American players panic a little bit when they see the zone, or freak out.”

Of course, as soon as the starters came back in, the Sixers reversed a seven-point deficit into a one-point lead and had very little issue breaking the Pelicans’ zone. The one thing I couldn’t quite wrap my head around was the insistence to double-post Simmons and Embiid in the zone. Rivers formatted the offense to slot Simmons by the free throw line, while Embiid was slotted by the block. I understand the desire to incorporate high-low action between your best passer and the game’s most dominant low-post threat. But, the passing lanes are already compromised with a zone. Putting another player in front of Embiid adds another help defender to cut into his spacing. Double-posting seems like an intentional complication for spacing, and that’s the exact opposite of what you want. I thought part of the struggle in the fourth quarter involved that unnecessary crowding on offense.

Simmons didn’t seem to be phased by his spot in the zone. “One thing I noticed coming to the States, a lot of the American players panic a little bit when they see the zone, or freak out,” Simmons said after the victory. “We just got to keep playing through it. Get to our spots. I didn’t mind being in that spot. I feel like I can make the right decision from that spot and attack the rim or find my guy. So, I mean, I’ve been in that spot plenty of times.”

Ugly Wins Are Still Wins

To be fair to everyone, both the Sixers and Pelicans played terribly down the stretch. However, the Pelicans are not good. The Sixers are the 1-seed in their conference. There are these things called expectations, and they’re raised when a bad opponent is short-handed. The Sixers should not have needed as much chaos and a last moment stand to win this game. But, they did. They found a way to beat a zone that gave them problems when the game was hanging in the balance.

It was ugly, but they found a way to eek one out. The turnover problem is unpredictably inflammatory, and that’s something that needs to be smoothed over. The Sixers also need to adapt more quickly to zone defenses. Doc Rivers needs to figure out how to stagger the starters with the second unit in a way that is feasible in the playoffs. But, all wins count as a plus-one to the W-column. The Sixers are three away from locking up the 1-seed.

Philadelphia (46-21) will host the Detroit Pistons (20-47) on Saturday. Tip-off is set for 7 PM EST. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.