Joel Embiid scores 29 in third to punctuate blowout of Wizards: Likes and dislikes
The Sixers (4-1) hosted the Washington Wizards (1-4) on Monday. Philadelphia wanted to win its fifth game in a row. Washington wanted to snap a three-game losing streak. Joel Embiid scored 48 points, including 29 in the third quarter, to power the Sixers to victory, 146-128.
Before we get to what I saw, some notes.
The Wizards were without John Butler Jr., who is on a two-way G-League assignment with the Capital City Go-Go.
Wes Unseld Jr. started Tyus Jones, Jordan Poole, Kyle Kuzma, Deni Avdija, and Daniel Gafford.
The Sixers were without Terquavion Smith, Javonte Smart, and Ricky Council IV, who are on two-way G-League assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats.
Nick Nurse started Tyrese Maxey, De'Anthony Melton, Kelly Oubre Jr., Tobias Harris, and Embiid.
- The Sixers had already put all the distance between themselves and the Wizards that they were going to need by the time Nico Batum checked into this game. But, Batum's impact was clear immediately. He knew exactly how to space around Embiid, shading ever so slightly toward Embiid's outside hand when the extra attention came towards his right side. He knew when to cut along the baseline and make himself available for a catch-and-shoot corner triple, a la Danny Green.
Batum's read-and-react intuition got him a couple of clean looks that he promptly converted, and that made the Sixers comfortable with calling some actual plays for him. There was the latest veteran to make his Sixers debut, cutting around the zipper as he curled around screens in preparation for a couple catch-and-shoot opportunities.
He even made a nice defensive play, jarring a ball loose as he chased an assignment off the ball to ignite a transition opportunity.
As much as PJ Tucker was the right veteran personality for a Sixers team that had far more flash than toughness, it's not difficult to see how having your pick of wings is great in a different way. Tucker held teammates accountable, did all of the hustle work, and was content waiting for his touches in the corner. But, without James Harden trying to be a part of the team, there was no use for someone whose offense needed to be so spoon-fed even if his defense was valuable.
It's anyone's best guess whether Batum will eventually start for this team. But, he will change the way the likes of Embiid, Maxey, and Harris see the floor just by being a threat to shoot off movement and relocation. Defenses can't just gamble off of him like they could Tucker. Getting off of Tucker's contract and replacing him with a much more versatile offensive player is a win in its own right.
- One of the great developments of the season thus far has been Harris' confidence in taking the ball all the way to the rim. The eye test says he's having a career year there, both in general efficiency and efficiency on contested shots. There were a number of possessions, particularly in the first half, in which Harris called his own number and took the ball the length of the floor for scores inside or found angles to get downhill momentum so that he was already set up for an aggressive drive when the ball found him.
Even on nights when his jumper isn't filling up the box score, Harris is confident with the ball because he's having so much success at the rim. Not every touch is a score, and sometimes he's just attacking a close-out and passing across the court to put a burden on a defense in rotation. It's his conviction and his decisiveness with the ball that is changing the game right now. Coincidence that he likes a higher-usage role now that Harden is gone? I think not.
- No one on the Sixers needed a breakout quite like Melton. His shooting around the rim will always be an adventure, but his three-point shooting has also been ice cold to start the season. Washington was the opponent to see the light at the end of the tunnel, Melton dropping four triples in the first half. Two came by just spacing on the weak side, waiting for teammates to find him open. But, he also threw a pair of daggers into Washington's torso in transition, lacing a pair on the left wing as the Wizards scrambled to get back on defense.
This might sound crazy, but I don't think it's the worst idea to have Melton pull up for threes in transition instead of trying to navigate his way to the basket. He's far more successful from beyond the arc than he is inside.
- This game was a laugher by halftime. But, Embiid gave you a reason to stick around for one more quarter. He scored 29 points on 10-for-10 shooting, plus 9-for-9 from the charity stripe. By the end of the quarter, he was just riding a heater. But, it all started with the empty-corner pick-and-roll on the left side of the floor. He and Maxey ran that action over and over again because Gafford had absolutely no chance of stopping it. Maxey kept hitting the pocket pass to Embiid, turning it into a one-on-one battle between the reigning MVP and the helpless Gafford, and that was pretty much all she wrote.
- The officiating was extremely pro Wizards early in this game, but the Sixers didn't quite deserve to be outraged by their early deficit. Washington came out throwing punches on both ends - and given the contact levied on Embiid in the first few minutes, I might as well refer to "throwing punches" in a literal sense. The Wizards had the advantage in the areas where the Sixers have forged an identity through the first few games of the season - hustle plays and physicality.
Washington created extra plays for themselves by beating Philadelphia to long rebounds and keeping their own possessions alive. Fouls or not, the Sixers were loose with the ball in traffic, coughing it up when Washington reached in. Even when the Sixers got inside, they were not prepared to match Washington's physicality early on.
There were absolutely some swallowed whistles, the sound of slapped forearms ringing up the first couple of rows in the lower bowl of the Wells Fargo Center. But, the Sixers did not go up strong at the rim, either. They failed to compose themselves through the contact, instead gesticulating to the nearest official in protest of the lack of a foul call.
This Wizards team has quite a long way to go before they're playing for anything special, but they're young. So, they're going to run all night long. So, the Sixers can ill afford to waste time expressing displeasure with officiating because transition offense is exactly how a team like Washington can beat you.
- Gafford was simply incredible on both ends in the first half. Most of, if not all of, his offense came from Washington using Philadelphia's defensive schemes to their advantage early in the game. The Sixers followed Saturday's plan against Jusuf Nurkic, treating Gafford as a non-threat and using Embiid as a roamer to clog up Washington's offense.
The problem was that that meant the rim wasn't necessarily protected, and so the Wizards used Gafford as a lob threat. Philadelphia got beat over the head with dunks on a handful of possessions in the first quarter because they were convinced of their scheme. And, in fairness, the Wizards are so bad that giving up those open dunks won't be why the Sixers lose to them this season, if they do.
But, there is an important talking point to be derived from that dunk fest. The Sixers will play a better team - with a more adept point guard; with a more skilled big - who will also take advantage of Embiid being deployed as a roamer and hurt them at the rim. And when the Sixers adjust, that team will counter by hurting them elsewhere on the floor.
Long story short, the Sixers are going to have to work on finding a balance between that coverage and other more traditional looks. At the very least, they're going to have to try to hide it more as they play better teams. And we'll see just how tactically proficient Nurse and his staff are when they try to choreograph an overlay scheme to confuse the opposing offense.
The Sixers (5-1) will host the Boston Celtics on Wednesday. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.
Top Ten Philly Athletes Age 25 or Younger
Gallery Credit: Josh Hennig/Townsquare Media