Instant observations: Late Embiid three pushes Sixers to win over Bulls

The Sixers nearly gave away what looked like a surefire win, but Joel Embiid came up with a game-winning three in the clutch to salvage a 114-109 victory over the Bulls.

Here’s what I saw.

The Good

• I’m not sure if the loss to Toronto earlier this week was the final wake-up call they needed, but the Sixers have looked like a completely different team the last two games. After one spirited effort without Embiid and one excellent outing with the big man on the floor, the Sixers finally appear to be moving in the right direction.

On Saturday night, that started with Embiid, who made sure not to step back into the lineup and disrupt what had helped the Sixers get rolling. They may not have been blazing fast with the big man out there, but Embiid was an active ball mover as the hub of the offense, swinging passes around the perimeter and rarely dawdling with the ball in his hands. As a result, Philadelphia’s average shot quality was great, the Embiid/Harden pick-and-roll ultimately carving up Chicago throughout the first half.

This, as one example, is the sort of play that shows exactly what they can be at their best:

It’s Harden threading the pass through, Embiid keeping his head up, Tucker setting a hard screen, and Maxey rising up in the corner, canning the open jumper. Each piece of the machine working together, creating a great shot without having to work especially hard for it.

It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows for Embiid, who had bouts of tunnel vision in the second half and turned the ball over as a result. Philadelphia’s worst moments still tend to come when he tries to dribble through traffic, or when he spends too much time backing players down instead of committing to an action and rolling with it. That being said, there were thoughtful playmaking moments from Embiid as well — with DeMar DeRozan clearly trying to sell a flop for a fourth Embiid foul, Embiid felt his defender fading and stepped back from him, finding Matisse Thybulle in the paint in the space where DeRozan used to be. 

As we’ve noted in most of our early season coverage, most of this hinges on Embiid, who has the ball enough to determine exactly how the team operates. He has not always been a willing playmaker, but as his touch has come roaring back, Embiid has seen fit to spread the love, and that is a difference-maker.

• In a fourth quarter where both teams struggled to create good looks, much less make them, it was up to Embiid to play hero in the final 30 seconds of the game. Much to the chagrin of everybody who hates seeing him shoot jumpers, he let that thing fly for a big-time make:

It wasn’t pretty down the stretch, but this ultimately got them the win. They will take it.

• He looked well on his way to a disappointing follow-up after a career-high 44 in Toronto. Foul trouble was ruining his night, keeping the young man stuck on the sideline. But there Tyrese Maxey was in the second half, one of their only positive forces in a game that felt like it was about to slip away into the Chicago night. 

The buckets were harder to come by in this one, Maxey feeling hard done by a few calls that did not go his way in the painted area. But instead of checking out of his scoring responsibilities altogether, Maxey continued to put pressure on both the Bulls and the officials in the second half, eventually breaking through for some important third-quarter points to push the Sixers back out in front.

If it sometimes feels like Philadelphia’s headline stars buckle under pressure, the opposite is true of Maxey. He’s a little too young to feel the weight of the franchise on his shoulders, so he seems to find it easy to rise to the occasion and push the Sixers through moments of adversity. 

• The Sixers got absolutely killer bench minutes out of Georges Niang on Saturday night, and as he tends to when he’s feeling it, Niang made sure to let a hostile Chicago crowd know that he had it rolling. There were a lot of second-half possessions where the Sixers couldn’t generate pressure on the rim (or pressure of any sort), and it was up to Niang to find a way to make it work. Deadeye shooting with a hand in your face always carries value, and it carried a little bit extra within the context of this one.

Niang’s improved mobility also appears to be paying dividends for him inside the arc, the vet forward finding opportunities on cuts and the occasional drive that end with him scoring at the hoop. A lot of those possessions last season would have ended in clunky attempts or blocks for the opponent, and I do think he has a little bit of extra juice this season.

• There’s a reason De’Anthony Melton picked up the nickname “Mr. Do Something” in Memphis. You constantly feel his presence on the floor, and though it may lead to a few hare-brained moments with the ball in his hands, ultimately you end up on the plus side by having him on your side.

Because Thybulle has been their designated defensive guy, you could have forgotten that playing hard, disruptive defense can happen without foul trouble coming attached. Melton flies around the floor like a guy about to tackle somebody, but he always seems to be in control, slapping balls away from the opponent before they can notice that it’s gone. On a team dying for transition defense, he has provided some all by himself. 

Yes, you watched him hoist an ill-advised shot or two and careen through traffic without a plan in this one, but his playmaking and offensive versatility ultimately won out. 

• Philadelphia’s defensive snappiness was there early, and though it’s a credit to the group rather than a one-man effort, I do want to show a little bit of love to Tobias Harris here. Harris has been one of the faces of their defensive struggles, constantly off the pace and struggling to interchange with his teammates. You can work around those issues, at least somewhat, by running and competing like a madman, which is exactly what he did in the first half on Saturday night.

They do say, “the ball finds energy,” and you might not believe in that cliche but it ended up being true. Harris came off of a poor shooting performance in Toronto and got hot early against the Bulls, taking advantage of Philly’s free-flowing offense and the quality looks that came out of it. Again, it must be reiterated that his willingness to shoot is so far beyond what we grew accustomed to out of him in previous seasons. He really has embraced the high-volume role he has been asked to play, perhaps because he knows that he’s not going to get a ton of shot attempts otherwise.

(The three-point attempts stopped altogether in the second half, and while he may have been able to get one or two up, I thought that was a reflection of their offensive stagnation, not so much his play.)

In any case, mostly liked what the Sixers got from him on Saturday.

• Multiple charges drawn for Montrezl Harrell in the fourth quarter counts as a win in my book, considering his defensive expectations from just about everybody. Good work to beat guys to spots.

The Bad

• It’s tough to find the middle ground with James Harden, who either feels like he’s burning the nets down or can’t throw it in the ocean. It was one of the latter nights for him in Chicago, Harden tossing up bricks left and right in a spot where they needed a bit more from him. 

When Embiid and Maxey hit the bench for the end of the first half, each carrying three fouls, that was a clear-cut opportunity to Harden to carry the load as the alpha dog on the floor. Philadelphia’s small-ball lineups have been good money to start the year, but instead of sparking another positive run, the Sixers’ up-tempo attack suddenly slowed to a creep, and Harden consistently failed to do much of anything with the time and touches he was afforded.

While this was happening, and as the game wore on, you got reminders of the value he provides as a playmaker. No matter how poor of a night he has as a scorer, teams still show Harden the respect he earned over a decade-plus of scoring outbursts, and he’s able to take advantage of that as a passer. There are short drop-offs made as teams try to crowd him on drives, pocket passes to a streaking Embiid down the middle, the usual cross-court feeds to the corner for open threes. And that’s all without considering outlets and transition passes, where Harden can hit a man leaking out with an in-stride pass for two points.

But you can’t ignore the second half of offense, either, when Harden’s Sixers ran out of pace and ideas and the Bulls surged out in front. On possessions where the Bulls put two on the ball and made him play make, Harden continued to look great as a table setter. But switches were effective roadblocks, and while Harden missed a couple of shots after finding the edge and sealing off his defender, there were more possessions where he got caught in no man’s land, forcing up tough shots or playing hot potato at the end of the shot clock.

On the season, Harden is getting to better spots than he was during his low moments last year, with his issues in this games feeling more like a cold night than an indictment of his physical well-being. But he was not at his best in this one, perhaps not surprisingly on the second half of a back-to-back. A shame, because if he had propped them up to end the first half, I suspect this one could have been an easy win.

• I understand the options weren’t great because of foul trouble, but I was surprised that Doc Rivers kept rolling with a small lineup that let the lead dwindle away as the second quarter came to a close. If you wanted to protect Embiid from foul trouble, they could have at least thrown Paul Reed in the mix to offer a bit of length and athleticism. They had little resistance to offer at the hoop, and it showed.

• Look, as much as I would love to say PJ Tucker got hosed by the refs on his three offensive fouls to open the third quarter, he didn’t exactly do a good job of hiding his moving screens and pseudo-body checks away from the ball. Plays he will probably get away with in the postseason, but officials are on high alert in late October. It is what it is.

The shame of his foul trouble is that Tucker was rolling on offense in this game, perfect from the field at halftime on a pair of threes and a touch layup under the basket. He ended up having a fairly small impact on this one.

• Separate bullet point: Tucker nearly sent this game to overtime with an absolutely horrendous turnover in the closing moments. Thybulle did not help matters by running away without the ball in his hands. They were both fortunate Alex Caruson bricked the ensuing three.

• Once again, some bad over helping moments on defense in this one, and some of them are laid at the feet of Embiid. These guys need to show trust in one another to fulfill their responsibilities because they’re actively making themselves worse by abandoning their assignments and trying to help other people.

• Two missed free throws back-to-back from Embiid with a minute to go? Woof. At least he made the big three.

The Ugly

• I genuinely could not figure out what sort of game the officials wanted to call. Touch fouls were being called on some players, only for a guy to get hammered on a drive or a three-point attempt with no whistle blown. The Sixers just started laughing at the officiating at one point, in disbelief at some of what was being let go.

I don’t say that to blame Philadelphia’s early foul trouble on the officials, though. Embiid picked up one cheapie on a moving screen call, but his other two first-half fouls were pretty obvious, and he had no complaints about the third when he undercut DeRozan on a jumper. Maxey’s fouls came faster than the big fella’s, leading to a quiet follow-up to Maxey’s career-best performance in Toronto. Those two sitting to close the first half was no small part in Chicago’s surge ahead of halftime, which made what should have been a laugher a legitimate ballgame. 

All I can ever ask for from the officials is what the players what: consistency. There wasn’t much in this game, and I thought it had a noticeable impact on the flow.

• Danuel House Jr.’s season can probably be summed up as follows: Thybulle was subbed in for him at the end of the first half despite the fact that Thybulle had three fouls, having been subbed out to protect him from further damage earlier in the half. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of his play.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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