Embiid’s Defense Powers Sixers to Victory Over Pistons, 114-106
The Sixers (6-1) visited the Detroit Pistons (2-7) on Friday. Philadelphia and Detroit both wanted to win its first game of the inaugural NBA In-Season Tournament. Joel Embiid went for 33 points and 16 rebounds to lead the Sixers to a 114-106 victory in in-season tournament play.
Before we get to the game, some context.
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 Pistons were without the services of Bojan Bogdanovic, who has a strained right calf.
Alec Burks missed the game with a left forearm contusion. Joe Harris has a sprained right shoulder and was out.
Monte Morris has a strained right quadriceps and was unavailable. Jaden Ivey missed the game with an unknown illness.
Isaiah Livers has a sprained left ankle and was out.
Monty Williams started Cade Cunningham, Killian Hayes, Ausar Thompson, Isaiah Stewart, and Jalen Duren.
- The difference between the Embiid the Sixers are getting this year and the Embiid they had under Doc Rivers and Brett Brown is that Nurse is installing coverages that keep him near the rim and philosophies that emphasize aggression on defense. So, even on nights in which Embiid comes out asleep on offense, the Sixers aren't just waiting for him to find his rhythm on that end before he really starts to assert himself on defense.
He's playing closer to the basket in a variety of coverage, staying available to impact plays at the rim when the ball gets inside. So, while Friday presented perhaps the worst half of basketball Embiid has played all season, the Pistons were not running away with this game as the Sixers' offense - Embiid certainly included - stunk up the joint. Embiid only had one block in the first half, but the box score does not portray his defensive impact appropriately.
The big guy played his own role in the Sixers trailing by just eight points at halftime simply by walking the line between the ball and the roller and staying on his feet against dribble penetration. Detroit, who, in fairness, is bottom eight in both halfcourt offense and overall offense, short-armed and clanked shots all over the floor because they were disturbed by the lurking Embiid.
Offense feeds defensive energy. Besides personnel and scheme, the Sixers have excelled on both ends of the floor thus far because everyone is touching the ball, which manifests in more inspired effort on defense. There aren't many brick walls to shut down the top assignment on a night-to-night basis on this team, but there is a surplus of very strong team defenders. They're better than the sum of their parts because they're all giving their best on defense.
It starts with the MVP, of course. When you earn that honor, rough offensive nights no longer excuse lackluster defensive effort. Valiant effort from the big fella even if the offense was slow to come.
- On the topic of Embiid, I liked Nurse letting him ride out two first-quarter fouls. Let him navigate that adversity and pick when to apply the aggression.
- On the topic of Nurse, great move to go with Jaden Springer instead of Marcus Morris Sr. in the second half. I'm all for giving Morris an honest look, but it was hard to watch in the first half.
- Speaking of Nurse, sometimes it's not about adjustments to counter the opposition playing well. Feel for the game is also important, and changing your schemes just to try something different can be valuable both in the short-term and in the long run. The Sixers had already taken control by the time the fourth quarter started. That didn't stop Nurse from directing his team to apply 3/4-court pressure and defend in a triangle-and-2 scheme.
That wasn't even his best mad science of the night. In the third quarter, the Sixers ran a gorgeous baseline out-of-bounds misdirection play to get Harris a wide-open layup. In the fourth quarter, they ran a great Blind Pig action out of Horns formation. When people talked about the biggest acquisitions of the offseason, they didn't bring up the Sixers acquiring a coach's clipboard to diagram a bunch of schemes and actions.
- The Sixers technically took the court in time for tip-off, but they were nowhere near engaged on either end of the floor until the middle of the second quarter. Their start had all the classical signs of a NyQuil game. Embiid settling for some bad shots. Everyone, especially Embiid, getting stripped on drives, among other sloppy turnovers.
The Sixers also didn't show any real urgency in adjusting to Cunningham's hot start. They allowed him to snake ball screens in the pick-and-roll because they sat a few steps below the level of the screen in coverage. That allowed Cunningham to pull back instead of approaching the teeth of the defense before calmly pulling up for a handful of relatively open midrange jumpers. He got off to a blazing start, leading Detroit's charge to an early double-digit lead.
Philadelphia has long been a candidate to suffer an embarrassing defeat at the hands of an inferior team immediately after earning a resume-building win against a big-time opponent. After the emotional win over Boston, the Sixers did not look ready to take care of business at tip-off.
It's a luxury to be able to rest on having the artillery and experience to chip big deficits away until you take control later on against bad teams. That does not mean it's a luxury you should exercise.
- I am very much on board with giving Morris Sr. a chance at playing his way into the rotation. For his sake, I hope Friday was just a case of a veteran shaking off some rust against a bunch of spring chickens after not playing for a while, because it was not pretty. He couldn't stay in front of the ball at all because he lacked lateral quickness, and he didn't contest at the rim with discipline. Two fouls, a minus-10 in six minutes of action. The eye test matched up.
- Being a great "playmaker" is often this convoluted qualifier to being a point guard. Anyone can rack up assists. Not everyone consistently has a great feel for the game - in passing decisions, quality of passes, or in deciding when to call one's own number versus setting up other teammates.
There are countless guards in the NBA playing the role of point guard, but they're not great playmakers. Time will tell if Maxey has the feel to become a great playmaker for others. He has moments in which it shines through. But, he's navigating a bunch of decisions at once - whether to pass, how to make the pass, and, if not, what type of shot he should take.
You can see how the decision tree twists and turns. It's a lot of freedom - or responsibility - all at once. One of the decisions Maxey will have to master is choosing which strings to pull for himself and when to pull them. When he led Philadelphia's efforts through the fourth quarter of Wednesday's win over the Celtics, Maxey's floater was a devastating weapon. The likes of Derrick White and Kristaps Porzingis couldn't do anything to stop it, regardless of how far they extended their long arms to try and block the sky ball coming off Maxey's hand.
But, what worked on Wednesday didn't work on Friday. Maxey's touch on the floater was not good in the first half. Yet, he kept trying it, junking up Philadelphia's offense with each miss. It was a good lesson for the first-time lead ball-handler. When it's not working, don't force it just for the sake of trying to jump-start what appears to be a stalled motor. There are other options, be it yourself or someone else.
The Sixers (7-1) will host the Indiana Pacers (6-3) on Sunday. Tip-off is scheduled for 6 p.m., Eastern time. You can watch the game on NBC Sports Philadelphia.
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