From strangest moment to best win, our 1st-half Sixers superlatives

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From best win to strangest moment, we choose our Sixers superlatives for the first half of the 2020-21 season. By Noah Levick

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The Sixers weren’t perfect Wednesday night in their overtime win over the Western Conference-leading Jazz, but they saved their best game of the first half for last. 

Joel Embiid was determined to leave a strong impression in the Sixers’ final game at Wells Fargo Center without fans before their March 14 matchup against the Spurs. He scored 40 points, pulled down 19 rebounds, made the game-tying three-pointer and was tremendous on all fronts. Ben Simmons played stellar late-game defense on All-Star Donovan Mitchell, and Tobias Harris led the Sixers with 11 points in overtime after a two-game absence because of a right knee contusion.

“He was absolutely unbelievable,” Sixers head coach Doc Rivers said of Embiid. “Got what he wanted when he wanted it, made the right plays. Just so many little things tonight when you think about the way Joel was playing, and then Tobias gets it going. And Joel wanted us to go there. That was a really big team win for us.”

Harris’ jumper to defeat the Lakers on Jan. 27 likely would’ve ranked first before Wednesday, but it’s difficult to top the NBA’s two current No. 1 seeds playing a high-intensity, high-level game — one Mitchell and Rudy Gobert thought was unfairly officiated — with no hints any player thought once about conserving energy. 

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We’ll go with another recent game, the Sixers’ overtime loss last Saturday to the Cavaliers, in part because of who suited up for each team. Though Harris was out, the Sixers had Simmons, Embiid and every other rotation player. Cleveland, meanwhile, entered the game with a 12-21 record and nine available players.

This loss was a confluence of many of the Sixers’ first-half issues, among them turnovers, insufficient scoring to supplement Embiid and Simmons and struggles stopping the opponent from scoring in transition. Even 42 points on 22 field goal attempts, 13 rebounds and six assists from Embiid couldn’t save them from a bad defeat.

“We refused to get into anything,” Rivers said. “We didn’t get into our early offense after early makes. We didn’t get into our sets with any speed or pace. It looked, honestly, like we were running our offense like it was a walkthrough today in the first half. I thought the third quarter, we picked it up a little bit and we had a sense of urgency. But we just didn’t handle a lot of stuff very well tonight. This is one of those games where my guess is you’ll watch the film and you show them lack of effort instead of lack of execution.”

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Not much to say here. It’s Embiid, who’s averaging 30.2 points, 11.6 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.4 blocks and 1.2 steals. His 129.4 points per 100 shot attempts would easily be his career best, per Cleaning the Glass. 

The Sixers have outscored opponents by 19.4 points per 100 non-garbage time possessions when Embiid is on the floor compared to when he’s off it, according to Cleaning the Glass. Though Embiid has said he wants to push for the East’s top seed, even if that means playing in some games where he’s not at 100 percent health, it’s obvious that his postseason availability is vital for the Sixers. 

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When the game is on the line and the Sixers require a stop, Rivers has almost always placed Simmons on the opponent’s best scorer. He’s had good reason to feel confident in that decision. 

“I think Ben for sure is in that mix (for Defensive Player of the Year), and Joel has had a terrific defensive year, as well,” Rivers said before Wednesday’s game. “I think Ben is absolutely — I don’t think there’s a question he’s in it. As far as Ben and also Rudy, those two are probably one, two, and I’m biased, but I’d put Ben one — I think because Ben plays everyone. 

“Ben doesn’t just play fives. Ben plays five, four, three, two, one. He’s played every position on the floor and, when he’s played those positions, he’s been able to come up with stops. There’s very few players in the NBA that can do the things that Ben does defensively.”

Though Simmons doesn’t lead the NBA in steals as he did last season, he’s averaging 1.6 and a league-high 3.9 deflections per game while also masterfully handling stars like Luka Doncic, Damian Lillard, Mitchell, De’Aaron Fox and Pascal Siakam. Regardless of how one prefers to assess defense, the consensus around the NBA seems to be that Simmons is one of the game’s elite defenders. 

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“Especially today, I want to make the statement that Doc is a nickname, because I clearly don’t know the medical part of this whole thing,” Rivers said before the Sixers’ Jan. 9 game against the Nuggets.

Following Seth Curry’s positive COVID-19 test on Jan. 7, it was unclear whether the Sixers would play Denver as scheduled. Simmons and Embiid were scratched about 90 minutes before tip-off with left knee swelling and back tightness, respectively, leaving the Sixers with seven healthy players — or so it appeared. Mike Scott wasn’t fit to appear because of a knee injury, but Rivers said the Sixers “were told we were playing.”

The game absolutely did not need to take place on Jan. 9, especially given that the NBA accounted for the likelihood of postponements by releasing this season’s schedule in two halves. Tyrese Maxey scored 39 points in the Sixers’ loss, while fellow rookies Paul Reed, Isaiah Joe and Dakota Mathias also got plenty of playing time. 

What exactly led to Scott being in uniform to give the Sixers the minimum of eight “available” players despite not being healthy?

“You’ve got to ask Doc,” he said a few days later. “I ain’t no snitch.”

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The Sixers are far from a flawless team, but president of basketball operations Daryl Morey deserves credit for logically constructing a roster that enhances Simmons and Embiid’s talents. 

Neither Al Horford nor Josh Richardson fit well on last year’s team, and so Morey moved on from both players as soon as he could. He replaced them with Seth Curry, who’s shot at least 42.5 percent from three-point range in every full NBA season of his career, and Danny Green, another shooter and a championship-winning veteran who’s good at forcing turnovers. None of his first three Sixers draft picks are pushing for the Rookie of the Year award, but Maxey, Isaiah Joe and Reed have all shown promising signs. 

The Sixers were fortunate that Morey, an experienced, well-regarded and creative leader, found Philadelphia to be an attractive destination. The team needed someone who matched that description.  

It’ll be very interesting to see Morey’s approach in the second half of Year 1, with the trade deadline set for March 25 and the Sixers still possessing most of their taxpayer mid-level exception.

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Not that it’s anything the team should be fretting about it, but we imagine the primary concern for many Sixers fans is Embiid playing like an MVP — and perhaps winning that award — and the Sixers faltering in the playoffs because their supporting cast isn’t good enough.

There are a few issues with the team that have become prominent over the past several weeks, but three-point shooting stands out. The Sixers, per Cleaning the Glass, are 28th in three-point frequency, with 30.1 percent of their field goals coming from behind the arc. They’re third in mid-range frequency. No uniform recipe for playoff success exists, but the Sixers’ shot profile runs counter to the modern NBA’s conventional wisdom. Of course, mid-range shots make perfect sense as long as you convert them at a high rate, like Embiid, and three-pointers aren’t inherently good. 

Whereas a worry with Morey’s Rockets teams might have been excessive dependence on the three-point shot — Exhibit A: their 27 straight missed threes in Game 7 of the 2018 Western Conference Finals — a lingering question for the Sixers is whether they'll be hurt by not taking enough threes.

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Any consternation last season about whether the Sixers’ All-Stars can play well together was likely premature. 

The Sixers have a plus-15.0 net rating in 1,592 possession when both Simmons and Embiid are on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass. While they’re not a typical star duo, Embiid and Simmons are excellent defenders who, as long as the players around them fit, can accentuate each other’s strengths. If they’re both healthy when the playoffs arrive, along with Harris, the Sixers should be capable of making a run. 

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