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Joel Embiid scored 48 points in just three quarters of action on Monday, leading the Sixers to a 146-128 beatdown of the Washington Wizards.
Here’s what I saw.
— It says a lot about how far Joel Embiid has come that I spent a lot of the first half iffy on his performance, then looked up at halftime and saw a line of 19 points, nine rebounds, and five assists on 7/15 from the field. It’s the sort of performance I expect against this Wizards team and with Daniel Gafford guarding him, but it’s nonetheless good to see him rampaging through the worst teams in the league.
Tyrese Maxey was in setup mode for a lot of the first half on Monday, and I thought Embiid left some money on the table following excellent reads from Maxey. You can tell that he has worked on that pocket pass to the big man for months and months now, with Maxey also learning how to disguise the drop-offs somewhat to avoid turnovers. And if he can get the ball to Embiid with the big man rolling downhill, that’s basically an automatic bucket or free throws, with few big men capable of stopping him with a head of steam going.
Let’s hold that thought for a second…
— I know the Wizards absolutely stink, but Maxey deserves a round of applause for what he has shown us as the lead guard already this season. There were (and still are) a ton of questions about his ability to create for others, specifically as the main playmaker for a contending team. We’ll see what it looks like against the best teams in this league, but it has been more than good enough for the opening stretch of the year.
If the Sixers wanted to get a quality look for Embiid in this game, all they had to do was run an empty corner pick-and-roll with their star duo. To open the second half, the Sixers must have run it on at least five consecutive possessions, with the Wizards just slapping at air or trying to haul Embiid to the floor in order to stop it. Maxey’s speed turning the corner left Daniel Gafford in the unenviable position of trying to stay in front of Maxey without giving up easy hoops to Embiid. He (and the guys helping behind him) failed miserably until the Wizards had to change their coverage to provide more assistance. It was truly this easy:
It would have been hard to imagine a year or two ago that Maxey would be so good running the show alongside Embiid that a team would have to completely change how they defended an action involving the two of them. And that’s only a small piece of what this guy offered the Sixers on Monday night. He was a zone buster as a catch-and-shoot guy, an injection of pace on the break, and perhaps most impressively, mistake-free running the team. While great risk often accompanies great playmaking, he is putting guys in good positions without coughing the ball up basically ever, and that’s a beautiful thing.
Back to the big man…
— If Embiid was somewhat pedestrian to start the game, that certainly ended at halftime, and more realistically ended somewhere around the end of the first quarter. Daniel Gafford was able to stand him up on a few possessions early on, and then Embiid simply overwhelmed the smaller man in every way imaginable.
Embiid has had some absolute classic nights at the Wells Fargo Center, but a lot of his top-scoring performances have been blinding shooting displays or free-throw contests (not that either of those are bad things). This one was a combination of all of the things that make him great — excellent jump-shooting from around the elbows, strong rolls and finishes in combination play with Maxey, and the constant feeling of “I’m too big for you to stop” hanging over everything. The Wizards were in absolute hell trying to contain him, and they began throwing new looks at the Sixers in an effort to slow them down.
That might be where I came away most impressed by Embiid. The Wiz busted out a zone in the second half, trying to make the Sixers kill them in a different way, and Embiid showed his growth against that specific look, getting to the middle of the floor to serve as Philadelphia’s creative hub. While it often meant just rising up to shoot from his favorite spot at the free-throw line, Embiid made quick decisions and found Philadelphia’s shooters when he needed to, creating open looks or starting a chain of swing passes that led to open threes.
If not for some aggressive doubles toward the end of the third quarter, this would have been an easy 50 points in three quarters for the big guy. And while that would have been satisfying for the people watching at home and in the arena, I thought it was telling to watch Embiid fist pump when Patrick Beverley scored in the final seconds of the third quarter, happy for a teammate rather than lamenting the chance gone by.
The assists continue to pile up for Embiid, and it’s heartening to see him avoid passing turnovers as he embraces Nick Nurse’s mandate to share the ball more. It’ll be interesting to see if Embiid shows this level of trust in his teammates over time as shooters come back down to Earth, but for the time being, he is playing selfless basketball, releasing when under pressure and trusting the ball will find him at some point, either on a re-post or on an offensive rebound.
Look at the ball movement here to attack a zone. Beautiful:
This was as dominant as dominant gets. Our first Embiid masterpiece of the year, with hopefully more to come.
— If Nic Batum’s first shift as a Sixers player is any indication of how his tenure will go, he’s going to be a gigantic addition to this team. The combination of skill and smarts is going to lift up a lot of different groups, but might be particularly useful when the Sixers go to the bench and give Tyrese Maxey a few moments to rest.
Whatever he has lost athletically over the years, Batum is capable of making up for with timing and understanding of self. You could tell that he was figuring out how to play off of his new teammates, but Batum was able to adapt on the fly and make himself a useful outlet. He hit a pair of relocation threes in the first quarter, operating along the baseline for the first and sprinting into Joel Embiid’s sight for an easy second make.
Already feeling himself a bit, the Sixers decided to ride the hot hand and ran a designed look for Batum early in the second quarter. After running Batum off of a pair of screens, Philly’s new addition flashed to the right wing and banged his third triple of the first half. Easy money:
I wouldn’t expect him to burn the nets down like this every night, but he’s going to put himself in advantageous positions all season long. Buy your Batum stock now.
— Welcome back to the positive side of the ledger, De’Anthony Melton. After dunking the ball with authority for his first basket of the game, he had a couple of tragic layup attempts that inspired groans and a feeling of, “Here we go again.” Fortunately for the Sixers, he finally had a breakthrough game from beyond the arc, capitalizing on the open looks that have been there for him all season.
I’m not sure it has to be any more complicated than that for him to have a big impact on this team. While Melton’s deficiencies as a solo creator have been noted here over and over again, all of his minutes as a “point guard” should come with Joel Embiid on the floor, which takes some pressure off of him as a ballhandler. So long as he can get the ball past halfcourt and into the hands of their star player, he’ll only have to worry about hitting catch-and-shoot threes or attacking closeouts.
Following the theme established by Batum, the Sixers kept feeding him once he got a couple of shots to go down, and I have to imagine that was a Nurse mandate to keep him hot and build some confidence going into the Celtics game on Wednesday. Doc Rivers was a proponent of feeding the hot hand, and it has been nice to see Nick Nurse carry on that tradition while spreading the offensive wealth around more.
— I didn’t forget about you, Tobias Harris. Another efficient night at the office for Philadelphia’s oft-maligned forward.
— If you could sum up Philadelphia’s current level of competitiveness, look no further than the fourth quarter, when they emptied the bench in a blowout and played maybe five times as hard as a Wizards team that was in the process of getting blown out once again.
Paul Reed and Robert Covington were playing full-court defense, trapping Wizards bench players to force turnovers. Jaden Springer was flying in for rebound opportunities, unfazed by the fact that he couldn’t get a shot to drop. They may not have been the guys to push Philadelphia to the big lead, but they made sure the job was finished during their run to end the game.
This looks like a group with real belief and real culture, established from the moment they opened training camp in Colorado. And while it could come crashing down against a Celtics team with elite top-end talent on Wednesday, the vibes are high in Philadelphia right now for good reason. This team has been good, and they’ve been fun, when it wasn’t clear if they’d be either.
— The Wizards.
— The Wizards, man. For real.
Washington came out hot to start thanks mostly to the play of Daniel Gafford, but this team is truly an abomination. Their offense mostly consists of Jordan Poole and Kyle Kuzma taking turns in isolation possessions, and I thought it was telling that their best stretch of the game was the first five minutes, when Daniel Gafford was scoring on lobs and drop-offs. I won’t even speak of the defense, which took IDGAF to new heights.