Embiid at the free throw line vs Suns; photo by Austin Krell/TPL

The Sixers (4-6) hosted the Phoenix Suns (7-2) on Monday. Philadelphia wanted to break a two-game losing streak. Phoenix wanted to build on its victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on Saturday. Joel Embiid dropped 33 points with 10 rebounds and five assists in his return from the flu to keep the Sixers in front of the Suns, 100-88.

Before we get to what I saw, some notes.

Contextual Notes

The Suns were without Cameron Johnson, who is recovering from a torn right meniscus. Jae Crowder is holding out in hopes of being traded and was not with the team.

Ish Wainright and Duane Washington Jr. were out due to personal reasons.

Monty Williams started Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Torrey Craig, and Deandre Ayton.

The Sixers were without James Harden. who is recovering from a strained tendon in his right foot.

Danuel House Jr. had a non-Covid illness and was unavailable.

Julian Champagnie and Michael Foster Jr. were on Two-Way assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats and were unavailable.

Doc Rivers started Tyrese Maxey, De’Anthony Melton, PJ Tucker, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.

Likes

Embiid was ready to go early in this one. He channeled that engagement on the glass, corralling four rebounds in the first five minutes of the game. He also splashed a midrange jumper on his first touch of the game and finished a dump-off from Maxey after staying active within the offense as his teammate attacked the rim. To finish off his first stint of the game, Embiid battled through contact for an offensive rebound on his own missed shot before earning the trip to the free throw line on his second jump. It was an inspiring return to the court after missing a handful of games with the flu. And as much as the Sixers made it seem like he had a ways to go before he would look like himself again, there wasn’t much rust in his first dose of action.

Paul Reed was the first substitution of the game for Philadelphia, relieving Embiid. It was the right string for Rivers to pull, rather than going to Montrezl Harrell. Philadelphia rightfully wanted more mobility on the floor so that switching against Paul and Booker wasn’t a losing proposition. Whereas Harrell is confined to drop coverage, Reed can move his feet and guard in face. That decision paid dividends early, with Reed getting his hands in the way on a number of Phoenix possessions to spark run-outs for the Sixers’ offense. The lead swelled with Embiid on the bench, giving Philadelphia a nice cushion for when the big fella came back a few minutes later.

Battling through the Suns’ various pushes to get back into the game, the Sixers’ second-half offense depended entirely on Embiid aggressively attacking the rim to force the officials to call fouls and Georges Niang hitting an absolute barrage of threes. It was frankly malpractice how little respect the Suns paid Niang. But, the Sixers needed every bit of his shooting touch to pull this game out. Every time the ball found him, even as the Suns pressured the Sixers with runs of their own, Niang treated the opportunity like any other shot.

Hard to overstate just how great Reed was in this game. His box score wasn’t exactly gaudy, but he did his job. Reed was in the right spots, blowing up a handful of Phoenix’s possessions as they progressed closer to the rim. Even when tasked with stopping scores up close, he kept his feet on the floor and used his wingspan to maintain verticality. He stopped a bunch of would-be buckets from Ayton, Bridges, and Booker at the rim just by using his length. No telling how the game would’ve played out if Reed had been late or a bit more handsy. But, the “what-if”s are irrelevant; the only thing that matters is Ws and Ls. 

Dislikes

I don’t know that I believe Matisse Thybulle will ever become adept at beating his assignment to spots when they have the ball in their hands. He ends up in these high-risk, low-reward spots defending on the ball-handler’s hip. So, he’s essentially chasing the ball-handler on his side, which does nothing to help actually slow the offensive player down. Given the emergent nature of knowing you’re getting beat to the rim, Thybulle often gives these weak body-checks that have no chance of helping the situation. The problem is, elite off-the-dribble shooters sense the contact and get off good looks to draw the shooting foul. But because the contact is on the lower part of the body, they’re able to get off the shots for and-1s.

I don’t know that Thybulle’s physical gifts are such that he can just improve upon that tendency by spending time on footwork. But, I do know for sure that Thybulle has multiple All-Defensive teams to his name and is experienced enough to defend without those impulsive miscues. The perception of his on-ball defense has normalized to where people temper their expectations when he’s defending on an island. But, there’s no excuse for throwing feeble body-checks that essentially gift the opposition a bucket and free throws.

The Sixers flashed their ceiling in the first half, playing to near perfection on both ends for large chunks of the first 24 minutes. In response to a 19-point deficit, Phoenix adjusted with a zone defense, and that was when the Sixers lost their mojo. It wasn’t as if the shots they got weren’t good looks. Philadelphia just didn’t look confident shooting against the zone, with Harris even missing a 15-footer that he usually hits in his sleep. The Suns’ zone also took away the easy entries the Sixers had to Embiid, and forced attempts to get him the ball yielded turnovers. Fully aware of the issues they were having and unable to get the ball to Embiid in his spots, the Sixers couldn’t create rhythm shots for themselves. And if they didn’t miss, the Sixers let Phoenix back into the game ahead of intermission with unforced turnovers. 

Thybulle had a wide-open look at a three from the top of the key early in the third quarter and hesitated, instead opting to dribble it over to a teammate to keep the offense flowing. I’d say he has to take the shot they’re giving him, but what’s the definition of insanity?

The Sixers briefly showed some resilience, rebuilding their lead to 16 points early in the third quarter. But, their offense then devolved into basically nothing. If it wasn’t turnovers, it was everyone ball-watching as Embiid tried to draw multiple defenders and kick to the open man.

It was criminal that the Sixers did basically nothing to run some of the offense through Harris when they ran dry elsewhere. No pick-and-roll play, no post-ups. Nothing. It was especially confounding considering that he was quite effective in the first half.

The Sixers (5-6) will visit the Hawks (7-3) on Thursday. Tip-off is scheduled for 7:30 PM, Eastern time. You can catch the action on NBA TV.

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