3 observations after another elite Joel Embiid performance in Sixers’ win over Hornets

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Noah Levick
·7 min read
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3 observations after another elite Embiid performance in Sixers’ win originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

The Sixers showed Sunday night that they don’t need Joel Embiid to win, storming back from a 20-point deficit to beat the Pacers. Their work is certainly easier when the All-Star big man is available, though.

Embiid returned Wednesday after missing the Sixers’ game against Indiana with back tightness and posted 34 points, 11 rebounds, two steals and a block in a 118-111 victory over the Hornets at Spectrum Center.

The Sixers won all three games on their road trip, improving to 16-6 overall and 6-5 away from home. They’ll play the Trail Blazers on Thursday night at Wells Fargo Center.

Here are observations on the Sixers’ win Wednesday: 

Embiid the marksman 

Embiid featured prominently right away, taking six of the Sixers’ first 10 shots. During one especially strong stretch, he grabbed a rebound and went coast to coast for a dunk, then trailed the play on the Sixers’ next possession and nailed a three-pointer off a feed from Ben Simmons

Through 17 games, Embiid has shot 42.3 percent from three-point range. He entered this season having made 31.9 percent of his career three-point attempts, with a season-high mark of 36.7 percent his rookie year. Given his soft, fundamentally sound shot and good track record at the foul line, Embiid had long appeared capable of boosting his outside shooting numbers. 

When asked before the game about Embiid being named Eastern Conference Player of the Month, head coach Doc Rivers made it clear he’s not satisfied with the early-season awards the Sixers have earned. 

“Really, as a whole team we’ve just got to keep getting better,” Rivers said. “It’s really nice, Joel winning Player of the Month, but I don’t think that’s why we started the season or what he wanted. He wants more. The better you play as a group, the more those things come to you. But that shouldn’t be a reason not to keep wanting to improve." 

Before the season, Embiid also talked about team success coinciding with individual accolades. If the Sixers stay at or near the top of the conference and he keeps playing at this world-class level, he’ll have quite a few awards when the year is wrapped up. 

Early display of defensive firepower 

Within the game’s opening nine minutes, the Sixers amassed a generous handful of excellent defensive plays. Embiid had a few by himself, demonstrating no signs of rust as he disrupted Charlotte’s offensive rhythm with active hands and feet on both the perimeter and interior.

Simmons and Danny Green each had impressive blocks, with Simmons swatting away a Devonte’ Graham corner three attempt and Green erasing an apparent easy fast-break layup for Gordon Hayward. 

The Hornets only managed 13 first-period points, the fewest the Sixers have conceded in a quarter all season, on 22.7 percent shooting.

"I think with how active we were and how many deflections we got, it was definitely a glimpse of how good we can potentially be," Green said. "I think the tough part is doing it for 48 minutes."

After halftime, Charlotte’s shooters seemed to suddenly all find their groove at once, and the Sixers’ defensive energy dropped off as the Hornets trimmed a 26-point deficit to seven in the third quarter with a big run. Matisse Thybulle made one of the gambles Rivers has been pushing him to avoid during that shaky period, leaping in search of a highlight block and fouling Graham on a three-point attempt.

Simmons committed the identical error with 5.1 seconds remaining in the game and the Sixers up seven points, a head-scratching late-game miscue. 

"Clearly, we let our foot up, for sure, lost our focus and all that, but we did enough to win on the road," Rivers said. "I’ll take that. A lot of teaching moments for us, and that’s what I told them after the game, that we’re better than we played in the second half but we couldn’t have played much better in the first half. ... Going on the trip, being 3-0, that was our goal coming out and that’s what we did.”

Rivers did not stick with the zone defense that spurred the Sixers’ comeback in Indiana. He trusts his team’s ability to defend man-to-man. 

“It’s something that we’ll just use when we feel like we need it,” he said pregame. “We believe in our man defense. … There’s a lot of reasons you play zone. Sometimes you’re trying to hide a guy in foul trouble, sometimes you’re trying to hide a bad defender on your team that’s on the floor and sometimes the other team has a great rhythm going and you try to knock them off rhythm."

Injury scare for Milton 

Shake Milton was down on the floor and grimacing with 7:03 left in the second quarter after driving to the hoop and taking an awkward step on his right leg as he was fouled. He stayed in the game to shoot his two free throws, then took a foul so he could head to the locker room with Sixers head athletic trainer Kevin Johnson. 

The 24-year-old returned to the bench several minutes later, surely a welcome sight for the Sixers. There were no discernible issues with Milton’s movement during his minutes in the second half. Milton hyperextended his knee, according to The Inquirer’s Keith Pompey

The Sixers have relied on him as their main second-unit perimeter scorer, and he’s done well in that role despite a slow start from three-point territory. Milton’s defensive sturdiness and self-belief as a lead ball handler have made him the backbone of the Sixers’ bench and, projecting ahead, a key piece when the postseason arrives. He recorded 13 points on 4-for 12 shooting Wednesday. 

Milton called the injury "just a little tweak" and said he'd play Thursday. 

Overall, the Sixers’ second unit outscored the Hornets’ by a 27-24 margin, benefiting from the fact that Charlotte was shorthanded with typical starters PJ Washington (right foot sprain) and Terry Rozier (right ankle sprain) out. 

Five Sixers scored in double figures, including Tobias Harris with 26 points that weren't flashy but came in efficient fashion. He went 9 for 9 from the foul line, season highs for him in both makes and attempts. 

Seth Curry, meanwhile, had zero points on 0-for-3 shooting. After testing positive for COVID-19 last month, Curry is not back at full health.

“It’s been tough, little injuries here and there, banged up a little bit,” he said Tuesday. “I think some remnants, also — just trying to get my energy all the way back. Some days I feel good, some days I’m just sluggish and feel like I’ve got to take a nap all day. It’s weird, but I’m grateful to be on the court every day and play."

Curry's scoreless evening didn't concern his head coach.

“I’m not worried about guys," Rivers said. "It’s a long season. Tobias, the first three games everyone thought he had forgotten how to play. Shake’s had his moments. We have so many options that I just think guys get going organically. I don’t think you should ever try to force guys to get it going.

"Seth is still trying to come back from the virus, and he missed a lot of stuff. I’m patient and not that concerned by it, if you want me to be honest. I like how we’re playing. I look at his minutes on the floor, I think he had zero attempts at halftime but we had 64 points. ... There are going to be nights like that, and that didn’t concern me much at all.”

OddsMoney LinePoint SpreadTotal Points
Utah
-139-3.5O 228.5
Philadelphia
+115+3.5U 228.5