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    Quick Six: Joel Embiid carries Sixers again in win over Hawks

    Kyle Neubeck Avatar
    December 8, 2023
    Joel Embiid shoots a three against the Atlanta Hawks.

    Joel Embiid scored 38 points to go with 14 rebounds and three assists in another virtuoso performance, dragging the Sixers to a hard-fought 125-114 victory over the Hawks.

    Here’s what I saw.

    Thanks again, Joel Embiid

    A 50-point masterpiece is a tough act to follow, but at least Joel Embiid had a soft opponent for his encore. The Hawks with Trae Young aren’t much of a threat, even if the Sixers spent four quarters trying to make them look like one.

    At the very least, Embiid and his teammates came out of the locker room with a sense of purpose. They hit him with Clint Capela on his back on the first possession, with Embiid making a one-handed, one-legged shot that he worked on quite a bit at the end of pregame warmups. The big man has long been one of the best first-half scorers in the league, and it was an onslaught once he got that first shot on the first possession of the game to go down.

    But he got to his early points through a lot of physical dominance. Embiid was ungovernable on the offensive glass to open this game, pulling down four offensive rebounds in the first quarter alone as the Hawks struggled to box out the Sixers’ behemoth. Nick Nurse has empowered his team to chase o-boards more frequently this season, and Embiid has had some dominant stretches there, aided by that guidance from the head coach. If you’re swinging the ball to shooters from the interior more often, you’re going to be in a great position to score second-chance baskets.

    This one would eventually feel a bit like the Wizards game, in that Embiid’s scoring brilliance was the only thing standing between the Sixers and a rather humiliating defeat. The Sixers slowly chipped away at Atlanta’s in the third quarter mostly because Embiid never allowed them to gain real separation. He had his midrange working to open the second half and poor Onyeka Okongwu got caught with his hand in the cookie jar quite a few times, slapping down on Embiid before he rose up for jumpers, putting the big man on the free-throw line. And when winning time came in the fourth quarter, the big man starred on both ends of the floor, serving as Philadelphia’s world-consuming rim protector on defense and the hub of everything on offense. All in a night’s work.

    …but is his knee okay?

    There was a scary moment for the big guy late in this game, with Embiid driving the lane before collapsing and immediately grabbing at his knee, in clear pain as he tried to walk it off for the next minute or two. Embiid never came out of the game, but he was clearly bothered by it for at least a couple of minutes, hop-walking and trying to avoid full pressure on it until he eventually got settled.

    Every time he goes down and shakes off what looks to be an injury, there is a group of people who think he simply dramatizes everything. And the big man played awesome in the stretch after going down, coming up with some massive blocks at the rim while doing his best to carry the Sixers on offense, too. But in the quiet moments, like the free throws that pulled him to 37 and 38 points on the night, Embiid shook his leg out in some visible pain, and you have to wonder how he’ll feel and what testing reveals when the adrenaline of the game has worn off.

    Stay tuned, in other words. A valiant effort no matter what, but I’ll exhale once we get a briefing from the big guy after this one.

    Bad transition defense, bad rebounding

    For the opening 5-10 minutes of this game, it looked like the Sixers were prepared to right their wrongs on the defensive end. Rotations were sharper, help defense was well-timed, and even if the results weren’t there, the process felt good. That changed as they began to tap into their bench, though I don’t say that to blame the backups for their energy, effort, and attention to detail falling apart.

    Transition defense has been an on-again, off-again, on-again problem for Philly over the last half-decade, and they got destroyed by the Hawks in early offense and semi-transition in Friday night’s second quarter. Each and every guy contributed to the problem. Tobias Harris had a play where he was the only man who didn’t get back, and as you might have guessed, the guy he should have grabbed hit a trail three. There was a possession with Joel Embiid meandering back into the picture after not getting a foul call, only feigning interest after the Hawks got an offensive rebound that DeAndre Hunter cashed.

    Speaking of offensive rebounds, the Hawks were a handful on the glass all night, consistently turning missed shots into second-chance points or even third-chance points on some particularly gruesome possessions. Harris got thrown out of the way for what felt like three or four in the first half alone, and even as the Sixers tightened things up on the defensive end in the second half, they undid a lot of that work with their poor glass cleaning.

    More Maxey growth

    — There was a stretch from Tyrese Maxey in the second quarter that ranked among my favorite offensive sequences of the year for him. It felt like the perfect blend of attacking and playmaking out of that lead guard spot, with Maxey not needing to sacrifice aggression to set up others. He’s marching toward that idealized version of himself that they’ll need in the playoffs, one performance at a time.

    The highlight of that run was a hesitation move he used to bring his defender to a standstill, with Maxey bursting forward afterward before delivering a strike to Marcus Morris in the actual corner. It was a glimpse of all his skills coming together at once — the craft, the speed, the vision, and the open three Morris canned felt like an appropriate reward.

    The haters will say it’s a carry. Maybe they’re right, as I haven’t looked at this too closely while at the game. But damn, it looked cool.

    In any case, that wasn’t the only beautiful pass from Maxey during that stretch, with No. 0 threading a pass between two defenders to a cutting Tobias Harris, who had nothing left to do except to dunk the ball. Maxey added to the passing excellence with a midrange pull-up and then a beautiful three on a dribble handoff with Joel Embiid, putting a bow on that run.

    (A hat tip to young Maxey for coming up with some awesome defensive plays down the stretch, too. He battled Dejounte Murray hard and turned him over on a couple of important possessions late in this game, overcoming what is or should be a difficult matchup for him.)

    Mr. Do Something, doing something

    It was not a perfect night for De’Anthony Melton by any stretch of the imagination, with Melton turning in a 2/7 night from downtown and producing at least one or two comedic moments on drives to the hoop. But with the game hanging in the balance in the fourth quarter, he came up with a sensational strip of Bogdan Bogdanovic, taking the ensuing outlet pass and scoring two of the most important points of the night.

    Mo(re) Bamba?

    Mo Bamba checked into the game in Paul Reed’s usual spot to open the fourth quarter, and based on how Reed had performed in the first half, it wasn’t exactly unwarranted. Reed was playing an absolute stinker, and he’s been up and down during his minutes recently.

    While Bamba didn’t exactly blow the crowd away during his time on the floor, I wonder if Nurse is going to explore some more giving Bamba minutes moving forward. Prior to the game, he named Reed as one of his eight nailed-on guys in the rotation, but if a bad half is all it took to get him benched for the fourth quarter, I’m not sure how true that actually is.

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