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The Sixers had three 20-point scorers and locked the Raptors down in the second half of a 114-99 win on Thursday, moving to 3-1 on the season. Joel Embiid led the way with 28 points, 13 rebounds, and seven assists.
Here’s what I saw.
— The days of Joel Embiid meandering around the elbows may not be over, but Nick Nurse has certainly changed how the big man is getting his buckets this season. Throwing him the ball and watching him jab step over and over again is used as a last resort, rather than a starting point, and the change in approach has benefitted the rest of the team.
It hasn’t been bad for Embiid, either. If he’s waiting around on possessions right now, it’s because he’s calling over another Sixers player to get into a dribble handoff with him, whether that’s Tyrese Maxey, De’Anthony Melton, or even someone like Furkan Korkmaz guest-starring. While we’ll have to see if this keeps up, it has felt like Embiid’s on-ball screens have been more impactful, and his rolls toward the hoop have come with more force, too.
This felt like a relatively good defensive outing for Raptors center Jakob Poeltl, given the toughness of his assignment and the fires he put out elsewhere. Unfortunately for him, there were possessions where the Cameroonian freight train came crashing through the lane and he had no choice but to move and hope that the low man could slide in and stop Embiid. That didn’t happen too often, with Embiid marching to the free-throw line repeatedly once he broke through to the paint.
I have been enjoying Embiid doing the little things this year as a general rule, but especially on the defensive end. The first game aside, he has been attacking the ball in mid-air on more rebounds, which makes it borderline impossible for opponents to beat him to boards when he sets his mind to it. And Nurse’s mandate to chase more blocks has not fallen on deaf ears, with Embiid making any Raptors driver think twice about challenging him at the basket.
That rim protection may well be my favorite part of the season so far, as Embiid looks closer to the guy we saw his first year or two in the league, a hellacious rim protector who can rotate in out of nowhere and humiliate you en route to ending a possession. Even when he doesn’t get the block, he’s altering far more shots to open the year than he did most of last season. This is beautiful:
(I could do with fewer turnovers, for sure, but I do love that he’s sharing the ball.)
— The early part of the season has rarely been the problem for Tobias Harris, who has done an excellent job taking instruction in the offseason and applying that to open a new year. He’s going to have to sustain this level of play for much longer for anyone to buy what he’s selling.
That being said, he has looked awesome to open the year, both because he’s making a ton of shots and seeking out the right types of shots in the flow of the offense. Rather than stepping out of lightly-contested threes to take low-value midrange shots, Harris is sidestepping into more open threes, hunting outside shots habitually.
Beyond that, the emphasis on pushing the pace suits Harris just fine. He’s one of the first guys up the floor whenever the Sixers get a stop, and he punished the Raptors for losing track of him on the break on several different occasions, catching outlet passes in advanced positions or just grabbing a rebound and taking it all the way himself. So far, so good for him (aside from an ugly moment we’ll get to below).
(And by the way, his defensive engagement has been high-level. Love to see Harris bought in on that end.)
— Kelly Oubre Jr. got his first start since joining the Sixers, and while I’m not sure how long the Oubre starter era will last, he is certainly making his case to hold onto a sizable role no matter what.
What more can you ask from him at this point? Oubre’s usual diet of tough shot attempts has made way for a healthy shot profile, with the vast majority of his attempts on in-rhythm threes and timely off-ball cuts. Every so often, the Sixers need a player to break them out of a series of stagnant possessions, and Oubre ends up being the guy to take that challenge, which is more than fine by me.
It’s everything else he’s doing that will help him establish this role as his own. Oubre is finding a few possessions each game to leverage his length and trap opposing ballhandlers and created another turnover by doing so on Thursday. The constant cutting separates him from every other guy on the roster, and frankly, most guys who have played for the team in recent memory. And underneath all of that, he has been a vocal and passionate teammate at basically all times, showing enthusiasm for big plays even when he’s on the bench.
He has been a really pleasant surprise so far, to say the least.
— If there’s one way to endear yourself to Philadelphia, it’s to play with absolutely no restraint if a potential hustle play is there to be made. Well Philadelphia, meet Patrick Beverley, who has made a career out of having a motor that never shuts off.
While the Sixers haven’t gotten a whole heck of a lot from Beverley on offense so far, he’s making all of the plays that people expected out of P.J. Tucker in a guard-sized package. On a missed free throw from Kelly Oubre in the third quarter, Beverley came flying into the lane at the perfect time, forcing the Raptors to meet him in mid-air. While he didn’t come down with the board, the ball fell harmlessly out of bounds after last touching a Toronto player, and the Sixers got an extra possession all the same.
If he could make an open three, it would go a long way, but I appreciate what he is offering for the time being.
— Everyone wants experimentation until Furkan Korkmaz is the first guy off of the bench in the fourth game of the season. Nick Nurse didn’t get much of a look at ol’ Furky due to injuries in the preseason, and with his new recruits not quite up to speed yet, Nurse called on No. 3o against the Raptors.
And he…didn’t look too bad? Korkmaz deflected an errant Raptors pass on his first defensive possession, so they got at least one positive defensive contribution from him. That’s a bonus.
You could argue the highlight of the game was his end-to-end play to finish off the third quarter, though, when a Korkmaz breakup on the defensive end turned into him getting hammered at the rim at the other end. The Turkish forward somehow absorbed the foul and tossed the layup in with some serious English, much to the delight of the home crowd.
Atta boy, Furk.
— The Sixers’ biggest current problem is that I have no idea what their identity or plan is when Joel Embiid hits the bench. If they’re able to get stops and run, Tyrese Maxey is able to chew up space and put some points on the board before the opponent gets set. But it’s tough sledding otherwise because a lot of Maxey’s half-court success right now comes from playing off of Embiid.
And that’s not a dig at Maxey — the Raptors were able to throw waves of defenders at Maxey in this game, from using OG Anunoby on him to hedging and trapping to get the ball out of his hands. They paid him a lot of respect, but it’s probably more accurate to say they disrespected the hell out of everyone else on the floor with him. Tobias Harris was basically gift-wrapped an open three at one point because the Raptors ignored him in favor of pursuing No. 0.
We’ve talked about this on the podcast quite a bit, but I think the lack of a real ballhandler outside of Maxey really shows here. Teams don’t have to care about the pressure they throw at Maxey because if the ball swings elsewhere, they’ll take their chances with the likes of Patrick Beverley, Jaden Springer, and the rest of the gang trying to hunt their own look. They’ll certainly live with Paul Reed doing stuff, too, though I think Reed at least made an impact with his energy on some funky possessions in this game.
— One downside to playing aggressive, physical defense is that the Sixers are going to have to learn to play without picking up constant stupid fouls. They had quite a few of them in the first half — a Reed foul at the opposite free-throw line, a Reed foul of Jakob Poeltl (non-shooter) beyond the three-point line, a Harris foul we’ll get to below, suffice it to say that they can clean it up.
That being said, they’re flying around the floor on defense, so if this is the trade-off, I suppose you live with it for now.
— One good De’Anthony Melton game on Sunday night and we were back to him missing open threes and struggling to break full-court pressure. I’m quite surprised at how rough his start to the year has been on offense, and this game was no exception. The Raptors spent the first few minutes basically daring him to shoot and he could not make them pay.
— Tobias Harris got Malachi Flynn on an island on a possession early in the second quarter and asked for his teammates to clear out that side of the floor so that he could attack the mismatch. Pretty understandable when you consider the difference in size and strength between the two players.
Harris somehow managed to get stripped as he was attempting to back Flynn down, and then immediately fouled him roughly 80 feet from the Sixers’ basket. Yikes!