Sixers-Bulls

The Philadelphia 76ers (5-2) were back in action on Wednesday night, playing host to the Chicago Bulls (6-1). Philly was looking to push its winning streak to four games with another impressive victory in their under-manned state. The Bulls were looking to push their winning streak to three games. Something had to give for these two squads on Wednesday. It did for the Sixers, who outlasted the Bulls, 102-98, thanks to an all-world defensive game from Matisse Thybulle. 

Before we get to what I saw, some notes.

Contextual Notes

The Bulls were relatively short-handed in their reserves. Coby White (left shoulder injury management) and Patrick Williams (torn ligament in left wrist) were unavailable. Mark Simonovic and Devon Dotson were unavailable as they tended to G-League assignments. 

Billy Donovan started Lonzo Ball, Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, Javonte Green, and Nikola Vucevic.

The Sixers were without Tobias Harris (COVID-19 health and safety protocol) and Danny Green (left hamstring tightness). Grant Riller is still recovering from surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee. Aaron Henry (Two-Way) and Jaden Springer are on G-League assignment and were away from the team. Ben Simmons continues to be away from the team due to a lack of “mental readiness to play” (which is filed as “personal reasons” on the injury report).

Prior to the game, Doc Rivers provided updates on Harris and Green. Regarding Harris, Rivers said, “He’s doing okay, not great.” He added that Harris’ situation is not one in which the infected has little-to-no symptoms. As for Green, Rivers would not provide a timeline. He casted doubt that he would be back quickly, though, saying, “My guess is at least a couple of games.”

Rivers started Tyrese Maxey, Seth Curry, Matisse Thybulle, Furkan Korkmaz, and Joel Embiid.

First Half

It was a rude arrival from the guests. DeMar DeRozan found an angle to the rim going towards the baseline with Furkan Korkmaz on his left hip and went under the cup for an emphatic dunk on the young wing on Chicago’s first touch of the game.

Matisse Thybulle made his imprint on the game early. He altered some shots around the rim (and recorded a block) and deflected a weak pass into the open floor to create a fast break. There was also a defensive stanza in which he gambled a bit to try to deflect a pass and recovered back to his man to discourage the pass back, all within the same second. You can easily take those plays for granted if you don’t see them from the right angle or only in real time without replay. But, he has an incredible motor to be able to take such risks and then get back to his original assignment in time. It also speaks to how well he understands and leverages his size and length as weapons.

To cap his impressive first quarter off, he got downhill on two Bulls defenders in transition, set Curry up for a beautiful look at a triple, and then produced an offensive rebound that set Korkmaz up for an open triple. A helluva hustle sequence for the wing, indeed.

Send as much disdain towards the head coach as you’d like, but we have to give him some credit for diversifying his playbook. Not only is he experimenting with different screen actions (Double Drags and splits are the ones I’ve noticed the most), but he’s empowering his guards to get involved in the actions as screeners to throw off defenses in half-court environments.

The diversified offense can be attributed to a variety of things. First, it helps that the Sixers have a backup big that can do more than commit unnecessary fouls and throw down thunderous dunks. Drummond is an underrated passer, has a smidge of a post-up game, and can move laterally in a way that Dwight Howard simply could not. That versatility allows Philly to use Drummond as a playmaker out of the pick-and-roll, which creates connective tissue within the offense. Of course, substituting good guy, horrific player Mike Scott for Georges Niang as a volume shooter and slasher has also allowed the Sixers broaden the way they do things on the scoring side of the floor.

But, it goes beyond the reserve depth. The Sixers also had a long(er than expected) offseason, so they had time to really implement what Rivers wanted them to be able to run on the court. But the absence of Ben Simmons also plays a role. While Simmons remains an All-Star-level player, the reality is that there’s only so many actions you can run involving a guy who refuses to shoot and plays with little function when moved to an off-ball role. The Sixers will never admit it (at least while he’s still on the roster), but having a roster full of guys that force the whole defense to lift out of the lane makes it easier to get creative with the offensive actions.

I pity the fool who attempts to dribble in transition when Thybulle is on the court. The man comes out of nowhere with silent footsteps and tips the ball away to give the Sixers extra possessions all the time. Opponents are never careful about it, as it’s been happening for three years. It’s quite the phenomenon that teams are never aware of that tendency coming into games against the Sixers. In a sense, Thybulle is a one-man transition defense.

Second Half

It feels like me or your pick of other Sixers media talk about this all the time, but Seth Curry’s shooting is just incomprehensible. He hits from anywhere on the court, and the ball rarely ever touches the rim. His efficiency has taken such a step that I just assume it’s going in every time he shoots it.

A fan was taken out of the arena in the middle of the third quarter due to undisclosed medical circumstances. The situation did not look resolved by the time staffers transported the fan out of The Center, either. Hopefully the fan received the attention they needed, but certainly a scary situation. Thoughts and prayers, of course.

The Bulls started to make significant inroads when they turned their pace up on the offensive end of the floor. DeMar DeRozan applied downhill pressure on the rim, begging the Sixer defense to foul him, and they obliged. Chicago also recognized and fed their wing mismatches (DeRozan and LaVine) over Seth Curry and Tyrese Maxey, which elicited shading Embiid towards the ball to provide some extra help. The Bulls wisely spread the two wings across the court from one another so as to force Embiid to expense energy getting to the other side of the floor to shade the ball.

The fatigue from using so much effort to anchor the defense showed itself on the offensive end of the floor. Embiid connected on 2 of his 6 field goal attempts in the third quarter, and most of them came away from the paint. I wouldn’t discount the possibility that that has to do with some lingering discomfort in the knee. An over-reliance on midrange jumpers has been the early theme of the season for Embiid. Given that those jumpers aren’t falling at the same volume they fell at last season or even in previous seasons, the points haven’t been so easy to come by for the MVP runner-up.

Billy Donovan took timeouts after the first of two Embiid free throws on three different sets of them in the second half. Payback for the Eagles icing Cody Parkey on the game-winning field goal in 2019? Probably not, but I like the subplot!

Matisse Thybulle single-handedly kept the Bulls at arm’s length in the second half of this game. There were multiple Bulls possessions in which he found himself within shouting distance of the rim with a red jersey below the basket with the ball in his hands. Thybulle’s hustle perturbed multiple such field goals around the rim, leaving the Bulls with unfinished business. It’s usually a highlight of the season for a wing to make even one such play. Thybulle made multiple in the second half.

As horrid as Embiid’s shot selection was on Wednesday (and it was awful), he preserved a victory with an incredible block of DeMar DeRozan with less than 5 seconds remaining in regulation. Rivers challenged the call (originally a foul) and won the second judgment. Although, judging by Embiid’s body language on the original call, Rivers might’ve felt forced to use his asset. Nonetheless, the head coach finally burned one after being criticized endlessly for not having used them on controversial calls in the home-opening loss to the Nets.

The bowtie on this affair was not Rivers using his flag. Rather, it was the remarkable play Embiid made at the rim to prevent DeRozan’s dunk. It was symbolic of the whole game for Philly — winning on defense. That’s the way they’ve won 6 of their first 8 games of the season. There’s a long way to go, but that’s the Sixers’ identity. But without three of the five starters from last season’s team, it has required steps upward from multiple role players on both ends of the floor. And they’ve done it so far. Amidst the Simmons situation and the other short-handedness on the roster, it’s how Philly has carved its way to 6-2.

In a culture of constant criticism and hot takery across professional sports, the Sixers — especially in their last three games — have been downright impressive.

The Sixers will travel to Detroit to face the Pistons (1-6) on Thursday. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 PM EST. You can watch on NBC Sports Philadelphia.