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Great basketball game.

High-level plays, high-level players, good effort from both sides, and a much-needed, morale-boosting win heading into the All-Star break. The Sixers really needed that one to preserve the sanity of the fans, team, coaching staff, media, and anybody who has anything to do with a franchise that’s hit some ridiculously high highs and low lows this season.

They’ll enter the break at 34-21, which isn’t super ideal, but they were able to win three in a row after losing four in a row, a streak that had fans ready to trade away the entire team and burn their shirseys in a fire pit. It was pretty rough, the past two weeks, but here the Sixers are, sitting in 5th place, two games back from Miami and four back from Boston, whom they hold a tiebreaker over. After eight days off, they’ll reconvene to play a schedule that looks like this:

  • vs Brooklyn
  • at Milwaukee
  • vs Atlanta
  • at Cleveland
  • vs Knicks (second night of a back to back)

They’ll be favored in four of those games and have a reasonable chance to get to 38-22 as we head into the west coast road trip that includes the Clippers and Lakers. If they can manage 16-11 over the remainder of the season, they’ll hit the 50-win mark for the third straight year. That seems doable, but might not be enough for the three-seed this time around unless the Celtics and Heat both fall out.

We’ll see. Either way, the Sixers really needed this one, and they got it.

Al Horford benched

I thought last night was a good Brett Brown game.

Bolstered by the additions of Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson III, he decided to bench Al Horford, start Furkan Korkmaz, and adjust his rotations to play to the strengths of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid.

You saw how much of a difference it made by replacing Horford with another shooter in the starting lineup, which opened up the floor offensively. You do sacrifice a bit of defense by forcing Tobias Harris down to power forward, where he guarded Marcus Morris for most of the night. Some nights he’ll have tough matchups against bigger fours, while last night he did fine against a team that typically plays a little smaller.

But the spacing was evident on plays like this one, a little spread pick and roll with Embiid and Josh Richardson, where you’ve got a 39% three point shooter in Korkmaz in the near side corner and a 36% three point shooter in Harris playing above the break on the other side:

Simmons will just skirt the baseline there and float towards the dunker spot, ready to get the dish off from Richardson if necessary or grab an offensive rebound. This isn’t dissimilar from how they played with JJ Redick, Robert Covington, and Dario Saric, but you’d basically just swap out the pick and roll for a little two-man DHO action instead and Ben would sit on the weak side near the basket as a way to give everybody else room to operate.

It looked like this:

And the nice thing about all of this was that it worked well for Al Horford too, who came out on his first possession playing center and hit a pick and pop three pointer that looked like the Horford we saw with the Celtics. He scored nine points on 3-4 shooting and still played 28 minutes, even coming off the bench. There really wasn’t much drop off from the 31 minutes he was playing as a starter, and he got some run with the starting group in the fourth quarter when the Sixers were trying to close the game, before Doc Rivers went small and Brett Brown decided to match.

Here’s Brown on that:

It was originated out of the fact that I thought that they were going to go small. I think that, in general, not to use that as the reason, I spoke to Al Horford about it and we are trying to find ways to help him and help the team. I felt, disregarding the lineup defensive adjustment, that the time was appropriate to do it and see if we could get that second unit going with Al. We did it with (Manu) Ginobili a long time ago and Al is obviously a quality player. How I end games, to me, will be the judgement. Tonight, we rode out those big guys for a while. They went small, so did I and the decision to rotate him was driven because of that.

You see the flexibility that comes with having a more robust roster. Embiid only had to play 28 minutes last night. They were able to stagger minutes to match Simmons and Horford and surround those two with shooters. And when it came down to it, they didn’t lose a ton defensively, even against a Clippers team that has elite twos and threes. They can score the ball well but lack a bit on the interior, which is why I think the Sixers are a good matchup for them (and for the Lakers, too).

Closer Josh Richardson

He called the players-only meeting last week, before he had even recovered from his hamstring issue.

Then he goes out last night and scores 17 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter.

It’s an underrated storyline, the maturity we’ve seen some Richardson this season. It’s hard to come into a new team as a third or fourth wheel and assert yourself, and while his per-36 numbers are down just slightly from a year ago, his two-way play really fits very nicely on this team.

Look at some of the clutch shots he was hitting last night:

“In the fourth quarter, I kind of started attacking a little bit more,” Richardson said. “I was kind of just reading the defense. Coach put the ball in my hands and gave me the freedom to read it and attack and take what I saw.”

Big threes, smart off-ball cuts, and strong drives to the rack. He’s just a very steady player and the Sixers are better when he’s on the floor.

Troll Embiid

26 points and nine rebounds, 13 trips to the foul line.

I laughed after his very first bucket, the tough offensive rebound and putback, because he immediately went to the crowd and threw his hands in the air as if to say, “I hear you, look at me in the paint, playing bully ball.”

After the game, he confirmed what we already knew, that he was just clapping back and doing a bit of trolling, playing to the crowd and getting back to being the “good asshole” of years past.

Said Embiid:

It’s all love. I understand where they’re coming from, but I do know that they got my back. Through the injuries and what we’ve been through, I’m still here. This is still my city, this is still our city, so we’re just going to keep pushing and try to win that championship.

It’s all good. We’re just riding the emotional rollercoaster that is Joel Embiid.

Ben Simmons

26 points + 12 rebounds + 10 assists = a $48 free bet if you took the Ben Simmons Draftkings “Scoring Special” promo last night.

He was stellar. Absolutely fantastic, driving to the rack, playing ferocious defense on Kawhi Leonard, and just finding that “locked in” mentality that he’s spoken about so many times this season.

One thing I noticed was that he didn’t get jack shit in the way of calls last night. There were at least 3-4 sequences where I was sitting there and thinking, “surely that’s a whistle.”

Nah. No call from the refs.

I also noticed they used a couple of those interior pick and rolls with Embiid, the plays that look a bit like a short brush cut closer to the rim. Ben got that ridiculous turnaround no-look shot to go on that kind of sequence, and there was one earlier in the game where the floor spacing looked like this:

These actions are interesting, because Embiid is big enough to basically seal guys off entirely, so Simmons gets a run at a guy like Zubac instead. He’s oftentimes quick enough to just turn that corner and attack, or try the floater, but with three shooters fanned out on the weak side, he also has multiple drive and kick options if those defenders try to collapse on him.

Other notes:

  • Korkmaz was ice cold as a starter, going 0-5 from the floor. Perhaps he just finds his rhythm coming off the bench.
  • Marcus Morris and Joel Embiid would be a good MMA fight. I’d take Embiid via submission in the fourth round, just for the size factor. But in all seriousness, I know the double technicals seem corny, but Joel did put his hand on Morris’ chest after they had initially disengaged.
  • Alec Burks made his Sixers debut and went 1-4 in 14 minutes. He initially played in the Horford/Harris/Simmons lineup with Matisse Thybulle in the other wing spot. At the end of the third quarter, he was in the game with Embiid, Simmons, Horford, and Korkmaz.
  • Glenn Robinson III shot 3-6 in 12 minutes. He was linked more to the Embiid/Richardson lineups.
  • 58 points in the paint and 15 second chance points last night, which is fantastic.
  • Philly out-shot LA 95 to 90. They’ve out-volumed pretty much every single opponent at home this year.
  • Mike Scott was 0-2 in five minutes off the bench.
  • Raul Neto was a DNP-CD. Shake Milton and Norvel Pelle got 42 seconds of garbage time.

Enjoy the All Star break everybody. We all need it.