Following last night’s thrilling 131-123 OT win over the West-leading Utah Jazz, the Sixers not only head into the All-Star break with momentum from this season-defining win, but also with their first-place Eastern Conference lead in tact.
While there aren’t normally major takeaways from a regular season game, this matchup was a benchmark for a Sixers team that hasn’t had many “benchmark games” over the first-half of the season. Facing more than a week to marinate on last night’s result, this game certainly had outsized meaning for the Sixers, and they delivered. Here’s four takeaways (two positive, two negative) from the win over Utah:
1. EMVBiid? EMVP? Something like that…
I won’t lie, I’ve resisted the Embiid MVP hype for a while out of the assumption that he either wouldn’t play enough games or that his production would taper off as the grind of the regular season sets in, but I’m finally on board and making my way to the front of the train as we speak.
Last night’s casual 40 and 19 performance against the team with the best record in the NBA (and former 2X DPoY) was reminiscent of the most prolific bigs in the history of the game—Olajuwon, Kareem, Shaq, a sprinkle of Dirk. Joel Embiid unarguably sits among the league’s all-time great big men in terms of talent, and at the halfway point of the 2021 season he’s turned in an MVP-caliber campaign that could cement him among those names.
2. Tobias continues to be the closer we need
While the Sixers two representatives at this weekend’s All-Star game are Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, the team has long needed Tobias Harris to be the closer that neither of them can fully be, and last night—and for much of this season—he was exactly that.
11 of Tobias’ 22 points came in the overtime period alone, and once the offense found a mismatch they liked (Tobi on Bogdonavic) they milked it for everything they could. Embiid remarked after the game that Harris proved why he deserves to be an All-Star this season, and he noted that the Sixers rely on him to close things out offensively at the end off ballgames.
#Sixers center Joel Embiid on Tobias Harris' 11-point fourth quarter: 'He made the first one and that's what we got to keep doing. He made the second one and the third one.'— Tom Moore (@TomMoorePhilly) March 4, 2021
Tobias has caught more than his fair share of flack since signing the max contract that he hasn’t fully lived up to, but he’s beginning to re-write that narrative in 2021, and last night was the latest chapter. If he can continue to be reliable in late game situations then the sky is the limit for this team.
3. Despite the “W”, Utah absolutely torched the Sixers drop coverage, leading to wide-open pull-up threes
There might be a tendency to dismiss Utah’s shooting numbers as a hot shooting night (sometimes shots just fall) but this wasn’t that.
Between Mitchell, Conley, Ingles, and Clarkson the Jazz have a deep stable of dynamic offensive weapons who can get to the rim or shoot off the dribble with ease. Because the Sixers defend ball screens with their big man dropped in the paint, opponents with the right weapons can walk into uncontested, pull-up threes at will, and Utah took advantage of that all night (or at least until Philly adjusted their coverage at the end of the game).
This is a pretty common theme for the Sixers—and any team who drops their big against ball screens—and it shouldn’t be ignored. The playoffs will be ripe with pull-up shooters who can threaten a defense off-the-dribble in multiple ways, and Doc would be wise to start mixing up his coverages in the regular season before he’ll inevitably need to shake things up (add some new pitches, so to speak) for the playoffs.
Obviously asking Embiid to pull away from the rim even an inch isn’t ideal, but we’ve seen in the past (and on a few occasions last night) that he has the sort of size and athleticism to make an impact at the rim even after he’s “shown” or soft-hedged all the way out to the three-point line. Being able to throw multiple defensive coverages at an opponent is vital to playoff success, and the Sixers learned last night why dropping Embiid on everything could be a major liability.
4. The Sixers need to add another piece for closing time
The Sixers roster is pretty clearly lacking as compared to Utah. One team can afford to keep Joe Ingles and Jordan Clarkson on their bench in crunch time, and the other is trying to pass-off Shake Milton and Seth Curry at the end of games. Both teams may be atop their respective conferences, but they aren’t all that close in terms of having what you need to contend—one roster is there, the other isn’t.
I’ll save the schematic and strategic pitfalls of playing either of Seth Curry (no defense) or Danny Green (pure 3-and-D) in crunch time for another piece, but neither is an ideal fit to close out games in the playoffs—at least not for a contender. Shake Milton, on the other hand, is romanticized within the fan base to a certain degree, but isn’t the sort of player who should be considered in these discussions (at least not right now).
Adding as many two-way players with dynamic offensive skillsets is the name of the game, and no substitute of role players, 3-and-D wings, stretch bigs, or backup ball-handlers can replace that. While the Sixers have a fun group of supplemental pieces around their “big three” of Embiid-Ben-Tobi, they’re still another valuable, starter-level piece away from being a real contender in this league.