3 observations after Embiid returns, comes up huge late on both ends


In the four games Joel Embiid missed with a left mid-foot sprain, the Sixers earned three wins characterized by strong efforts from a range of players. 

The story was different in Embiid’s return and the Sixers won’t mind that at all.

Embiid scored the team's final 11 points Monday night in the Sixers' 104-101 win over the Hawks at Wells Fargo Center, including a go-ahead jumper with 18.6 seconds left. He posted 30 points, eight rebounds, seven assists, two blocks and two steals. 

Shake Milton and Tobias Harris each scored over 20 points for a third straight game. Milton had 21 points, seven assists and five rebounds, while Harris recorded 24 points and 10 boards.

Six Hawks scored in double figures. Trae Young finished with 18 points on 6-for-14 shooting and 10 assists. 

James Harden, Tyrese Maxey and Jaden Springer remained out. For Atlanta, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Jalen Johnson were sidelined. 

The 12-9 Sixers will start a three-game road trip on Wednesday in Cleveland. Here are observations on their victory Monday:

A dismal, uncertain start 

The Sixers were a tad too unselfish in the opening minutes, appearing slightly tentative as Embiid worked his way back into a rhythm. They fell into a 10-4 deficit.

A mini-flurry of defense-to-offense success that included an Embiid block and De’Anthony Melton steal then spurred a 7-0 run. That stretch didn’t indicate the Sixers had flipped a switch, though. Harris started hot, making 4 of his first 5 field goals, but the Sixers’ half-court execution was very uneven.

The team involved P.J. Tucker in a few Chicago actions and the veteran forward was deferential as usual. While it’s fine (and often reasonable) for Tucker not to be especially ambitious, the Sixers expect him to be solid. In the middle of the first quarter, his simple entry pass to Embiid was mystifyingly wayward. Tucker threw another poor entry late in the second when he tried to squeeze a pass into a tight window. 

After a Melton turnover, the Hawks stormed down the floor and John Collins slammed in a dunk to give them a 25-18 edge. Embiid subbed out after approximately eight and a half minutes. On the night, he played 35:29. 

Justin Holiday enabled Atlanta to build its lead to 16 points in the second period by making 3 of his 4 first-half threes. The Sixers were perhaps due to have a bench player’s outside shooting hurt them in light of some recent fortune with opponents missing wide-open jumpers. 

With Young comfortable conducting a well-balanced Hawks offense, the Sixers leaned on zone defense in the second quarter. Though it would’ve been logical to mix in zone regardless, the Sixers did not set a good tone with their base scheme and found themselves needing to play from behind. 

Embiid keeps trusting the pass

Embiid began 1 for 7 from the floor and the Melton-Milton backcourt also struggled to score efficiently. 

Just about every Sixer who played in the first half missed good looks. After Atlanta dug down on Embiid in the second quarter and he kicked the ball out, Georges Niang air-balled an open three. 

Ultimately, a Milton offensive rebound got the Sixers rolling as Embiid confirmed he was indeed himself by scoring on a nifty, Euro-stepping layup. His runner with 4.3 seconds left in the second trimmed the Hawks' lead to 55-51. 

The Sixers played Matisse Thybulle in Melton’s spot during that run at the end of the half. Whatever offensive role Thybulle plays, he’s generally a name that should come to mind when the Sixers shift to zone. Returning Monday after a three-game absence because of a left ankle injury, Thybulle played eight minutes and was a team-high plus-12.

Though Embiid frequently seemed to think first about spotting the open teammate, he had a couple of aggressive bursts even before his late surge, including an and-one layup on Clint Capela that tied the game at 75-all.

Embiid’s decisions looked more natural as the night progressed, too. Not irregularly, he’s surprised defenses this season by dishing the ball to a teammate at the exact moment everyone believes he’ll release a shot. Overall, his viable passing options have significantly expanded over the past couple of years. 

Brilliant defense in big spot 

The Sixers forced 20 Hawks turnovers and fared well in the zone at times.

Still, the team's defensive performance was relatively subpar for much of the game. In the third quarter, the Sixers conceded an uncontested three-pointer to De'Andre Hunter (18 points on 7-for-11 shooting) after Young grabbed his own miss. And on Atlanta's next possession, Capela scored an easy hoop inside when Milton fell far behind in pick-and-roll coverage and the Sixers were forced into a late switch. Embiid slammed the ball down in frustration. 

Some scrappiness helped the Sixers' defense in pivotal moments. Early in the fourth quarter, Melton came away with the ball after the sort of helter-skelter exchange he tends to navigate exceptionally well. Harris then made a three to narrowly beat the shot-clock buzzer and put the Sixers up 89-88. 

Of course, Embiid shined when the Sixers most needed a stop. With the Hawks looking to retake a late lead, he leaped back to intercept a Young-to-Collins lob attempt. 

Once the rust was off, Embiid's two-way stardom was on full display Monday night.

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