Sixers observations

3 observations after Sixers pull away late, earn back-and-forth win over Hawks

Joel Embiid posted 38 points in a 125-114 victory at Wells Fargo Center.

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The Sixers wound up on the right side of the seesaw Friday night.

They earned a back-and-forth 125-114 win at Wells Fargo Center over the Hawks, improving to 14-7 this season. Atlanta fell to 9-12.

Joel Embiid had 38 points, 14 rebounds and four blocks.

Tyrese Maxey posted 30 points and seven assists.

Atlanta got 24 points from De'Andre Hunter and 20 apiece from Bogdan Bogdanovic and Dejounte Murray. Hawks star Trae Young (illness) was one of four Atlanta players sidelined. The Sixers were at full strength.

For the second time in three games, the Sixers will face the Wizards on Monday night. Here are observations on their victory over Atlanta:

Embiid starts in 50-point form 

Yet again, the Sixers’ game-opening play featured an Embiid duck-in and a Nicolas Batum feed to the star big man. Embiid scored inside, then did the same on the Sixers’ second possession after a drive on Clint Capela from the top of the key. 

While Embiid eventually missed a few, he was still the exceptionally skillful and powerful player that dropped 50 points Wednesday night against the Wizards. He hit a top-of-the-key three-pointer off of a pick-and-pop with Maxey and commanded the Sixers’ offense well from the middle of the floor. 

Embiid and the Sixers were especially aggressive and effective early on the offensive glass, crashing hard and winning several tightly contested battles for the ball around the rim. The Sixers have improved dramatically in that area under head coach Nick Nurse; they ranked fifth in offensive rebounding rate ahead of Friday’s game after a 25th-place finish last year, per Cleaning the Glass.

Though much of that leap can be attributed to Nurse asking wings and forwards to persistently attack the offensive glass, it’s also important that Embiid is having his best offensive rebounding season and regularly adding some put-back points. 

Embiid’s effort was tone-setting Friday night. He posted 17 points and seven rebounds in the first quarter, leading the Sixers to a 12-point lead through 12 minutes. 

“I think he came out extremely aggressive,” Maxey said. “He set the tone. He was extremely aggressive, going right at their bigs and doing Joel things.”

Sixers’ second-quarter defense very subpar 

The Sixers’ second period was far worse than the first. The Hawks won the quarter by a 45-27 margin and made five three-pointers over the final five minutes of the second.

The Sixers had fewer obvious defensive breakdowns than Wednesday in Washington. That’s not a high bar, though. Even without their lead guard, the Hawks often looked comfortable in the second quarter. They committed just four first-half turnovers, fought for second-chance points and rode the hot hand in Bogdanovic. Every NBA team is full of great players and capable of big quarters, but the Sixers’ second period was unequivocally disappointing.

Notably, Embiid’s scoring didn’t compensate for the Sixers’ defensive problems in the second period. He had a rare zero-point quarter. 

“They got everything in the paint,” Embiid said. “We gave them a lot of confidence to start the second quarter. They made a bunch of threes. And then offensive rebounding … played harder than us. I think that’s what it came down to. They were just playing harder than us.”

Robert Covington didn’t have a chance to disrupt Atlanta’s offense at all. After only playing four minutes Wednesday, Covington got none vs. the Hawks. It would be surprising if Covington’s not back in the mix soon. He’s shown he’ll put up threes and contribute as a cutter and offensive rebounder. Of course, he’s also remained excellent at picking up deflections, steals and blocks, which is a skill set the Sixers could certainly use. 

Nurse on Friday preferred Marcus Morris Sr., who played 16 minutes and had three points on 1-for-1 shooting, three rebounds, an assist and a block.

“Just trying to read the game as it’s going,” Nurse said. “For me, there’s still some things to figure out there in that back half of the rotation. But again, I think Marcus is very experienced. I think he’s very physical, very tough, and he can make a kick-out three. He’s going to shoot ‘em with confidence. But, saying that, there could be a couple other guys there too, right? We just made that decision and we went with it.

“And I think he’s played well, Marcus. He does give us some veteran presence out there, he does give us some physicality. ... But again, everybody’s got to stay ready. There’s 12, 13 guys that could hit the floor any night, so stay ready’s the theme.”

Sixers find higher gear in time

Embiid locked back in as a scorer to begin the third quarter. He was very active defensively during a 10-2 Sixers run, too. Embiid rejected a Hunter layup attempt, bothered a Bogdanovic floater, and looked determined to patrol the paint and extinguish any fires.

The Sixers' collective intensity elevated in the third. Following a Hawks shot-clock violation created largely by Patrick Beverley's pesky ball pressure, Kelly Oubre Jr. converted a put-back layup to give the Sixers a 93-90 edge.

Nurse decided to play Mo Bamba over Paul Reed to start the fourth quarter, handing Bamba an opportunity one week after he'd played well in the Sixers' shorthanded loss to the Celtics. Bamba didn't shine in his brief stint, posting no points and three rebounds over five minutes of action, but Nurse came away feeling he'd done solid work.

“He came really close to making a couple really good plays, but he went in there and grabbed three rebounds in five minutes. What I saw in the second was they just put their head down and went to the front of the rim — boom, boom, boom — about six straight times,” Nurse said. “And I thought we needed maybe a little more appearance of some rim protection — or some rim protection, right? Either one.

“But he did a good job. He was into it. I give him a lot of credit, he’s stayed positive, he’s stayed ready and he’s really worked hard. And that’s not that easy, to come in a funky, tough game and produce pretty good there for a stretch.”

Oubre made a couple of nice plays early in the fourth, including a steal and a pull-up jumper. It's clearly quite helpful to have a player besides Maxey in those mostly-bench lineups who's a scoring threat off the dribble. Nurse decided to close Friday's game with Oubre, having him spell Maxey and then Batum. He played good defense in the closing minutes.

“He just looked explosive to me,” Nurse said of Oubre in his second game back after suffering a fractured rib. “He was up the floor fast; he was at the rim for some cuts; he was on the glass; he was getting over screens. He was refusing to get screened, and you’ve got to throw your body into people to do that.

“So I’m pretty happy with where he is, considering how long he’s been out — just with his effort and conditioning. And he made some plays, right? He got his hands on the ball some. I thought he was just competing. I liked that.”

The Sixers did make multiple self-inflicted mistakes in the fourth. Beverley was called for a technical foul, seemingly for something he said to Hawks guard Trent Forrest, and Maxey fouled Bogdanovic on a three-point try. Saddiq Bey's and-one layup put Atlanta up 107-104.

Embiid appeared to hurt his left knee on an awkward fourth-quarter drive. He grimaced and limped a bit after the play, but Embiid stayed in the game and generally looked like himself late in the fourth. He sunk a turnaround jumper to extend his team's lead to four points, Maxey drained a dagger three, and the Sixers displayed their superior talent when it mattered most.

The final margin of victory was flattering, but the Sixers were stellar in crunch time, brushing off all that had gone wrong before that.

As for Embiid's all-important knee, Nurse said postgame that the Sixers plan to “re-evaluate it in the morning.” 

“I'm not sure,” Embiid said. “I’ve got to watch the play, but I just twisted it. So we’re going to talk about it and see how it feels. I should be fine.”

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