The Sixers (6-7) hosted the Utah Jazz (10-4) on Sunday. Philadelphia wanted to build on a victory over the Hawks on Saturday night. Utah wanted to right its wrongs from a loss to the Wizards on Saturday. Joel Embiid put forward the game of his life, going for 59 points with 11 rebounds, 8 assists, and 7 blocks to hold the Sixers together long enough for a 105-98 victory.
Before we get to what I saw, some notes.
The Jazz were without Ochai Agbaji and Leandro Bolmaro, who are on G-League assignment with Utah’s affiliate. Johnny Juzang and Micah Potter are on Two-Way G-League assignments with Utah’s affiliate and were unavailable.
Will Hardy started Mike Conley, Jordan Clarkson, Jarred Vanderbilt, Lauri Markkanen, and Kelly Olynyk.
The Sixers were without James Harden, who is recovering from a strained tendon in his right foot.
Furkan Korkmaz suffered a left knee effusion in Saturday’s win over Atlanta and was unavailable for Sunday’s game.
Michael Foster Jr. and Julian Champagnie are on Two-Way G-League assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats and were unavailable.
Doc Rivers started Tyrese Maxey, Matisse Thybulle, PJ Tucker, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
Embiid has made a concerted effort to see more than just the basket over the last few games, his passing prowess and trust in teammates really showing itself in Saturday’s win over Atlanta. Some of it surely has to do with simply taking a little extra time to survey the floor when multiple defenders converge on him. All of that attention leaves someone open, and Embiid just has to find the lone teammate to relieve the pressure. But, some of it has been the big guy using his prowess as a midrange shooter to find teammates cutting around him when the interior defender lifts to contest Embiid at the free throw line, extended.
De’Anthony Melton was flat-out awesome in his first couple minutes off the bench in this one. His handle of the basketball was much tighter. Melton was explosive in attacking the cup and effective around the rim for six points. Most importantly in this particular game, Melton pulled down three defensive rebounds in his nine minutes of play. Philadelphia was simply out-efforted in the first half. Utah accumulated offensive rebounds and second-chance opportunities in bunches. At a time when that was an early theme, Melton was a huge asset to righting that ship.
All other good in this game essentially boiled down to Embiid, full stop. There aren’t words to describe just how dominant he was. He didn’t let the offensive production excuse him from caring on defense, approaching quadruple-double territory for the game with blocks. Embiid recorded five of those seven blocks in the fourth quarter. The rim-protection was simply dominant, Embiid single-handedly forcing Utah to stay outside if they were going to have any chance of scoring down the stretch. I thought the best thing Embiid did on offense was not mentally checking out after a bit of a slow start. Olynyk held his ground for a chunk of the opening frame, making it difficult for Embiid to establish a foot at the rim and walling off driving angles to force the big guy into off-balance jumpers.
On other nights and against other teams, Embiid might let the early resistance discourage him into an auto-pilot night in which he puts up numbers, but you know he’s capable of much more. The Sixers wouldn’t have won that game on Sunday. But, Embiid eventually solved his objectively inferior matchup and went to work. 24 points — on 8-for-14 shooting and 7-for-8 from the free throw line — with five turnovers at halftime.
Another great thing Embiid did was avoid over-reliance on outside shooting. 23 of his 28 field goal attempts came within the arc. There was no Rudy Gobert in the way to disturb the big fella in this game. It was some combination of Olynyk, Markkanen, Vanderbilt, and anything else Utah threw his way. Embiid recognized the physical advantage he had, and went to work. He used his jumper to get inside, relying on brute force to slowly get all the way to the rim if the defender tasked with trying to affect him played up on his midrange game.
That Embiid balanced his midrange game with his inside game also made it a bit more difficult to tell when he was gassed. There was no point in the game that you could pinpoint a fatigue-related decline with full confidence. His midrange game reached new heights as Embiid’s minutes ticked higher. Just when you were expecting him to slip, he buried another one of his patent midrange jumpers. The Sixers scored 27 points in the fourth quarter. Embiid scored 26 of them. Simply absurd. It was the game of a lifetime for the big guy. I’d dare to say it was the best two-way performance of at least the last decade.
I suppose a good summary of the state of Thybulle’s confidence on offense is him cutting the baseline early in the first quarter, but not even keeping his head up to look for a possible pass. Tucker’s intention was pure. But, the ball sailed behind Thybulle and out of bounds because he wasn’t looking. Just as Thybulle hasn’t looked at the rim much lately when catching the ball on the perimeter, he wasn’t aware of the ball. That’s called just going through the motions.
Embiid had an absolutely sterling first half on both sides of the ball, picking up a handful of blocks to go along with 24 points. But, he closed out the final possessions before intermission with three consecutive turnovers to amass a total of five before intermission. A jagged edge on an otherwise perfectly round first half carrying Philadelphia
I don’t really care that the Sixers were on the second night of a back-to-back because the same applied to Utah. Philadelphia was asleep on defense for much of the first half. They forfeited some contested drives at the rim and failed to finish defensive stands with defensive rebounds. Philadelphia played like a talented, bored team that overlooked its opponent. Utah played like a team that feeds off the league expecting them to go in the tank after they traded Donovan Mitchell and Gobert. The part that makes it damning and, in many ways, destroys any equity that the team builds is that no one should’ve been surprised that the Sixers played down to the talent opposite them in this game.
The Sixers (7-7) will host the Milwaukee Bucks (10-2) on Friday. Tip-off is scheduled for 7:30 PM, Eastern time. You can catch the action on ESPN.