Joel Embiid’s deft decisions, bench gets on track, more from Sixers’ blowout win over Magic

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Noah Levick
·6 min read
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Embiid’s deft decisions, Thybulle gets on track, more from blowout win originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

If their final game of 2020 is an indication of what’s to come this season, the Sixers should be elated.

They blew out the Magic at Amway Center on Thursday night in their last contest of the calendar year, 116-92, improving to 4-1. The team led by 35 points at halftime and shot 15 for 33 from three-point range in the game. 

Joel Embiid (21 points, nine rebounds, two assists, no turnovers), Tobias Harris (20 points, nine rebounds) and Seth Curry (21 points) were among the standouts.

Ben Simmons nearly had a triple-double with nine points, 10 rebounds and eight assists in his 25 minutes. 

The Sixers’ two-game mini-series in Philadelphia against the Hornets begins Saturday night. Here are observations on their win over Orlando: 

Riding Embiid early 

Embiid is too big and too good for most NBA centers to handle. He resumed his early-season excellence in the first quarter against Nikola Vucevic. Embiid established deep post position, overwhelmed the Magic physically and made smart, simple reads when help defense arrived. 

Head coach Doc Rivers stuck with him for nearly the entire first quarter (11 minutes and 24.2 seconds, to be precise), recognizing that Embiid was sparking the Sixers’ sharp ball movement and posing questions Orlando wasn’t answering very well. 

“We’ve been working on it every day," Rivers said postgame of Embiid's passing out of double teams. "It’s one of the first things we talked to Joel about, that we had to get better as a group on how we’re going to handle them, and he had to get better on what he needed to look for.

"We’re giving him, really, two options to look for every time. He’s doing that. Today was a big one. You could see he wanted the ball, to get double teamed so he could start the offense, and I thought that was just beautiful to watch.”

Three-point threats like Vucevic are always going to be challenging for Embiid, but he was active defensively and the Sixers let him follow Vucevic behind the arc. The Sixers appeared slightly more willing to switch than usual, too, and that approach was effective. 

Simmons sinks one 

Until Thursday night, Simmons’ longest field goal attempt this season was a missed 13-foot jumper on opening night.

He expanded his range considerably in the first quarter, sinking a corner three-pointer in rhythm off a pass from Embiid. 

It was the third regular-season three of Simmons’ NBA career and a noteworthy event simply because of how rare it’s been.  Another infrequent outside shooter struck for the Sixers in the fourth quarter as Dwight Howard drained a three from the left wing.

Rivers has said he isn’t concerned with Simmons’ jumper, a stance he reiterated after the Australian’s 3-for-11 night Tuesday. He’s assigned assistant coach Sam Cassell to work with Simmons, and outside shooting is one of the areas the two have been drilling.

We won’t draw any conclusions from Simmons’ jumper other than to say it will be a significant development if a Simmons long-range attempt is ever not an eyebrow-raiser. 

Markelle Fultz’s attempt to answer Simmons’ three with one of his own was unsuccessful. Simmons sagged well off of his former teammate on defense as Fultz managed nine points on 4-for-11 shooting and four assists.

Thybulle gets on track

Matisse Thybulle scored his first points of the season in the second quarter, driving to the rim and converting a three-point play. Once he broke the ice, he showed he’s capable of occasionally chipping in for the Sixers offensively, hitting a pair of threes. The second-year wing was sharp on defense as well, sticking with his man and picking up two blocks and a steal.

“He’s going to be a key factor," Rivers said of Thybulle. "We’ve been telling him that from the beginning. Matisse is going to be a key player for this basketball team. I thought his first half, on both ends, was phenomenal.

"Second half, I was a little upset because he had, I think, two threes that he passed up and tried to drive. I told him, ‘Man, when you’re open, let it fly.’ He did that in the first half. But defensively in the second half, he was phenomenal on (Cole) Anthony. Anthony is very aggressive, and (Thybulle) was phenomenal tonight.”

Overall, the Sixers’ second unit was much better than on Tuesday night, when they shot a combined 3 for 18. While Rivers had been drawn to the idea of Shake Milton and Furkan Korkmaz providing offense off the bench, the Sixers must develop new combinations with Korkmaz injured. Milton and Tyrese Maxey’s ability to enter the paint and put pressure on the defense is promising.

Rivers said pregame there were no specific pairings he wanted to grow, highlighting how little time the Sixers have had together. 

“Yeah, probably all of us right now,” he said with a laugh. “We’re just so new to each other, man. Watching Toronto play, they ran a couple plays where they got to the third and fourth option. It’s awesome to see. For us, getting to the second option would be very nice. And we’re going to get there. What we talk about every day is you’ve still got to win games while you’re trying to get there.”

Though it seemed much of the Sixers’ second-unit success stemmed from improvised actions instead of tertiary set play options, that’s still obviously a positive step in the team’s collective development. 

Was this a fluke? 

Orlando became the NBA’s last unbeaten team on the strength of high-percentage shooting at the rim (75.4 percent; best in the NBA, per Cleaning the Glass) and on mid-range attempts (46.4 percent, seventh). The Magic predictably couldn’t sustain that efficiency and fell off rather dramatically, making just 14 of 52 mid-range attempts according to Cleaning the Glass. The Sixers possess superior talent but are not 24 points better.

There have been some odd results across the league early in the season, in part due to the NBA’s short, atypical offseason. Trends and tendencies are worth tracking over time, but blowouts say even less about a team now than at this same stage last season.

Acknowledging all of that, there are positive signs from this game that may very well be sustainable for the Sixers, including Embiid’s deft decision-making, a second consecutive strong performance by Harris and impressive, star-driven defense. We’ll learn a lot more about the Sixers in 2021. 

Rivers thinks this wasn't close to their potential.

"There’s no doubt we can play better," he said. "Defensively, I don’t know if we can play much better than we did in the first half. I thought we were swarming, we were physical, we took them out of their stuff. And I thought, more impressively, that they really got into the game plan. They guarded personnel very well tonight, knowing what each guy did, and that’s something we really have been working on — for them to study and know that.

"Offensively, obviously we had (75 first-half points) or whatever. There’s still another level. I told them at halftime. I said, ‘We’re good, but we’re still not where we want to be offensively, which is a good sign.’

OddsMoney LinePoint SpreadTotal Points
Philadelphia
--8.5-
Detroit
-+8.5-