3 observations after Embiid, Sixers return to form in OKC


Perplexing, frustrating losses are inevitable over the course of an NBA season.

The Sixers on Saturday night ensured that the previous night's defeat to the Pelicans looked like an anomaly. They handled business at Chesapeake Energy Arena in a 117-93 win over the Thunder and are now 36-17 on the season. The team will wrap up its four-game road trip Monday in Dallas. 

Joel Embiid scored 27 points on 10-for-17 shooting and also recorded nine rebounds, four assists and four blocks. 

Furkan Korkmaz had 20 points and a career-high five steals, while Ben Simmons notched 13 points on 5-for-9 shooting, three assists and three rebounds. 

Danny Green (left hip soreness) and Tobias Harris (right knee soreness) missed Saturday’s game and were replaced in the starting lineup by Korkmaz and Matisse Thybulle. The 33-year-old Green had played in all 52 of the Sixers’ previous contests.

“They both had little issues," head coach Doc Rivers said after the game. “Danny’s been dealing with his hip all year. I think Danny’s going to deal with his hip for the rest of his life, at his age, would be my guess. You (saw) Tobias limping around yesterday during the game. I’d already thought that this would be a good day for Tobias. I thought we would play Danny, honestly, but then once we started hearing about his hip we just decided, let’s let them both sit out. We’ve got some tough games coming up."

Here are three observations on the Sixers’ win over the Thunder: 

A more normal night for Embiid 

For a player so skilled and so determined to be efficient, Embiid’s 5-for-16 shooting performance Friday against the Pelicans was uncharacteristic. He settled for mid-range jumpers, didn’t convert many, and only drew four free throws. 

This was an emphatic return to form. Though the Thunder sent baseline double teams, Embiid was unbothered offensively. The four-time All-Star took his time, surveying the floor for the open man, and attacked whenever he could. 

“I think he had 21 (points) at halftime. I was shocked by that," Rivers said. “I didn’t see that 21, which tells you how efficient he was being. I thought he did a great job of facilitating tonight, as well. The (knee) brace bothers him, there’s no doubt about that. He’s going to have to wear it for a couple more weeks, I think — hopefully less. But he’s getting through it, and he’s doing the best that he can.”

Former Sixer Tony Bradley matched up against Embiid and Dwight Howard, players he gained respect for through battles in practice. Bradley had 16 points and 14 rebounds. 

“Just a pro, man,” Rivers said pregame of Bradley. “First of all, he’s a terrific kid. He’s the type of kid that you want on your franchise. ... He worked his butt off. A lot of guys who are like that won’t do the work. You’ll tell them they need to do the work, you’ll give them a game plan that you believe … and you’d be surprised how many guys won’t hear it, won’t listen. They’ll do their own thing. Tony wasn’t one of those, man. Just a fantastic kid — and he’s a kid. I think a lot of people forget how young he is. I think he has a bright future in our league. He’s one of those guys you would love to coach again, for sure.”

Bradley is indeed a promising player at 23 years old, but he’s not capable of bumping Embiid from his favorite spots or stopping him once he gets into a groove. Few opponents are. 

Better showings from Simmons, Sixers’ offense 

Simmons started well offensively, making two early layups and a 10-foot jumper off of a snug pick-and-roll with Embiid. He swished another jump shot in the second quarter from just inside the foul line.

The Sixers' All-Stars teamed up for an alley-oop early in the third quarter when Embiid moved over as if he was going to screen for Simmons, then darted toward the rim. Embiid smiled and pointed at Simmons as he ran back down the floor, appreciating the chemistry. 

The team as a whole was sharper offensively compared to its poor performance in New Orleans. Seth Curry, who’d gone 0 for 7 against the Pelicans, connected on his first attempt, dipping in for a mid-range shot. He recorded 11 points on 5-for-11 shooting and six assists in the game. 

Simmons played at a good pace, rarely appearing rushed. After a six-turnover game Friday, he had none Saturday. The Sixers cut their team turnovers from 19 to 10.   

“Just learning from our mistakes, watching film from last night," Mike Scott said after a 13-point night. “We’ve just got to continue to take care of the ball. Last night was a bad game. Quick turnaround, just come back and try not to make those same mistakes.”

Limiting turnovers remains crucial for Simmons. There’s a path to playoff success that doesn’t involve him averaging 20-plus points and playing with ceaseless aggression, but six-turnover efforts tend to be problematic for a team that entered Saturday’s game 17th in points per half-court play and 14th in offensive rating, according to Cleaning the Glass

Teaching young Thunder a few lessons 

Thybulle had three first-quarter steals and Korkmaz contributed 10 first-quarter points. Korkmaz eventually caught up to and passed his defensive-minded teammate in steals thanks to a productive third-period stretch. 

“Sometimes when I get in the game, I’m trying to get into the game with offense," Korkmaz said. “But Doc says every time, ‘We’ve got to start with the defense.’ When you get a steal, when you play good defense, that affects your offense, too. That also motivates you.”

Since the Thunder opened with no traditional frontcourt players other than Moses Brown, it made sense to start the two wings. Remarkably, each of Oklahoma City’s five starters Saturday is 21 years old or younger. Talk about being fully committed to a rebuild. That doesn’t mean everything positive from the Sixers was irrelevant, but it’s important to recognize their competition. This was a game the Sixers had zero valid excuses for losing, even without Harris and Green. The Thunder’s roster is reminiscent of the Process Sixers’ — ample youth, intriguing prospects and not constructed to win in the present — and that’s a team an Eastern Conference contender should beat decisively. 

With the Nets’ loss to the Lakers Saturday night, Brooklyn and the Sixers again have identical records. Securing the No. 1 seed will be difficult, of course, but it was vital for the Sixers to gain a game in the standings and avoid another loss to inferior opposition. 

If Tyrese Maxey was in Oklahoma City, he’d likely be playing 30-plus minutes a night. His playing time has been sporadic this season, though he received rotation minutes Saturday, posting seven points on 2-for-8 shooting and five assists. It’s become clear that Maxey’s route to a consistent role next year will be earning Rivers’ trust defensively. Improved three-point shooting would also make the idea of playing him regularly with the Sixers’ stars more appealing.

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