Embiid setting up his shot

The Philadelphia 76ers (36-17) were back in action on Monday night. They wrapped up yet another road trip in Dallas against the Mavericks (29-23). The Sixers were looking to build a two-game winning streak and take a half-game lead over the Nets for the top seed in the East. The Mavericks were on the second night of a back-to-back and coming off a tough a last-second loss to the San Antonio Spurs on Sunday. Joel Embiid scored 36 points in 26 minutes to lead the Sixers to victory, 113-95.

Before we get to what I saw, allow me to set the scene.

Contextual Notes

George Hill (right thumb) remained out with no timetable established for his debut. Anthony Tolliver was officially welcomed by the Sixers on Monday. He was not with the team in Dallas, but is expected to be available to make his debut on Wednesday against the visiting Nets. 

Doc Rivers started Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.

The Mavericks were without Kristaps Porzingis (recovery from right knee injury) and Tyrell Terry (personal). Rick Carlisle started Jalen Brunson, Josh Richardson, Dorian Finney-Smith, Luka Doncic, and Maxi Kleber.

First Half

Although the Sixers were able to get Kleber in foul trouble early, Philly did not have nearly as easy a time getting the ball to him in the post as they should’ve, given Carlisle’s decision to go small to start the game. Part of that smaller size made it easier for Dallas to jump passing lanes and recover if they couldn’t get the deflections. It was also that the Sixers were doing foolish things to ruin the opportunity to pounce, such as crowding the lane with other post-ups or working the ball on the perimeter.

It isn’t a lock that he scores every time, though. The Mavs are absolutely going to send aggressive double-teams if Embiid is able to emerge with the pass. However, those rotations are going to unearth completely abandoned shooters for Embiid to punish the double-teams with. Sure, making that entry pass against small-ball lineups is not as easy as it might seem. But, the ball should touch Embiid’s hands every possession.

“I mean, for me, I love guarding the best player each night.”

Rivers seemed to opt to match Simmons’ minutes with Doncic’s minutes so that his playmaking would be limited by Philly’s most dominant defender. The Mavericks clearly felt Simmons’ pressure was problematic. They were running him through ball screens every time he touched the rock. Doncic could not create space on his own against Simmons, and Philly was content with the other Mavericks attempting to make plays.

After the game, Simmons touched on the balance between being a roamer and locking in on one premier player. “It just depends who’s on the floor. I mean, for me, I love guarding the best player each night,” Simmons said. “You know, I take pride in that. Whatever they want me to do, I’mma do. So, they want me to guard James [Harden] or KD or whoever it is, I’m gonna take that challenge on.”

“That’s what we’ve been trying. Not going away, trying to get away from it. Going through people, and he did that.”

Simmons was as aggressive pushing the rim in the half-court as I’ve ever seen in the first half. He actively sought to break his one-on-one defender down. He used his size and strength to get all the way to the rim for finishes. Simmons was also relentless in finishing plays until he either got a shot or was fouled. While some of the free throws weren’t pretty in the first half, he was very clearly aiming to score or get fouled trying.

After the game, Rivers praised Simmons’ aggressiveness after the victory. “I told him walking off the floor…first of all, his attacks to the basket were not passive attacks,” Rivers said. “They were aggressive attacks. You’re either going to lay it in or they’re going to foul. That’s what we’ve been trying. Not going away, trying to get away from it. Going through people, and he did that. Then, the other half,  he drove in ad kicked it. So, I thought he had the perfect pace to the game tonight. That’s what we need. We need to build on that because we’ll show him that. He picked and choosed correctly tonight, which is really good.”

“Going through the doubles, shooting over the double-teams, getting to the free throw line.”

Embiid took a shot to the face from Boban Marjanovic and seemed to be fiddling with his teeth a bit after the hit. After coming back, Embiid settled for some outside jumpers in Delay action against Marjanovic. Embiid middies are wildly efficient this season. But, he shouldn’t be settling for them when Marjanovic, one of the slowest defenders in the NBA, is guarding him in space. Once he drew Marjanovic’s third foul and forced Dallas to resort to Willie Cauley-Stein, Embiid started devouring the Mavericks.

After the victory, Embiid talked about what enabled his dominance. “Just being aggressive. I mean, they double. In New Orleans, they doubled, but I just kept shooting jumpers,” Embiid said. “In OKC [and] tonight, they doubled even harder than they did in New Orleans. But, I just kept attacking, you know. Going through the doubles, shooting over the double-teams, getting to the free throw line.”

Second Half

Dallas made a push to get back into the game in the middle of the third quarter. But, the Sixers got themselves back on track quite effectively by simply getting the ball to Embiid. They cleared out one side of the floor to get Embiid isolated in the high post. From there, they just fed him the ball and watched him go right to work. It seems simple enough. But, that has been a source of frustration with this core this season and in seasons past. When opponents began swinging the momentum, the Sixers would tighten up and revert to low-IQ plays when they had their safety blanket right there to pass to. In this game, when things got a little bit sweaty, the Sixers rightfully went to Embiid to restore order, and that he did.

Matisse Thybulle made an incredible hustle play late in the third quarter to save a wild Doncic pass from going out of bounds. That doesn’t really do it justice, to be honest. Doncic threw the ball across the length of the court from the paint on Dallas’ end. Instead of letting the play go, Thybulle chased the ball down and saved it in the Sixers’ far corner. The hustle ignited a transition opportunity that generated a triple for Danny Green. There’s not much to talk about there. But, that’s a play that wins a game purely based on energy. It was an incredible hustle play, and it deserves some recognition.

The Sixers (37-17) will head home to host Brooklyn (36-17) on Wednesday. Tip-off is set for 7 PM EST. You can catch the action on ESPN, once again.