In theory, the Sixers are a formidable team when Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and Jimmy Butler all play.
In practice, that hasn’t happened very often lately.
But on Tuesday night in Los Angeles, Butler (right wrist sprain) and Embiid (rest) returned to the lineup after missing Saturday's loss in Denver. Wilson Chandler was also back after sitting out Saturday with left hamstring tightness.
With all three stars in the lineup, the Sixers (33-18) beat the Lakers, 121-105.
Ben Simmons had 19 points, eight rebounds and six assists, while Butler had 20 points, six assists and five steals. Embiid posted 28 points, 11 rebounds and six assists.
• The Sixers sprinted out to a 39-20 lead after the first quarter, one of the team’s more impressive periods of the season. The defense was excellent early, spurring a ton of easy opportunities in transition. Butler came away with a steal on the Lakers’ first possession and then hit Ben Simmons with a lob on the fast break. A few minutes later, Simmons returned the favor to Butler.
Those two were exemplary on defense, reading the passing lanes and flying around to create turnovers.
• Butler played the point when Simmons was off the floor. As we detailed before, it makes sense that Brett Brown would want to try giving Butler some minutes at the one as he seeks to develop the Butler-Embiid offensive pairing. It gives Butler a chance to attack downhill from the top of the key, and he’s more than skilled enough as a ball handler and decision maker to handle point guard duties. For someone getting his first sustained minutes at the position with the Sixers, Butler looked very comfortable, especially when running pick-and-rolls with Embiid.
Another impact of using Butler at the one could be fewer minutes for T.J. McConnell, which wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for the Sixers. McConnell’s hustle, defensive effort and mid-range shooting are all valuable for the Sixers. That said, the team would likely be better off if a player with his limitations in terms of defending non-point guards and shooting from long range was playing fewer than the 21.2 minutes per game McConnell is currently.
• A potential downside of playing Butler and Embiid together more could be longer stints without either of that pair on the floor. The Lakers went on a 16-0 run in the second quarter with Embiid and Butler on the bench, punctuated by a two-handed Brandon Ingram dunk over former teammate Corey Brewer. Without LeBron James, who missed his 17th straight game with a left groin strain, Ingram was the centerpiece of the Lakers’ offense, and he had a huge night, with a career-high 36 points on 16 for 20 shooting.
After a belated timeout, Brown brought Embiid back in, and Wilson Chandler ended the Los Angeles run with two timely threes.
The same lineup that conceded that second-quarter run, with McConnell at the point, Brewer and Landry Shamet on the wings, and Simmons at the four, didn’t fare too well in the third quarter either. Outside of giving the ball to Simmons in the post and cutting off him, there just aren’t too many offensive options.
• Jonah Bolden missed Tuesday’s game with a sore right Achilles, which left Mike Muscala as the Sixers’ backup center. Amir Johnson, who returned to the rotation on Saturday night in Denver, did not play.
Muscala wasn’t great defensively, but he scored 17 points on 6 for 13 shooting.
• It feels like we say it a lot, but yet again, Embiid didn’t seem to be at his sharpest and still posted stellar numbers.
Early in the fourth quarter, we were reminded of how precarious his casual greatness is. Embiid rose to dunk an alley-oop from Simmons and was stuffed by the rim, then landed awkwardly. He appeared to hurt his back on the play and briefly headed to the locker room. With four minutes left, Embiid returned to the game for two minutes, then exited once the Sixers had sealed the victory.
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