Instant observations: Sixers run dominant Joel Embiid in fourth to win opener vs. Wizards

The Sixers bounced through most of the first three quarters of their home opener, but a dominant stretch from Joel Embiid and a steady performance from Shake Milton was enough to give them a 113-107 victory. Doc Rivers’ tenure opens with a W.

Here’s what I saw.

The good

• We are starting a new year, yet we are still looking at the same old script. The Sixers’ offense looked out of sorts, they drifted through some possessions on defense and in transition, role players missed shots, and then Embiid came in with a sledgehammer and brought the team within striking distance of a win.

Philadelphia’s starting lineup looked pretty lousy most of the night (a topic we’ll touch on below), and the turning point in the second half was a unit with Embiid at the focal point with shooters in every other spot: Seth Curry, Furkan Korkmaz, Shake Milton and Mike Scott. In a five-play stretch early in the fourth quarter, the Sixers threw the ball to Embiid on the left block five straight times, and the big guy turned those possessions into 11 points. Even by his high standards, it’s hard to do.

The attack kept coming. There was a free throw line jumper over Thomas Bryant where he got the defender to dance, more work on the left block, even some clever dribbles in the traffic from the big man to score a reverse layup. As is typical, the energy is transferred from getting offended to the defensive end of the floor, where Embiid pulls his second offensive fault into the game by flashing to get on Bryant’s hip and absorbing contact without fear.

It was not a dominant, wire-to-wire performance from the big guy, but he was sensational when it counted. In this league, it’s often all it takes to get a W. Philly will take it.

• Not since the days of “Night Shift” led by Lou Williams has the Sixers had another device so good. In fact, between the two pre-season games and this one, a case to be made is that Philadelphia’s bench has looked more cohesive than the starting lineup, with Dwight Howard and a couple of young guards looking quite comfortable beyond control of the team.

Shake Milton continues his game from preseason is less surprising after the blinks he showed last season, but it was still nice to see him start the year right. He is an agile operator on the other unit, and unlike some of the leading guards that Rivers has hired off the bench, he plays with conscience and takes open shots, but rarely forces the problem.

There was a great order in the second quarter as Milton and Seth Curry took turns inviting pressure with Washington leading to a Curry three in the corner. It sounds crazy to say, but the Sixers rarely have multiple guards on the floor at a time who could dribble and shoot, making small moments like these feel refreshing.

To my surprise, Rivers Milton gave confidence in the voting time and he definitely earned it. In addition to the offensive contributions, Milton has shown improved basics in defense, and he had several key games and / or competitions against the likes of Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal, some of the toughest players he will likely have to guard throughout the year. Between that and Milton not fearing in crunch time, it was a fantastic debut.

The other big story early on is Tyrese Maxey, who missed the start of training camp due to COVID protocols and nonetheless has looked like he was shot out of a cannon to start the year. Maxey’s touch around the basket has so far been unusual and led to a bunch of beautiful finishes at the edge, and his playmaking has been almost as impressive, with the rookie guard showing great calm and emotion in both the half and transition. He does not look like a child who will soon let somewhere in rotation go.

As the starters struggle to establish a rhythm so far, these guys have been important to Rivers and I expect it will continue for a while until Embiid, Ben Simmons and the rest of the starters come on the same page. If they can play out opposing benches all year, the Sixers will be a really dangerous team once they get the crack ironed out.

• I’ve said it a lot so far, but I like what Dwight Howard brings to the table as a backup center. He competes for pretty much every rebound at both ends, offers great rim protection, and he’s a vertical threat when they put him in pick-and-rolls.

• There were probably 3-4 “oh my god” type games at the defensive end from Simmons. He picked a Westbrook pass in transition as a roaming safety at the back end, came up with a fantastic recovery block at the edge midway through the fourth and looks set to have another great season at that end.

As I wrote Wednesday morning, I think Simmons will spend much of the foreseeable future on All-Defense teams. It’s nothing to sneeze at.

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The bad

• First impression of the Sixers’ offense, which I imagine Daryl Morey can share: The Sixers shoot way too many medium-sized shots. I’m not entirely against the concept like some of the number of zealots – sometimes it’s all the defense gives you on a given possession – but you will not get it done if you pass decent looks from deep to step into tighter contested shots.

The guilty No. 1 will not shock anyone. Harris let a three fly from the corner late in the first quarter, but otherwise he played the same meandering style that made fans fans need last season and the style that his coach has been adamant about trying to get him out of. Maybe you could convince yourself that all of this is a process and the improvement will come over time, but we are pretty deep into Harris’ career and this is a coach that he has already played for and succeeded under. It should be a much easier process for him than it has been so far.

He was far from the only guy who contributed to the problem. Honestly, if Simmons’ version of expanding his range takes the odd free-throw line breaker here or there, he just needs to keep it. Shooting outside of operation is a significantly harder process to master than just standing in the corner and trying a few jumpers per. Play, and as well-meaning as these shots are, at that point you’d rather see him try to get to the rim or just take a three where no one protects him.

• Another point about Harris that was not related to medium-sized things: he hardly even tried the defense at times on Wednesday night. Possessions where you get caught flat-footed happen from time to time, but Harris did a whole lot staring and half-heartedly in search of people who were already starting to let a three go. When you cover a sniper like Davis Bertans, it’s hardly a luxury you can afford him.

It was just an ugly night in the office for Harris, no matter what he honestly tried to do, and it underscores that Rivers is not a miracle worker. He will put Harris into actions he is familiar with, try to get him to speed up his decisions (he gestured at him to do it all evening), but there is not much coaching can do to change an evening like Harris had Wednesday.

I’ve been trying to drive this point home over the last few months, but the Sixers would be lucky if they could make Harris and the ugly contract into almost anything useful. It will not be James Harden unless there is some form of divine intervention.

• Embiid certainly looks lighter on his feet than he did last season and that’s a good thing. The lob he finished from Simmons to open his score for the season was something we rarely saw from him last year, a quick cut that was rewarded by his running mate with a good feed.

(By the way, I see a game like this and wholeheartedly reject the premise that he could not be a good pick-and-roll big with a senior trader at the controls. Someone who can eat space and suck attention would make him look light. )

That said, there were some nasty moments for Embid’s defense in space, which is something you’ll see him do a lot of, as the Sixers require him to play more mixed coverage than he did last season. And one of my least favorite sequences in the game was Embiid, who forced a bad midrange image early on in the clock during a first-half possession, loafing down the floor, and Washington scored in transition without the big guy out there.

He was far from the only culprit and there were definitely pieces where it just looked like guys were not on the same page. Embiid helped into the corner to prevent a wide open three in transition, and the rest of the team just slid fights through the paint instead of trying to protect the rim, a failure of the device rather than the big guy.

There will be many discussions and review of the tape early for Philly. Assistant coach Dan Burke was the last person Embiid spoke to before speaking at the break, where the two considered what needed to be done in the second half. It is clearly an ongoing work.

• I will formally extract the phrase “Ben Simmons comes out and plays aggressively” from the Sixers encyclopedia. At some point, Simmons, who plays fast and comes downhill, just does not matter if it is not accompanied by free throws generated or at least shot attempts on the edge.

The Sixers have a completely different coaching staff, a different group around Simmons and Embiid, and the person who has looked most like their former self through two preseason games and a fixed season game is Simmons. He will give you some electrifying passes, create a bunch of open threes for teammates and play high level defense on his opponent. But he will also struggle to do much of anything in a halfway setting by offense, and the last bit is a pretty big thing that Sixers fans have often seen.

A lot of time was spent late at the dunker’s place, though it should be noted that they got Simmons into one of the cleanest looks he will ever see, by having him down there for a late fourth ATO. When he starts getting out and shooting and pushing the case by offense and trying to carry the load like a lead star does, we can talk about aggression. The line must be set higher.

• I think Korkmaz will have better nights than this, but I do not think he needs to get involved as a trader as much as he was on Wednesday, whether it ends up being true or not.

• A lot of worry about crime boils down to whether Danny Green and Curry turn their eyes down on a given night. They are certainly better shooters than they showed they were in the opening, so that will inevitably make the group look better, but that’s the nature of the fact that they predominantly trust role players to be legitimate floor spacers.

(At least Curry had some good games on the stretch to redeem himself. Green never even got the chance where Rivers rolled with Milton and then chose Matisse Thybulle as his defensive specialist in the final minutes.)

The ugly

• I miss having you all to the game a lot, but it’s great to be able to hear a lot more about the trash and complaints from both players and coaches during the game. A particularly big sequence took place near the end of the first half after Bradley Beal was called up for a defensive free kick to knock over a screening Embiid.

Moe Wagner, who was standing under the rim, looked in the direction of his teammate and said, “Hi Brad, you have to be strong as f ***!”

Sprinkle a lot of conversations from Russell Westbrook – distracting people during free throws, yelling at Embiid to get calls – and it’s a good time in the office. I wish they would offer fans the opportunity to experience that without all the loud music and arena nonsense teams still insist on.

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