The Sixers (48-23) visited the Chicago Bulls (34-37) on Wednesday. Philadelphia wanted to avenge Monday’s double-overtime loss to the Bulls. Chicago wanted to extend its winning streak to four games. The Sixers jumped out to an early 20-point lead, beating up on the Bulls in a wire-to-wire victory, 116-91.
Before we get to the action, some context is due.
The Sixers were without the services of James Harden, who has a sore left achilles.
Jalen McDaniels missed the game with a sore right hip.
Louis King and Mac McClung are on Two-Way G-League assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats and were unavailable.
Doc Rivers started Tyrese Maxey, De’Anthony Melton, Tobias Harris, PJ Tucker, and Joel Embiid.
The Bulls were without Lonzo Ball, who is out for the season after undergoing surgery on his left knee. Alex Caruso was out with a sore left midfoot.
Carlik Jones and Marko Simonovic are on G-League assignments with the Windy City Bulls and were out. Terry Taylor is on a Two-Way G-League assignment with the Windy City Bulls and was unavailable.
Justin Lewis had surgery to reconstruct the ACL in his right knee and was out.
Billy Donovan started Patrick Beverley, Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, Patrick Williams, and Nikola Vucevic.
From the moment the official tossed the jump-ball to the buzzer at the end of the second quarter, the Sixers were in their highest or second highest gears on both ends of the floor. There was a sense of engagement and taste for revenge after Monday’s loss that I don’t ever remember seeing. Usually, I find myself wondering why they aren’t as responsive the next time they play a team that they lost a winnable game to in the previous matchup. But, there was nothing left to wonder in this game.
The game kicked off with Tucker beating Chicago to a long rebound to give the Sixers a second life, with Melton lacing a three across the floor from where his teammate tracked down the ball. Philadelphia had phenomenal ball movement throughout the first half, creating and cashing in on good looks from beyond the arc. Even if it wasn’t open threes, the Sixers had no problem putting points on the board. They got to the rim in transition, taking advantage of favorable numbers. They got to the rim in the halfcourt, attacking close-outs and finishing or finding cutting teammates in the spaces vacated by the Bulls’ collapsing interior defense.
The Sixers recorded an assist on 23 of their 26 first-half buckets, and knocked down 12 of 22 three-point attempts. Maybe not quite the Harlem Globetrotters, but it was not a display in one-man or even two-man offense. Everyone got involved, and the Bulls had no chance from the get-go. The Sixers put 21 points on the board before the Bulls made their first shot.
Besides uniform engagement from Embiid on down the line, the big thing Philadelphia did much, much better on offense this time against the Bulls was handle secondary pressure well on offense. It makes a world of difference, of course, when Harden isn’t even available to be an active detriment to your offense like he was on Monday. That’s not to say Harden hasn’t been great all season — I’ve argued that him not being an all-star was perhaps a bigger snub than Embiid not being an original all-star starter or, if he doesn’t win it, the MVP. But, Harden actively played the Sixers to a disadvantage on Monday.
They loaded up two on the ball when he got downhill, putting him in cement when he tried to lift to score at the rim. If it wasn’t missed shots, it was turnovers. And when you have the ball in your hands as often as he does, that failure to manage extra pressure well stalls the whole offense.
No such issue in this game. I will say that I thought Chicago added too much secondary pressure on the ball for too many different Sixers. Obviously, they sold out on Embiid, challenging him to make doubly-contested shots or make the right plays to open teammates. But, Chicago also sent two men at Maxey, who did a good job of stringing out the two Bulls converging on him to open the floor for his teammates. They shaded towards Harris in the post.
Chicago is certainly entitled to its game plan, but it makes little sense to shade, trap, or double-team if you don’t have the helpers filling in for the second defender joining the ball defender. Chicago wasn’t prepared to make that rotation, and the Sixers got open shots because of it all night.
With the Bulls only properly executing one half of a shade/trap/double-team strategy correctly, Embiid had no problem finding his open teammates during his time on the court. Facing the other side of the floor, he made a great no-look pass over his back shoulder to find an open shooter. Embiid found Harris cutting around his spot at the nail, feeding his teammate for easy finishes inside. Embiid also looked ahead in transition, finding teammates leaking out in front of the pack for easy scores. No. 21 registered seven assists in just 16 first-half minutes.
Don’t want to overlook Harris’ cutting. He did a superb job of finding spaces off the ball instead of just nailing his feet to open spots around the arc. He read the extra attention dedicated to Embiid beautifully, making himself available where the big man could see him and sneaking behind the Bulls’ defense for easy points.
We can debate how real Chicago’s defense is — difficult to buy that they’re the fifth best defense in the league (per Cleaning The Glass) with a core of LaVine, DeRozan, and Vucevic. But, if Harris isn’t getting his desired string of touches when the Sixers are at full strength, it would be immensely helpful to Philadelphia’s offensive attack if he made a consistent effort to read those opportunities to move through gaps when the defense’s attention is elsewhere.
Four more threes for Melton in this one. He’s re-discovered his touch from beyond the arc lately. It would be massive for the Sixers if he could find comfort coming off Philadelphia’s bench, because Maxey is a different player as a starter than he is as a sixth man. Those two simultaneously finding the equilibrium in their current roles would be dynamite for the Sixers heading into the playoffs.
As well as Philadelphia executed its offense, they jumped out to a ridiculous early lead by defending Chicago quite well. The Bulls’ offense is terrible because their shot selection is very inefficient. DeRozan and Vucevic love midrange jumpers, and no one on that team is particularly prolific from beyond the three-point arc. But, Chicago couldn’t get anything to fall inside in the first six minutes of the game.
The big difference on Wednesday was that Embiid played to the level of ball screens instead of dropping or outright switching. I think that might be the only obvious point that you can look at and say Embiid and Harden differ in preferred strategy. Harden wants to switch, Embiid wants to drop more. Harden wasn’t available to play, so they didn’t do their usual amount of switching. The thing is, it would’ve been justified to stick with the more switch-oriented scheme they played in Monday’s loss to these Bulls. There wasn’t necessarily any need to adjust away from what they did on Monday.
But, Embiid and his teammates blew up a number of Chicago possessions in the first quarter under an up-to-the-level pick-and-roll scheme. The Bulls turned the ball over six times in the first 12 minutes, LaVine picking up four of them. Philadelphia did a great job of reading efforts to pass around the center of the defense, intercepting the ball for live Chicago turnovers. The Sixers also put their hands to good work in traffic, disrupting Chicago drives to the rim to force misses up close or cause the Bulls to lose the ball altogether.
The game was pretty much over for all intents and purposes by the middle of the second quarter. When you put forth that level of an ass-kicking, you get a night off from scrutiny. But, there is one thing to mention.
Embiid didn’t even come out of the locker room for the second half of the game. Paul Reed started the third quarter on his behalf. He grabbed his leg while resting on the other side of the court during a pair of free throws in the first half. Rivers could be seen on the NBC Sports Philadelphia broadcast asking him if he was OK as he subbed out at one point in the first half. Embiid ultimately came back and finished the half off. He didn’t show any signs of discomfort during that period of time.
The problem isn’t that Embiid didn’t play in the second half, especially since the Sixers were up by 28 at halftime. It was that there was no update as to why he didn’t start the third quarter or come out of the locker room for nearly the entire length of the third quarter that was bizarre. Obviously, it created a hysterical frenzy online. No one knew whether there was something terribly wrong or just a chance to rest the big man while the Sixers were blowing the Bulls out. At first, the Sixers said Embiid was unlikely to return due to “point differential”. But, fans and media weren’t really buying that one. Finally, it came out that he was suffering from a mildly tight right calf. Embiid is expected to play Friday in Golden State, the Sixers said.
All in all, not a big deal as long as Embiid is healthy. Even the footage of Embiid grabbing his leg while someone shot free throws isn’t a major red flag. He often will stretch his leg or grab at something while someone is shooting free throws. There may be a logical explanation as to why the timeline of information coming out was the way it was. But, it added a lot of worry for the fans that could’ve been dismissed earlier than it was. Took the wind out of the sails for viewers in a game that the team collectively played quite well in.
The Sixers (49-23) will visit the Golden State Warriors (38-36) on Friday. Tip-off is scheduled for 10 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the action on NBA TV.