3 observations after Sixers tighten up defense in second half, earn road win


The first half of the Sixers’ game against the Kings on Tuesday night felt like it could’ve been played outdoors, on a balmy summer night with a few spectators watching casually. 

Defensive greatness did not abound as the teams combined for 137 first-half points. The Sixers’ defense was much improved in the second half, though, holding Sacramento to 40 points after intermission in a 119-111 win at Golden 1 Center.

Joel Embiid had 25 points, 17 rebounds, six assists, two blocks and two steals. Seth Curry and Tobias Harris each scored 22 points, while Ben Simmons was close to a triple-double with 14 points, nine assists and seven rebounds. 

The 18-7 Sixers will play the second contest of their four-game West Coast road trip Thursday night against the Trail Blazers. 

Here are observations on their win over the Kings: 

Guard trio troubles Sixers, for a half 

De'Aaron Fox (34 points, 10 assists) was one of the few players in recent memory to have some success against Simmons in one-on-one situations. He’s always been exceptionally fast, but the Kentucky product’s increased willingness to shoot from long range and ability to make defenders look wobbly with shifts in pace jumped out Tuesday, along with his solid decision-making. 

Buddy Hield prospered early, in large part because of how well Sacramento sought out fast-break chances, in addition to regular transition defense lapses from the Sixers. 

Tyrese Haliburton, a self-assured, polished rookie, was a central figure in the Kings’ 39-point second quarter, easily finding spots to score while playing within the flow of the team’s offense. 

The Kings couldn’t sustain their hot outside shooting, but the Sixers’ late-game defense was also stellar. One fourth-quarter highlight was a Matisse Thybulle block of an attempted Fox runner. On the ensuing possession, Thybulle assisted on a Shake Milton three-pointer that gave the Sixers a six-point edge. 

“He knows what he's capable of, and we all know," Simmons said of Thybulle. "Regardless of what he’s doing offensively, defensively he’s a huge part of this team, and he’s a huge spark. I look at him sometimes and I say, ‘Hey, it’s time. It’s time to lock up.’ And that’s when he did in that last quarter, which is great. Nobody wants to switch Matisse on to them."

Ideally, the Sixers wouldn’t need to flip a switch mid-game to play their best defense. It’s sure helpful that they can authoritatively close wins out on that end of the floor, though. 

Good signs from Curry, who’s thinking long term 

Curry called his health a “work in progress” after the Sixers’ shootaround Tuesday, emphasizing that he’s trying to gradually work his way back into game shape after testing positive for COVID-19 in January. 

“It’s definitely frustrating, but that’s how the season is this year,” he said. “It’s not your typical NBA season. Guys are in and out. I’m not the only one throughout the league dealing with this. It’s just part of the season that we signed up for this year. It’s frustrating, but you can’t get too down. 

“You’ve got to know that it’s a long season and the team is going to need me in March, April, May, June to have a successful season. I want to be great right now but I don’t want to wear myself out trying to get back in shape. I’ve got to be smart about what I do with my body now and as the season goes along.”

Tuesday was Curry’s best game since his return to action. He looked comfortable handling the ball, spotting up for three-pointers and dribbling into mid-range jumpers. Though his progress might not be linear as he deals with the lingering effects of a virus that can impact individuals well after they first test positive, this was an encouraging night. 

"He kind of saved us in that first half," head coach Doc Rivers said. "It’s funny, it looked like him and Ben were the only two that had good rhythm early on. It was good that our team recognized it.

"Even Joel, he hadn’t shot the ball in a couple of times and he runs down and he’s running ‘Loop 2,’ which is one of our sets for Seth. That just tells you where the team is at right now. They see a guy’s got it going, they feed him and they want him to keep it going. That was a great sign.”

With a 4-for-4 performance at the foul line, Curry has made his first 30 free throws as a Sixer. 

Rivers preferred Thybulle’s defense over Curry late in the fourth quarter, which was sensible given how the game was unfolding.

Curry then replaced Milton, who it appeared might have injured his left ankle on a drive with 2:12 to play.

“I have no idea. I think he turned the ball over," Rivers said with a laugh when asked about the play and Milton's status. “That’s the part I remember. The injury part, I don’t remember. I think he’s OK. He looked fine after the game, but we’ll see. My guess is it’s ankle-related, but I’m not sure.”

A relatively ‘off’ Embiid night 

The Sixers’ offense was excellent in the first quarter as the team scored a season-high 42 points in the period on 16-for-27 shooting. Simmons was especially good, both in the half court and in transition. He tossed in a righty push shot, took advantage of opportunities to drive, and kicked out to shooters when Sacramento’s defense cut him off. 

We’ve known for a long time that he’s hard to handle in the open floor. 

Embiid appeared well on his way to a typical ultra-high scoring night when he drew two early fouls on Richaun Holmes, who was replaced by Hassan Whiteside. A familiar nemesis of Embiid’s, Whiteside immediately fouled him in the post. He then conceded a face-up mid-range jumper on the Sixers’ next possession. 

However, the Sixers couldn’t manage to get Embiid consistent touches, with the Kings effectively fronting him in the post and Marvin Bagley defending well. Embiid simply wasn’t his sharpest in the first half, too, missing a few of the open mid-range attempts he’s been making at such a high rate this season. He also had four turnovers. That he still recorded 25 points on 15 field-goal attempts in the game despite clearly being below his best is remarkable.

Harris provided several key baskets in the fourth quarter, remaining aggressive throughout the night and reaping the rewards late.

“Fourth quarter time, I just wanted to do whatever I can to help the team win," Harris said. "That was my whole focus in the fourth, just the eye on the prize of winning this game. I was able to get to my spots on the floor, was able to find the energy that I needed through the defensive end.

"Trying to be in there getting rebounds and encouraging everyone else on the court all the time to stay mentally engaged in the game. It was just a whole accumulation of that and just being efficient at my spots. Just doing whatever was needed for a W today.”

Furkan Korkmaz chipped in 13 points and hit his first five shots, one of which was a strong, driving dunk in the second quarter. The Sixers' bench outscored the Kings' by a 32-21 margin overall.


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