The one clear difference between Wednesday night’s game and the 22 that preceded it for the Sixers was its stress-free nature — the team finally played a complete game, leading from start to finish in a 117-91 win over the Knicks.
The other, more subtle difference is who took Joel Embiid’s minutes when the big man went to the bench.
Mike Muscala stepped into the backup center role Wednesday night, as Amir Johnson was relegated to the bench until the final eight minutes when he replaced Embiid with the outcome already sealed.
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Muscala had 10 points on 4 for 6 shooting (2 for 3 from three-point range) and eight rebounds. He was a plus-13.
Johnson has had a poor start to the season. His negative-5.7 net rating is the worst among regular players. With Johnson on the bench, head coach Brett Brown used Ben Simmons at the backup five spot against the Nets. Wednesday, he went with a more conventional look.
“Just the fact that he’s been pretty good defensively,” Brown said of his decision to have Muscala back up Embiid. “It would be easy for me to say he can stretch the floor and he can shoot threes, probably at a more reliable, frequent rate than, say, Amir. But I also think that he’s been good defensively.”
While Muscala has held his own on defense, he’s often been placed in uncomfortable positions having to guard opposing perimeter players. The Sixers typically switch one through four, so most opponents have tried to isolate the 6-foot-11 Muscala on players with a quickness advantage.
“I’ve tried to work on my movement on the perimeter, being able to guard perimeter players and switching like that,” Muscala said. “The five was what I played in college and most of my life, so I do naturally feel more comfortable there. Having Joel behind me when I’m at the four is a treat, because he’s such a great rim protector. I think knowing that helps a lot of our perimeter defense.”
For Muscala, the one notable difference Wednesday outside of the minutes he received at center was the fact he didn’t have to wear a protective mask.
After suffering a fractured nose and facial laceration on a collision in practice Nov. 6, Muscala had been forced to don the mask, which he admitted Wednesday “definitely didn’t help.”
In the eight games he played with the mask, Muscala shot 32.7 percent from the floor, 31 percent from three-point territory. Without the mask, you'd expect his shooting numbers to trend closer to his career 48.1 percent mark from the field, 36.9 percent from long range.
While Embiid’s MVP-level play, of course, deserves more attention than a decent night in a rare blowout win from Muscala, the backup center position matters.
It’s as small a sample size as you can get, but if Muscala is knocking down three-point shots and playing solid defense inside like he did vs. the Knicks, there's no need for Brown to give his starting point guard double duty as his backup center.
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