Embiid powers Sixers to resume-building road win over Thunder: Likes and dislikes
The Sixers (10-5) visited the Oklahoma City Thunder (11-4) on Saturday. Philadelphia wanted to snap a two-game losing streak. Oklahoma City wanted to push its winning streak to seven games. Joel Embiid went for 35 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists, and four blocks to lead the Sixers to victory, 127-123.
Before we get to what I saw, some notes.
The Sixers were without Kelly Oubre Jr., who is recovering from a fractured rib.
Danuel House Jr. missed the game with a left quad contusion.
Terquavion Smith, Javonte Smart, and Ricky Council IV are on two-way G League assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats and were not available.
Nick Nurse started Tyrese Maxey, De'Anthony Melton, Nico Batum, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
The Thunder were without Jalen Williams, who has a strained left hip.
Mark Daigneault started Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Josh Giddey, Luguentz Dort, Cason Wallace, and Chet Holmgren.
- Fresh off a three-day break fashioned by his missing Wednesday's loss to the Timberwolves, Embiid appeared engaged and energized. The idea was simple but sensible - he's considerably stronger than the young Holmgren, and it would be malpractice not to use that mismatch to Philadelphia's advantage.
The Sixers went at that mismatch over and over again early in the game, using Batum as a connective passer to feed the high-low action as Embiid forced his way deep into the paint for post-ups.
The physical advantage was so significant that the Sixers forced the Thunder to make a decision - give up a near-automatic two points (by way of shot at rim or free throws), or send help. Neither option is great for the defense, with the latter opening up Philadelphia's ball movement just because it follows the principle of draw-two-and-kick.
Leveraging Embiid's physical advantages is the best way to generate multiple passes in a possession. The double-teams will come, and that means someone is open on the perimeter. Embiid making the simple passes to beat the extra attention helped the Sixers accumulate free throws throughout the first quarter, with Philadelphia attacking hard close-outs and taking contact at the rim. It also helped his teammates get open looks from beyond the arc, coming one or two passes down the line or directly from Embiid's feed.
It wasn't a great first quarter of perimeter shooting for the Sixers, but their offensive processes were sound.
- I will give Nurse points for recognizing that those Embiid-without-Maxey lineups to end the first quarters were getting absolutely destroyed and adjusting away from those groups. It was going so poorly that he might've been verging on there being no other choice. The problem is, with Oubre out, there isn't a great option unless you extend Maxey or Harris into those lineups with the big guy.
Nurse went with Maxey, letting the young star take a brief rest in the first quarter before re-inserting him in the last couple of minutes so that Embiid would have some offensive creativity to play with.
- A side-note on that adjustment - in the age of analytics, it can be easy to marry the team to an adjustment instead of making tweaks within the concept of the adjustment. I thought it was prudent that Nurse didn't feel like he had to go back to Maxey for those Embiid-plus-bench minutes at the end of the third quarter.
He gave the guard an extended rest and played Harris with Embiid in that lineup instead. It's surely a different look next to the big guy, but the important idea is that there's some pick-and-roll ball-handling skill coupled with some pull-up shooting equity next to Embiid. That's the two-man dynamic you want in those lineups that have Robert Covington and Patrick Beverley.
- As bad as Embiid's effort was on the defensive end in the first half of Tuesday's loss to Cleveland, he will be an undeniable candidate for Defensive Player of the Year if he consistently gives the effort he gave on defense in the first half of this game. Look no further than a sequence in the second quarter that saw him scare Giddey into airballing a floater, and then, on the very next Thunder possession, rotate to the low side to swat away a Jaylin Williams layup and get the rebound.
- Speaking of the glass, Embiid threw his body in the mix for offensive rebounds often in the first half. He either kept the ball loose by tipping it up multiple times until he had position to score on the miss or come down cleanly with the basketball. And if he couldn't get full possession, he tapped it out to teammates. The aforementioned Williams layup and rebound led to a Maxey transition three. But, Embiid was there to slap the ball out to Melton, who canned the triple.
Those rebounds aren't always going to go Embiid's way. The important thing is that he competed to make those plays happen. He didn't just let the play die to get back to the other end of the court when he thought he had a chance to create additional opportunities.
- Oklahoma City threatened to create some distance in the first few minutes after halftime, but the Sixers largely owned the third quarter and put themselves in a great spot heading into the final frame with their defense. First, they did an outstanding job of quieting Gilgeous-Alexander.
The guard is an early sleeper candidate for this season's Most Valuable Player award amongst talking heads because of how smooth of a scorer he is. What makes him so good is his strength against contact inside and his feathery midrange game. Gilgeous-Alexander isn't getting to the line at the rate he did last season, but his free-throw volume is a big part of his burst into the superstar conversation.
Nonetheless, the Sixers did an outstanding job of staying down on his head fakes in isolation. As a result of that discipline, Gilgeous-Alexander settled for a lot of off-balance, flat jumpers. And as their best shot-creator, if he goes dry, Oklahoma City goes dry.
- The second thing that really tilted this game in Philadelphia's favor was the Sixers holding the Thunder to one shot on their possessions throughout the third quarter. There was no offensive glass for the Thunder to go to for additional chances. The Sixers secured the defensive backboard very well. And when that happened in conjunction with Gilgeous-Alexander unable to manufacture offense, the Thunder were on the ropes.
- I remain quite concerned about the Sixers' three-point volume, and mostly because I don't see enough guys making threes within their regular volume for the team's current frequency to be sufficient. Harris isn't taking enough, Maxey is in a bit of a cold stretch from beyond the arc and isn't taking enough for my liking, and Embiid has never been a very good three-point shooter.
The thing that I think is sneakily hurting the Sixers' three-point shooting a lot is that Covington isn't taking or making a lot. He's not getting as many minutes as he did in his first go-around with the Sixers, but he also limits himself as a shooter because he actively chooses not to take some of the shots he used to.
In fact, that, in general, is a theme with this team. Lot of guys turn down open threes. If the shot at the rim is there, no problem. The problem is, many of those rejected open looks devolve into nothing, so a would-be good look is reduced to seconds wasted on the shot clock trying to find the shot elsewhere.
- Is now a bad time to mention that the Sixers could've drafted Gilgeous-Alexander instead of being tempted by Zhaire Smith and an unprotected 2021 first-round pick? They certainly wouldn't have had to look far in their "stah-hunting" efforts!
The Sixers (11-5) will host the Los Angeles Lakes (9-7) on Monday. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m., Eastern time. You can watch the game on NBA TV.
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