Sixers 117, Pistons 111: No Joel Embiid, no problem in Detroit

Sixers 117, Pistons 111: No Joel Embiid, no problem in Detroit


Joel Embiid is a large presence for the Sixers, literally and metaphorically. 

Embiid sat on Friday night for his first game of the season, with head coach Brett Brown giving the big man some needed rest, and the Sixers felt his absence.

Yet the Sixers rallied from a 15-point deficit in Detroit to top the Pistons, 117-111, led by Jimmy Butler's 38 points, six rebounds and six assists.  

With the win, the Sixers are 18-9 on the season.

• While Butler had played together with Ben Simmons for 30.7 of his 33.3 minutes per game, head coach Brett Brown staggered his two stars’ minutes much more without Embiid. 

There was a big offensive burden on Butler, who matched his season-high of 27 field goal attempts from Wednesday night in Toronto.

Butler had no problem assuming that responsibility. He regularly created his own shots when the offense stagnated and, as is his trademark, nailed a couple key shots in the fourth period.

Simmons had a typically efficient night, with 18 points on 8 for 11 shooting, 13 rebounds and six assists.

• Amir Johnson got his first start of the season in place of Embiid. Johnson showed some of the scrappy credentials that won him the NBA’s Hustle Award last year, creating deflections and diving on the floor for loose balls. 

However, Johnson has a small fraction of Embiid’s talent. 

He didn’t have much success defensively against Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond, and he offered very little offensively besides dribble handoffs, screens and one of his distinct, slow motion three-pointers, which he missed.

Johnson fouled out in 16 minutes.

• Detroit built a sizable lead in the second quarter, scoring 41 points in the period. In the big picture, the fact that the Sixers just don’t have the personnel to fit their switch-heavy defense remains a concern. At one point, Landry Shamet got switched onto Griffin and scored on, then somehow ended up on Drummond the very next possession. 

Though some of the defensive issues Friday night can be attributed to Embiid’s absence, it’s too easy for opponents to take advantage of the Sixers’ lack of competent, switchable defenders.

• While there are fundamental issues with the defense, you can’t question the effort. The Sixers rallied from a 15-point deficit in the third period, spurred by sharp defensive rotations, the occasional smart double team on Griffin, and a few missed open looks by Detroit. 

• The Sixers received valuable contributions from Wilson Chandler and Mike Muscala, who combined for 28 points on 11 for 18 shooting. 

Muscala was especially vital, with three important blocks in the fourth and a heat check three-pointer to give the Sixers a 108-100 lead.

Chandler was a game-high plus-23.

• Griffin, who had 31 points and 12 rebounds, had an Embiid-like night in terms of his ability to get to the foul line, taking 24 free throws. 

He attempted more foul shots than the entire Sixers team — the Sixers were 20 for 21 from the foul line without Embiid, the NBA leader in free throw attempts. 

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James Harden may be MVP favorite, but Joel Embiid makes statement

James Harden may be MVP favorite, but Joel Embiid makes statement

Joel Embiid was listed as questionable for Monday night’s game, still dealing with back tightness.

With the league’s MVP favorite in the building and a national TV audience to shine for, there was little chance Embiid was going to miss this one.

Thanks in large part to the All-Star center, the Sixers rolled against James Harden and the Rockets, 121-93, at the Wells Fargo Center (see observations). Embiid’s stat line was again impressive — 32 points, 14 rebounds, three blocks in 26 minutes — but hardly shows the impact he had.

Veterans Nene and Kenneth Faired looked helpless against the league’s best big man. Then again, with the way Embiid was rolling, it’s hard to imagine anyone could’ve stopped him. While Harden may be running away with the MVP award, Embiid made a statement Monday.

He did his best to downplay the notion that Harden’s presence added any extra motivation.

“I do whatever my team needs me to do and that’s score the ball, be the best defensive player in the league, “Embiid said. “It’s good, everybody’s winning. If MVP comes with it, great. But right now we’re looking to win a lot of games and we’re doing that.”

Embiid has won the city of Philadelphia over with his game, but also his larger-than-life personality. His feuds with Andre Drummond and Russell Westbrook have reached legendary status. His Twitter and Instagram accounts have always been must-follows.

But you’ve seen less of it this season. As Embiid has matured and the goals of the team have gotten bigger, Embiid’s focus seems to have grown. Not as much trolling and what could’ve been viewed as silly arrogance has turned more into honest confidence.

And with all the injuries and minutes restrictions Embiid has dealt with, playing through some muscle soreness in his back isn’t hard.

I've been with him now for five years and the growth that he has shown through two naviculars, gaining weight, unsure if he's going to play,” Brett Brown said. “We sent him to the Middle East to find ways to help him recover and for him to come back and be rewarded with a contract, to be in MVP conversations — I appreciate him gutting something out, that is true, but it's the overall growth and the leadership especially that interests me the most.

While Harden is seen as the hands-down favorite for MVP, Embiid doesn’t even really seem to be in the conversation. Guys like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James and Stephen Curry seem to get all the attention.

Embiid is doing his best not to focus on that and while he has grown up before our eyes, he’s still having as much fun as ever.

The trash talking and trolling has quieted some, but we still get the occasional nugget.

“It was fun. We beat them by 30, so it was pretty fun for us, I don’t think it was fun for them,” Embiid said. “But [Harden’s] a great player. Have a lot of respect for him. The way they play, you just gotta key in on him and have guys like Corey [Brewer] that are really getting to him. … He’s fun. 

“I love playing against guys that you guys might say are better than me, just to prove to you guys that they’re not, but it’s fun to me.”

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Corey Brewer frustrates James Harden, earns cult hero status

Corey Brewer frustrates James Harden, earns cult hero status

It seemed like Corey Brewer had a smile on his face from the moment Brett Brown told him he’d be starting through his postgame availability.

Then again, in the short time he’s been around, it seems like this might just be the kind of guy Brewer is.

Signed last Tuesday to a 10-day contract by the Sixers, his eighth NBA team, Brewer was out there for anyone to snag. The 32-year-old wing has championship experience and started every game of a playoff series for the Thunder just a little under nine months ago.

But up until last week, he was on his couch. In Monday's win over the Rockets (see observations), he was starting in place of All-Star Jimmy Butler for a team with championship aspirations and asked to guard the most unguardable human on the planet.

I was happy. I get to play basketball. I’ve been sitting down, playing with my kids. I’ve been playing superheroes every day. I was really happy to get to play basketball. I’m a competitor. I love when I get to have a matchup like James Harden. It’s great. Let’s go.

As glad as Brewer was to be out there, this didn’t seem like an ideal matchup. 

Harden came to the Wells Fargo Center Monday looking like the NBA’s clear MVP favorite — and it doesn’t seem particularly close. He’s been playing on another planet from the rest of the league.

But for how pleasant Brewer was during his pre- and postgame availability, there was definitely a different guy out there getting in the grill of the league’s most dominant offensive player. It was clear Brewer’s goal was to frustrate Harden.

Mission accomplished.

He had some tenacity. There was swagger there,” Brown said. “I think Corey just set the stage. He set the table that spilt over with a pretty solid 48-minute performance defensively on [Harden]. For him to [finish] with eight free throws in itself is a good accomplishment.

Sure, Harden still poured in 37 points, but Brewer and company clearly got under his skin. 

There were multiple possessions in which Harden grew visibly annoyed by his former teammate in the second quarter. After the second such instance, Harden was whistled for a foul, much to the delight of the Wells Fargo Center crowd.

The fans were so appreciative that a “Cor-ey Brew-er” chant broke out. Signed to a 10-day deal and playing in just his second game, Brewer is already a cult hero in Philadelphia.

It’s Philly. They hate you or love you. I’m glad they’re on my side right now,” Brewer said. “I fit right in, I feel. We got everything — we’ve got a guy like Jimmy, a guy like Ben [Simmons], we’ve got [Joel Embiid]. Everybody else, we just gotta try to fit in. It’s all about getting to the next level, and that’s getting to the Finals.

It’s amazing that a player with Brewer’s résumé was just sitting out there. The biggest knock on him is his inability to hit threes. Basketball has shifted to such a three-heavy sport — Harden being a prime example — that Brewer’s career 28 percent mark from three perhaps overshadowed his value.

You saw that value Monday. He’s a crazy long athlete that loves to defend. Brown mentioned when they signed Brewer that he envisioned the veteran wing flying down the court with Simmons in transition.

Well …

This all begs the question: How the hell was this dude out there?

“Isn’t that what life’s all about? You get an opportunity and you hope to deliver. He did deliver,” Brown said. “I think that's what stands out most to me is you have to imagine when you’re not with a team and you’re trying to get back in the league, what you have to do physically to come out and play 34 minutes … 

“He’s good people and I’m thrilled he had the opportunity and to live it like he did.”

With how he performed Monday, Brewer certainly earned more opportunities.

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