Joel Embiid after victory over Celtics
Photo by Austin Krell/The Painted Lines

The Philadelphia 76ers (12-11) were back in action on Monday night. They visited the Charlotte Hornets (14-11). Philly wanted to extend its winning streak to two games. Charlotte wanted to grab a victory on the second night of a back-to-back. Behind Joel Embiid’s 43 points and 15 rebounds, the Sixers hung on for an overtime victory, 127-124.

Before we get to what I saw, some notes.

Contextual Notes

The Sixers were without Tyrese Maxey, who was dealing with a non-COVID illness.

Ben Simmons is still not mentally fit to play, and was unavailable.

Grant Riller, who is nursing a shore right shoulder, was out. Aaron Henry (Two-Way), Paul Reed, and Jaden Springer were on G-League assignments with the Blue Coats.

Doc Rivers started Shake Milton, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.

The following Hornets were in the league’s health and safety protocol and were unavailable:

  • LaMelo Ball
  • Terry Rozier
  • Ish Smith
  • Jalen McDaniels
  • Mason Plumlee

James Borrego started Cody Martin, Kelly Oubre Jr, Gordon Hayward, Miles Bridges, and Nick Richards.

First Quarter

The Sixers forfeited a number of early baskets in the paint because of poor back-line help defense. There were two Charlotte baskets that caught Embiid with unfavorable positioning at the rim in that stretch. Even with his defensive prowess and size, sometimes there’s nothing that can be done besides committing a foul. But Charlotte’s other scores came by way of manipulating Philly’s pick-and-roll coverage.

Embiid was picking and choosing when to play up on ball screens and when to drop off of them. That’s his job. When he plays up on those screens — like he did against an off-the-dribble threat like Gordon Hayward — it’s on the back-line defenders to slide over and offer help. That awareness needed to be tighter against a speedy, athletic team like Charlotte. With the likes of Tobias Harris and Danny Green stretched to either end of the baseline on defense, the Hornets were praying on Philly’s vulnerabilities at the rim once Embiid lifted out of the restricted area.

Philadelphia’s reserve unit had every reason to be embarrassed by its output. The effort was horrendous, as Charlotte — who was on the second night of a back-to-back — flew around the floor on offense and revived their own possessions with offensive rebounds. The reserve unit put up no fight as the first quarter came to a close, getting nothing on offense and inviting Charlotte to move the ball comfortably on offense.

Getting out-classed by the bench unit of a team already down three featured guards is inexcusable. And on their second night of a back-to-back? Grab some bench, fellas.

Second Quarter

Rivers’ insistence upon keeping a Furkan Korkmaz, Isaiah Joe, Matisse Thybulle, Georges Niang, and Andre Drummond lineup in the game was completely nonsensical. Korkmaz cannot make intricate reads against defenses that know what they’re doing, so the Point Furk act isn’t cute. Isaiah Joe is fine in basically any lineup, but you’re inviting him to do too much in a group that lacks shot-creation the way that unit does. If you’re looking for evidence of that, he tried to throw a bounce-pass to Drummond after attacking a gap and bounced the rock off the big fella’s foot. Drummond cannot catch the ball when you give him a reasonable pass. How is anything positive going to come from him catching a ball thrown at his ankles?

Beyond that, Thybulle is a mystery box on offense on any given night. He damn sure isn’t giving you any shot-creation, and it’s anyone’s best guess as to whether he’ll knock down his triples on any given night. You have to play him because of his defense. But, a unit that is without a credible source of offense is not the right spot for him. Niang is a chucker with size, but he’s slow. So, putting him in a lineup with Korkmaz and Drummond is defensive malpractice. Drummond, as we all know, just needs an actual point guard with whom he can spam pick-and-rolls. Neither Korkmaz nor any of the other players in that lineup should be classified as “actual point guards”.

That lineup survived on Korkmaz midrange jumpers, but it makes no sense. Tyrese Maxey being out isn’t enough to fundamentally change your lineup construction all that much. There’s no excuse for that 5-man unit to be getting minutes in a competitive game against a team with playoff aspirations. The players are what the players are. It’s Rivers’ job to stagger Milton or Curry with that second unit so that there’s a credible ball-handler on the floor while the other starters rest.

The whistles treated Drummond to an absurd punch to the face in the second frame. The big man was called for an offensive foul in the post, despite not using his arms to fend off his defender. The very next possession, a Hornet stiff-armed Drummond to the floor before going for a layup and the whistles were silent. Justice will be served when officials are held accountable. But until then, I will continue to yell about NBA officiating.Β 

It is both funny and sad that Danny Green is the only Sixer with any semblance of a clue as to how to throw an entry pass to Embiid. He just moves the ball quickly and expects Embiid to get to it by any means necessary. Better yet, he actually flashes through the lane to pull the help defender out of Embiid’s way. Everyone else taking notes?

The horrific ending of quarters continued in the second frame. Harris was terribly slow to get back in transition, and Miles Bridges splashed a triple. Then, Green threw a lazy inbound pass that was intercepted by Kelly Oubre Jr, who drained a three of his own as the intermission buzzer sounded. When you’re a .500 team aspiring to earn a favorable playoff seed, those nonchalant plays by your veterans are unacceptable when the game still hangs in the balance.

Third Quarter

It was all about Tobias Harris and Joel Embiid in the third quarter. The former was as decisive as he’s been in quite some time, knocking down a pair of triples off the catch without batting an eye. You sensed Harris’ back loosen up a bit after that, as he started rapidly putting the ball on the floor and slashing.

The reality that we all know to be true is that Harris’ processing speed seems to be naturally slow. So, he has to be coaxed out of bad habits from time to time. The processing speed manifests itself in unnecessary jab-steps, thinking too much before shooting, and dribbling the life out of the possession. Unfortunately, that slowly burning fire is more symbolic of homes being devoured in forests out west than it is of the candles on a menorah. The more Harris slows, the more catastrophic it is for him and his team.Β 

When he and the coaching staff get him to pick up the pace of his decision-making, an All-Star candidate comes out of the woodwork. Harris still showed some symptoms on Monday, jabbing too much and dribbling precious seconds away. But, some of the moments mentioned above were encouraging signs that he might be finding his way out of the darkness.

As for his jumpers missing short, I’m not convinced he’s healthy at all. He’s missing short often right now. That means there’s a lack of power under your shot. I wonder if the knee soreness that he played through earlier in the season, or the hip that he just missed a few games with, is bothering him. Heck, maybe both.

Embiid, on the other hand, discovered his elite jump-shooting touch. The big fella had 13 points in the third quarter and got to the line for 4 freebies. It is critical that Embiid both start making his way back up to the top of the league in free throw conversion and continue to get to the line at the clip he currently is. Obviously, it’s free points. More importantly, it slows the game down for your offense and allows him and his teammates to suck down some air. With most of the rotation asked to play elevated roles lately, that extra rest during your minutes on the floor compounds and keeps you fresh for when the game reaches its most critical juncture.Β 

There’s something more important than that, though. If Embiid is racking up the free throws, it means he’s not settling for jumpers. That was certainly the case on Monday. The Sixers are going to need him to be the best version of himself every night if they’re going to have any chance of winning against good teams. Monday has a case for his best game of the season to date.Β 

Fourth Quarter

The two teams traded buckets in the first minute of the fourth quarter. But, the Sixers did a good job of slowing down the Charlotte offense by mixing up their pick-and-roll coverages. Hayward scored on one of his first touches, and then the Sixers followed that with a switch on the pick-and-roll a few possessions later. Drummond isn’t an ideal matchup against Hayward. But, it was a different look that Hayward wasn’t ready for and it generated a miss. In between the Hayward make and miss, Oubre Jr turned the ball over when Drummond blitzed a pick-and-roll with the Charlotte wing.

When Embiid is out of the game, you don’t have that gift of recovering from the perimeter to the rim or just denying everything in the paint. So, you have to get creative with your coverages to thwart offenses. The Sixers were plus-3 in the fourth quarter while Embiid recharged.

There’s been some scrutiny of Embiid’s ability to make shots in crunch time. To be fair, he missed the game-winning shot at the buzzer. But, he put the Sixers on his back in crunch time. Down 3 with just over a minute to go, Embiid battled for a pair of free throws. After the Sixers got a stop, he knocked in the game-tying jumper with under 30 seconds to play in regulation.

Embiid likes to take the big shot, and he has yet to hit the Hollywood dagger at the buzzer. But over the last three games, he’s made 5 plays in the last two minutes of regulation to tie the game, take the lead, or cut the deficit to a singular basket. This isn’t a one-season thing, either. He made some huge shots against the Jazz, Bulls, and Heat last season, as well. Perhaps the conversation around his ability to close games shouldn’t be about his back tightening up. Rather, maybe it should be about the environment surrounding him when the game hangs in the balance. He has coaches that have to help set the court up, and he has teammates who need to be aware enough to move around him so that he can get to his spots.

Overtime

With Embiid’s game-winner missing the mark, viewers were “treated” to some extra basketball. And it was more Embiid domination in overtime. He insists that he’s not completely healthy yet. In fairness to him, we don’t know what’s going on in his body. Yet, some of the mistakes and tendencies are long-standing. But when it came to closing time, Embiid answered the call in the extra session. He scored 6 of the Sixers’ 8 points in overtime.

The preposterous bench unit to end the first quarter and start the second quarter wasn’t the only jarring observation about Rivers’ work on the night. In overtime, he did not use his challenge in the final 12 seconds of the game when the Sixers seemingly committed a turnover with a three-point lead. I don’t care what the President of Thumbs Up Operations said from behind the bench. There’s no downside in challenging that turnover. It’s indefensible and inexplicable.

The Sixers (13-11) will have a rematch with the Hornets (14-12) in Charlotte on Wednesday. Tip-off is set for 7 PM EST. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.