3 observations after incredible Embiid leads Sixers to high-drama OT win


Wednesday night's matchup between the current No. 1 seeds in both the Eastern and Western Conference certainly lived up to the hype.

Ultimately, the Sixers won it, 131-123 in overtime, because they had the best player on the floor. They might just have the best player in the NBA through the first half of the season. 

Joel Embiid tied the game late in regulation by sinking a heroic three-pointer from the right wing despite being guarded tightly by Bojan Bogdanovic.

Mike Conley's righty runner on Utah's final possession didn't drop, sending the game to overtime, where the Sixers sustained their momentum.

Embiid had 40 points on 14-for-27 shooting and 19 rebounds. Ben Simmons scored 17 points and dished out six assists. 

The All-Star Game will take place Sunday in Atlanta, Georgia. Sixers head coach Doc Rivers and his staff will lead the team captained by Kevin Durant, while Simmons and Embiid will be chosen in the All-Star draft Thursday night. Fans will be permitted to attend the Sixers' next home game, which is set for March 14. 

Here are three observations on the 24-12 Sixers' high-drama win over Utah: 

Embiid incredible vs. another DPOY contender 

From the opening tip-off, it appeared Embiid was well-positioned for a comfortable offensive night. His first two baskets were a byproduct of the Sixers sensibly drawing two-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert away from the rim as Embiid converted a step-back foul-line jumper off of a pick-and-roll and made a layup when he rolled after initiating a dribble handoff action on the wing with Seth Curry. 

The Sixers fed Embiid for back-to-back mid-range jumpers after Derrick Favors subbed in, with Utah’s backup center unable to bump Embiid off his spot in the post or meaningfully contest his shots. Besides hard double teams from a variety of angles, there doesn’t seem to be a strategy to stop Embiid from getting the looks he wants.

Yet again, his strength and skill were an overwhelming combination. He should remain a serious MVP candidate this entire season as long as he avoids any major injuries. Through 30 games, he's averaged 30.2 points per contest.

As for Simmons, Embiid’s fellow Sixers All-Star selection, he had an efficient night, making 8 of his 11 field goals. Donovan Mitchell (33 points on 12-for-34 shooting) played well for much of the game against Simmons, stepping into a few open pull-up threes off effective ball screens and also simply hitting some difficult shots when Simmons stayed in front of him and the Jazz were searching for a look late in the shot clock.

However, Simmons did an excellent job stopping Mitchell in the fourth quarter and overtime. Mitchell was 3 for 13 after the third period.

“I’m just going to keep saying it: Ben, if he doesn’t win (Defensive Player of the Year) — and I don’t ever campaign — this may be my last campaign speech, other than for president ... he guards the best every night," Rivers said. “Donovan Mitchell, if you just look at the 33 points ... he was 12 for 34. No one does that to him, and Ben does it, and he does it every night to everyone. He’s been amazing. He needs more credit.”

Conceding a big edge from long range 

The Jazz scored 39 more points behind the arc than the Sixers. Utah made 21 of 44 three-pointers, while the Sixers were 8 for 25.

Likely recognizing that the Sixers weren’t having a good evening from three-point range and that Embiid was thriving whenever he had a 1-on-1 matchup, Jazz head coach Quin Snyder threw in a possession of zone defense in the second quarter. Embiid single-handedly beat it with a powerful baseline drive, converting an and-one layup. 

Though Rivers said pregame that he’s most concerned with the Sixers attempting high-quality shots — not necessarily threes — it’s obvious the team would benefit from putting up more long-distance attempts, provided they’re not chucking up tons of closely contested 27-footers. 

Embiid asked for shooters this offseason and got his wish when president of basketball operations Daryl Morey acquired Curry and Danny Green. While the Sixers can try to address their low three-point volume issue internally, Morey will surely be considering potential shooting reinforcements before the March 25 trade deadline. Embiid himself said after the Sixers’ loss to the Cavaliers that the team needs to take more threes. His opinion justifiably holds weight in the organization. 

Green had three points on 1-for-6 shooting, four rebounds, a steal and a block. Not for the first time, Shake Milton was the logical choice to close the game over the 33-year-old. Rivers also used Matisse Thybulle as a late-game defensive substitute. 

Tobias Harris returned after a two-game absence because of a right knee contusion and recorded 22 points on 9-for-18 shooting. Though his mid-range game possibly was a bit rusty early on, what’s most important is that he’s healthy and should be available for important second-half games.

He was sharp and clutch during overtime, giving the Sixers a key eight points in the post and outscoring the Jazz by himself, 11-5, in the extra session. His isolation scoring ability is very valuable, especially when opponents' entire focus is on preventing Embiid from catching the ball and double teaming him when he does receive it.

All-bench lineup an interesting choice 

Even against the team with the NBA’s best record, Rivers thought the Sixers could keep the game close late in the first period and early in the second with an all-bench lineup. Though Furkan Korkmaz and Milton chipped in a total of 12 first-half points, that all-second unit approach didn’t work as the Sixers’ bench allowed Utah to extend its lead to 13 points.

In the second half of the season, we imagine Rivers will more regularly mix his starters’ minutes with his second unit’s. The circumstances would have to be quite unusual for the Sixers to use five bench players simultaneously in a playoff game, and it’s therefore likely not worth not playing such lineups often in competitive situations. 

Dwight Howard had a rough first few minutes on both sides of the ball, missing two shots near the rim and letting Gobert score off an offensive rebound. Thybulle was the primary defender on Jordan Clarkson, a smart call by Rivers that helped the Sixers limit the Sixth Man of the Year favorite to 10 points on 3-for-10 shooting, 30 less than he scored against the Sixers on Feb. 15. Korkmaz’s pump fake enabled him to draw a foul on a three-point shot and drain an open long-range attempt, though the Jazz targeted him at times defensively. 

Rivers stuck with the same lineup in the second half. That group fared better, thanks in part to a surprising sequence in which Howard made the 13th three of his NBA career, then stole the ball from Gobert, brought it down the floor and eventually split a pair of free throws.

He blocked a Conley shot on the ensuing possession, leading to a Korkmaz basket on the other end. Improbably, the Sixers had tied the game at 92-all, and Rivers’ substitution pattern didn’t suddenly look so ill-advised. Mike Scott’s three from the right corner about a minute later put the Sixers in front and gave the team's starters (with Milton in Green's place) a good chance to win the game. 

“That was really encouraging," Rivers said. “We actually went into the game thinking Dwight would play lower minutes and we would play Mike a lot at the five against Gobert, but Dwight played so well we were able to play our normal five, which was big.”

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