Free Throws, Defense, and Joel Embiid – Observations from Sixers 112, Nets 104 (OT)

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Talk about a weird game.

No Ben Simmons, so Raul Neto starts and plays 28 minutes. The Sixers open the game with a 22-6 lead, then Kenny Atkinson picks up a tech before Brooklyn rips off an outrageous 44-8 run. Fans at the Wells Fargo Center boo the Sixers off the floor, they come roaring back in the third quarter, then the game goes to overtime, where the Nets don’t hit a single field goal.

112-104 your final, the Sixers’ league-high 26th home win of the year.

They did it on the strength of 39 Embiid points, a season high for the re-energized big man, who has seemingly overcome the emotional rollercoaster ride of “should I be a ‘good asshole’ or be mature?” He’s the former, a good asshole, who is having fun again, trolling fans, doing Eurostep motions after tough baskets, and whatever else pops into his head.

Winning at the line

More importantly, Embiid was getting to the line at will last night, pounding the ball inside against Brooklyn’s smaller, guard-heavy lineups. Joel got to the stripe 19 times and hit 18 of his efforts, contributing heavily to a 32 for 35 team free throw number. That’s 91.4%, almost 18 percentage points higher than the 74% they were shooting from the foul line coming into the game.

It was actually the 2nd best percentage they’ve shot this entire season, which you can see right here:

And that 35 attempts number is the 5th-most they’ve shot all year. There seems to be more of a win/loss correlation between the amount of free throws they shoot vs. the actual percentage they shoot, which I think makes sense on the surface, though you’d have to dig deeper into those games to look for causation.

I asked Embiid afterward if he or the team had talked about foul shooting or free throw attempts, if they set any kind of renewed goal since they were a bottom-five NBA squad in this category. Here’s how he answered:

We didn’t talk about it, but as players we have to do our job. The thing I’m so happy about is that Ben, he’s been shooting lights out at the free throw line, showing his work ethic. He’s been working really hard and it’s showing up. He’s gotta keep doing that, keep working, and I think that’s a big part of it.

That’s a solid quote from Joel, to point out that Ben Simmons, who didn’t even play last night, has been leading the charge in this area. You can tell they’ve been listening to the “Ben vs. Joel” narrative that’s played out in the media, and they’ve said and done some things in recent weeks to combat the storyline that they don’t get along or don’t mesh well on the court.

But the Sixers needed every single free throw last night. There were some rough offensive possessions down the stretch of the fourth quarter, with Alec Burks air balling a three, Embiid passing the ball of Thybulle’s face, and Richardson bobbling a pass that would have been an easy layup. Joel’s efficiency at the line got the Sixers to overtime and they just grinded Brooklyn down from there.

Lineups

With Simmons out, Brett Brown did the same thing he did back in November, when Ben hurt his shoulder backing down an opponent in the low post and had to miss a couple of games. He started Neto in his place, left Embiid, Josh Richardson, and Tobias Harris intact, then used Glenn Robinson III at small forward, continuing the strategy of bringing Al Horford off the bench.

The Sixers actually had to use a timeout at the first swap to get themselves straightened out, but they came back with a lineup that looked like this:

  1. Neto
  2. Matisse Thybulle
  3. Alec Burks
  4. Harris
  5. Horford

Josh Richardson then came back in to spell Neto around the 3:30 mark in the 1st, handling the backup point guard duties on the evening. Furkan Korkmaz made his first appearance at 1:57 in the 1st, so they went with him as the ninth member of the rotation before inserting Shake Milton in the second half. Brett Brown decided to close with a group of Neto, Burks, Richardson, Harris, and Embiid, making the necessary offensive and defensive subs along the way.

Two notes about Brett’s decisions and rotations:

1. I know people gripe about Trey Burke being waived and Neto being kept around, but I think we have to look back at the T.J. McConnell situation from 2019, because it’s going to be the same exact thing this year. In the playoffs, T.J. came out of the rotation in game two of the Brooklyn series and Jimmy Butler handled the ball as the backup point guard. This postseason, Ben Simmons will play upwards of 40 minutes, as he usually does, which leaves 6-8 minutes a game for Josh Richardson to emulate what Butler did. That’s the way to do it without a steep defensive drop off.

(point being, neither Neto or Burke was going to be a factor in the postseason)

2. It’s worth pointing out that minutes don’t necessarily have to decline just because you’re starting on the bench. Horford played 28 minutes vs. LA and 19 last night, compared to 30 and 31 in the two games prior. Last year, you probably remember JJ Redick coming off the bench while Markelle Fultz was still in the starting lineup. His minutes were around 30 coming off the bench and then only increased to about 32 per game as a starter. RE: Horford, if he plays better than how he did last night, which was rough, Brett can still get him 26-28 minutes per game by using him in Ben Simmons lineups when the full squad is back together.

Cranking up the defense and effort

The Sixers always have this extra gear at home.

You’ll see them typically dial up the defensive level to 10 or 11 around the five minute mark of the fourth quarter, usually spurred by Ben Simmons, but last night they did it collectively as a team and really stifled Brooklyn down the stretch and into overtime.

Kenny Atkinson had two good quotes on that:

On the 76ers’ defense down the stretch…

They had a great strategy, they denied and made it really tough on Caris [LeVert] and Spencer [Dinwiddie] and left Embiid at the rim. We tried to go small with Wilson [Chandler] out there to spread them out a little bit, but there’s a trade-off with that … then you have to deal with Embiid on the other end. They have a lot of good players. They made plays, we didn’t. It’s too bad, we had a great opportunity.

On the 76ers’ overtime defense… 

I’ll give them credit, I think they took away our ballhandlers’ ability to even get the ball, really. They denied them; it was almost like a triangle and two… just deny, deny those two guys and let other guys make plays.

Yep, quality defense on LeVert and Dinwiddie down the stretch, with Embiid’s monstrous presence at the rim really influencing the decision making once Nets players got into the paint.

The challenge

Brett challenged and lost on this play, which was a foul on a fourth quarter three-point attempt:

Asked Brown about this after the game, if he was going by the jumbotron replay, trusting Richardson, or getting information from somebody on the bench:

It’s always a decision of ‘do you spend the money?’ (use a timeout). I was particularly worried because I only had two timeouts. So you’re trying to do the best you can to get an angle. I don’t know if you remember when were were at Atlanta, we challenged and they gave the ball to the free throw shooter, and it was too late. You’re on the clock and you hope you’ve got the technology, which we do, behind the bench, to look at it and study it. You hope at times you’re going to get a little bit of help from the players, but I’ve learned not to trust that too much. That’s the stuff that goes through your mind. It’s a big play.

It’s tough. There really is so little time to view these replays and decide whether or not the challenge is worth it. And the fact that you have to use the timeout to start the challenge is significant, because those stoppages are useful down the stretch. Players also typically get caught up in the moment, so like Brown says, you can’t really trust your guys even if they vehemently think they did nothing wrong.

The Eurostep

I swear to God this looked like traveling when I saw it live, but when you see the front-angle replay, there’s a final dribble right before Joel takes the first part of the step:

Pretty smooth.

Other notes:

  • It was Pride Night at the game, but we were given very short notice about that. Jason Collins came out and rang the ball, which was nice, and they did some LGBT/rainbow themed shirts and gear. It just felt “rushed” for some reason, like somebody said “hey we should do a pride night,” so they threw it together at the last minute.
  • Neto has a tough time getting around screens. Brooklyn went right at him on the first two possessions of the game.
  • I feel like Jarrett Allen is the same player he was last year.
  • I thought for sure Embiid was going to be whistled for that bump on Chandler on the final play of regulation.
  • I think the call on the Dinwiddie block around 3:42 in overtime was the right call; Joel got him on the shoulder before swatting the ball.
  • Alec Burks basically stood in the corner for the first half, then they got him going in the second half, coming around screens, getting some handoffs, just moving more organically around the court. He was a nice pickup for this squad and hit some timely shots last night.
  • Glenn Robinson only played 14 minutes. He wasn’t injured, but Brown just liked what he had going in the second half and kept him on the bench.

Happy Friday.

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7 Responses

  1. I have to be honest, I’m sad to see another article from you. I thought you finally escaped Kyle’s basement. I guess every one else can go back on sabbatical.

  2. For signing old-man Al Horford to a 4 year, 109 million dollar guaranteed contract, Elton Brand should be fired.

    1. Yeah, the Al Horford for the Sixers and James Van Reimsdyk for the Flyers contracts that we given out in the offseason are not looking like they were a great idea. Both are too much money for too many years, given their age and productivity.

  3. Kyle and the gang have been working on really big things. Tv/radio/podcast. Going to be huge this year. Kyle is follow the bar stool model.

  4. Damn skippy they heard the Ben vs. Joel scuttlebutt. As well as every other story line. I’m convinced these guys are just as, if not more competitive off the floor. Stats $$ on and Fan $$ off.

  5. Who won by 21 on the road against Pistons. I know the Sixers were missing Simmons but they were playing the Nets

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