ATLANTA — Following a one-point loss in Boston, Joel Embiid reflected on how the 76ers’ run-in with health and safety protocols and minor injuries was the latest example in his NBA career of “every single time we’ve got something going on, something always seems to happen or show up.”
By late Friday, he was flexing his arms, bouncing up and down, and screaming near midcourt to celebrate a gutsy 98-96 victory over a rolling Hawks team, during which he made the game-winning jumper with less than a minute to play as part of a 28-point, 12-rebound, 4-assist, 2-block performance.
One game does not completely erase the lingering effects of the Sixers’ immense personnel instability during the last month. But the dramatic comeback victory in Atlanta was a positive step in the Sixers’ quest to smooth out what had previously been a choppy re-acclimation process since their (nearly) full complement of players returned.
“We’re not going to make excuses,” forward Georges Niang said. “We’re just out there having each other’s back and playing the right way. [The Boston game] definitely hurt, but it’s good to see it pay off in the next game that we played. ... This is definitely something we can build off of moving forward.”
The trajectory of the Sixers’ early season dramatically shifted when four players, including Embiid and Tobias Harris, went into health and safety protocols and four others missed at least one game with minor injuries during a four-week period. Philly went from being 8-2 and boasting the NBA’s most efficient offense to losers of nine of their previous 12 games entering Friday and on the outside of the play-in tournament in the still-way-too-early standings from a jumbled Eastern Conference.
Entering the season, this level of roster shuffling was not expected. Other than the ongoing Ben Simmons situation, the Sixers boasted a ton of continuity. Their other four starters — as well as new lead point guard Tyrese Maxey — were returners. The new rotation players, Niang and center Andre Drummond, were veterans who have naturally slid into their roles.
Yet after a loss at Golden State the night before Thanksgiving, reserve wing Matisse Thybulle said, “I almost don’t even remember what it’s like to have everyone back. … There’s going to be a learning curve of getting back to where things were before all of this.” Then, Philly’s return to its opening-night starting lineup became short-lived after two games, when Harris became a late scratch for Friday’s game because of a non-COVID, flu-like illness.
There is no substitution for game reps. And on-court time in between those outings is limited under coach Doc Rivers, who typically holds full-blown practices only when there is more than one day between games. The Sixers’ last practice was Nov. 15 in Salt Lake City, though they should have one this weekend during a five-day stint in Charlotte that includes two consecutive games against the Hornets on Monday and Wednesday. Instead, the Sixers primarily rely on film sessions, meetings, game-day shootarounds, and individual conversations to rebuild that rapport.
Naturally, getting Embiid back in rhythm was the top priority for an offense that had slipped to 10th in the NBA in efficiency (109.7 points per 100 possessions) entering Friday.
After exploding for 42 points (following a 2-of-7 start from the floor in the first half) in a double-overtime loss to Minnesota in his return from COVID-19, Embiid made just seven of his 33 shot attempts in his next two games, against the Magic and Celtics. He was constantly being swarmed by double teams, making it difficult to put the ball on the floor or get deep into the paint.
“The whole season I haven’t gotten any easy ones,” Embiid said Wednesday. “It feels like I got to work for everything. … Most of the time, if I want to get a shot off, I got to go with fadeaways and shooting off the dribble.”
Friday night, he was much more aggressive and mixed up getting to the paint, drawing contact for trips to the free-throw line and taking mid-range and three-point jumpers. The Sixers ran creative sets to get Embiid in the right spots, or in position to facilitate to an open teammate. After starting the game 3-for-10 from the field, he went 7-for-13 after the break.
“That was a breakthrough for him in the fact that, since COVID, trying to get his rhythm back,” Rivers said. “That was big for him. ... Joel already knows what to do, but he needed to get to doing it.”
Embiid repeated multiple times on Wednesday that the Sixers needed to communicate better. Rivers then rated his team as average in that category before Friday’s shootaround, and said talking through certain on-court actions on both ends of the court had been a focal point during that morning’s film session.
Yet communication can also occur away from the floor. Niang said he and Harris sit near each other on the team plane and have constant conversations, watching film and nitpicking the details of player tendencies and how to react to opponent strategies.
Pace is another offensive element that Rivers stresses. To the coach, that term is not just about pushing the ball instead of walking it up. It’s about generating more consistent ball and body movement instead of taking “the first available average shot,” as the coach said the Sixers did against the Celtics.
The ball had not been touching the paint enough via post-ups, drives, and cuts, Rivers added. The coach said Philly averages 67-70 paint points per game — the staff also counts when the ball reaches the paint to create the spacing for an open shot immediately outside of it — and regularly hit 80 points when the offense was humming at the beginning of the season. On a night the Sixers shot 37.1% from the field against Boston, that figure was around 40 points, Rivers said. The effort to get into the lane regularly falls on Maxey, who is going through the first shooting rut of his young career but has the speed to be a consistent threat.
“Those nights can’t happen,” Rivers said of the lack of paint production. “What it tells you is you’re not aggressive, you’re not attacking. … When we do that, we’re really, really good offensively. When we don’t do that and settle, we just have to have a great shooting night.”
That lack of continuity can also hamper a team’s ability to finish off close games in crunch time, another area the Sixers had struggled with prior to Friday. Earlier in the week, the Sixers had the final possession of that double-overtime loss to the Timberwolves (when they committed a turnover) and one-point loss to Boston (when they could not get the ball to Embiid for a shot). Eight of their 11 losses entering Friday were by single digits.
But two nights after describing his team’s offensive execution as “really bad,” Rivers praised Friday’s sharp play down the stretch. The Sixers finished the game on a 7-0 run, including a Curry three-pointer out of a timeout he called a “Doc special” and two Embiid pull-ups to tie the game and then take a two-point lead.
Defense also requires rhythm and chemistry to move as one unit. After boasting the NBA’s second-best rating a season ago, Rivers acknowledged before Friday’s shootaround that he was not quite sure where this team’s version currently stands on that end of the floor. But after becoming visibly leaky without top defenders Embiid and Thybulle during their time in protocols, the Sixers entering Friday had moved up to 18th in efficiency (108.3 points allowed per 100 possessions) in the last couple of weeks.
Then, the Sixers held the Hawks to nine points during Friday’s decisive fourth quarter, utilizing traps against superstar Trae Young that they had “been working on all year, and we did them right,” Rivers said. Embiid and Niang also both described sequences when the defense crisply rotated, covered and helped, including on the possession that ended with Curry’s steal with 32.3 seconds to play.
Even this return to a (nearly) full roster has hit snags. Though the starting lineup was intact Monday against Orlando and Wednesday against Boston, veteran wing Danny Green is still on a minutes restriction as he works his way back from hamstring tightness. Embiid was wearing a wrap on his hand at Friday’s shootaround after getting knocked by Enes Freedom on Wednesday. And Harris was not present at the team’s morning session before being ruled out a few hours later.
Rivers hopes all these lineup disruptions will be beneficial in the long run. The coach said he discovered some combinations and tactics he can turn to when injuries or absences inevitably strike again during a long season. Being adaptable is also a requirement to play Rivers’ system, where the Sixers are fairly positionless except for at center.
For now, the Sixers’ task is to continue smoothing out what began as a choppy re-acclimation process, even while Harris is on the mend again.
Friday night’s dramatic comeback victory over the Hawks was a positive step.
“We understand that it’s not going to happen in a day,” Harris said earlier this week. “We need to figure out ways that we can continue to improve that type of chemistry game by game. … It’s going to be a challenge. No one said it’s going to be easy.”