3 observations after Sixers earn first Embiid-less win with big comeback


The Sixers appeared destined for a fifth loss in five games without Joel Embiid this season on Sunday night. The script was an easy and familiar one to write. 

Then, with its All-Star center sidelined by back tightness, the team pulled off a tremendous fourth-quarter turnaround, coming back from a 20-point second-half deficit to beat the Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, 119-110.

Ben Simmons had 21 points, seven assists, six rebounds, four steals and two blocks. Tobias Harris recorded 27 points and eight rebounds in the win for the Sixers, who improved to 15-6 this season.

Harris scored 10 points on 4-for-5 shooting in the final period and now apparently has a Chappelle's Show-inspired nickname.

“When Tobias came into the game, I went to him," Dwight Howard said. "I said, ‘Hey, don’t settle. Nobody can guard you on the floor. Don’t settle. Go get buckets.’ And he did that. He didn’t settle, he attacked the basket, he put pressure on the rim, put pressure on the refs, and he made big shots and big plays. I call him Prince Harris, because for the last game, it was ‘Game, blouses’ against the Lakers. So, now he’s Prince Harris.”

The Sixers will return to action Wednesday with a matchup against the Hornets, the final contest of their three-game road trip. Here are observations on their win Sunday night: 

Bradley starts, Simmons sees time at center 

Tony Bradley received his first start of the season as head coach Doc Rivers preferred to keep Howard with the team’s second unit.

The fourth-year big man had a challenging assignment against an All-Star in Domantas Sabonis, but he held his own to open the game, partially because the Sixers were fortunate that Sabonis missed a few open pick-and-pop jumpers. Still, Bradley looked solid enough and didn’t appear to do much wrong, although Indiana exposed his lack of foot speed a bit more after halftime. 

The Sixers’ collective energy and general readiness to play wasn’t an issue the way it had been in their loss Monday night to the Pistons, and they jumped out to an 8-0 lead. The team’s early shooting woes from Friday’s game against the Timberwolves then resurfaced as Indiana went on a 14-2 run and the Sixers missed 12 of their first 17 field goal attempts. 

Perhaps searching to see if another strategy could shift the game’s momentum, Rivers inserted Simmons at center in the second quarter. While that lineup didn’t fare badly, the Sixers couldn’t establish clear advantages on either end of the floor. Rim protection and an overall dearth of interior defense is still an obvious deficiency, one Sabonis exploited with a deep seal and finish in the paint against Harris. 

As a change of pace or option in situations when Howard is especially ill-suited to play, it makes sense that Rivers would want to try Simmons at the five. At the moment, however, it isn't a magic bullet.

“I loved it, but we just aren’t organized, honestly," Rivers said. "(Assistant coach) Dave Joerger, we were literally going bonkers on the things we saw that we couldn’t do with (Simmons) at the five. And it’s too bad. We just haven’t had practice time.

"In the fourth quarter, Dave grabs me and he says, ‘I don’t care what we do in these (upcoming) two days of practice, we’re going with Ben at the five for at least 10 minutes.’ We’ve spent probably five minutes all year on it. We just haven’t had enough time to work on it. There’s things that I saw tonight that I think we can be very effective at with it.”

Bench comes up big in the fourth 

Howard was an active rebounder and physical screen setter as usual, though free throw shooting remained a weakness for the 35-year-old. After a 5-for-12 night at the foul line, he’s made 48.4 percent of his free throws this season. He finished with 11 points and 15 rebounds in 25 minutes.

On these Embiid-less nights, the Sixers sure could use special efforts from their complementary players. It didn't appear that was going to happen Sunday as Danny Green and Seth Curry combined to shoot 6 for 17.

Matisse Thybulle’s defense wasn’t as sparkling in the first half Sunday as in recent games. During his initial stint, he was beaten back door by Brogdon and, unable to get on top of a ball screen, conceded a pull-up three-pointer to the Pacers guard. 

Furkan Korkmaz lost his individual matchup against Doug McDermott in the opening half, failing to track him off the ball on several occasions. 

However, Thybulle and Korkmaz both made plenty of pivotal plays during the Sixers' fourth-quarter surge, including Thybulle taking a charge on Aaron Holiday, blocking a T.J. McConnell layup attempt and turning a steal into a Korkmaz fast-break three. Thybulle's elite ability to force turnovers helps open the door for these types of improbable turnarounds. 

The young wing duo closed the game and played critical roles in the Sixers' wild comeback. Korkmaz scored a season-high 17 points and Thybulle had four steals and two blocks. 

Searching for stops, finding them late 

Whether or not the league’s best post-up player is available, it’s tough to win games in which the opposition scores 95 points through three quarters. What went wrong for the Sixers’ defense for most of the game? Embiid’s absence is the no-brainer answer, along with strong games from Brogdon and Sabonis.

Schematically, the Sixers had much more luck in the fourth period with a 2-3 zone that gave Indiana trouble. The team did well to create turnovers from that zone and continued to compete hard even when facing a large deficit.

Rivers and the Sixers deserve heaps of credit for switching up the defense and executing so effectively with a look they haven't used very often this season.

Dan Burke, the Sixers' defensive coordinator and a longtime assistant with the Pacers, raised the idea of using a zone pregame.

"It’s funny, Dan recalled the game last year when I was with the Clippers, very similar, where we were down, went zone and won the game," Rivers said. "And we were talking about it before the game. He said, ‘I know it’s a different team, but that affected us in Indiana last year.’ He said, ‘If we get in trouble tonight, let’s go to it.'" 

While the Sixers' success when Embiid plays matters more than their struggles before Sunday when he sat, the fact that they earned a win without him and did it with a gritty comeback is a significant, confidence-building step.

“I think for a lot of reasons, this was a big win," Thybulle said. "To be down and come back, to win on the road, to win without Joel. I think a lot of those reasons come together to make this a big win. We all feel pretty good having won it, because we had a feeling of how bad it was going to be if we lost. We can take it and keep moving in stride.”

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