Ben Simmons missed a second consecutive game Friday night with an illness. Any time Joel Embiid is healthy and available, though, the Sixers have a good chance.
The team improved to 20-10 overall and 19-5 when Embiid plays with a 112-105 win over the Bulls behind Embiid’s career-high 50 points, 17 rebounds, five assists, four blocks and two steals.
Tobias Harris added 22 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists.
The Sixers’ next game is Sunday against the Raptors in Tampa Bay. Head coach Doc Rivers expects Shake Milton, who sat out a fifth consecutive game Friday with a left ankle sprain, to play.
Here are observations on the Sixers’ win over Chicago and Embiid's incredible night:
Can’t contain Embiid
Both starting centers led their teams in scoring early on, with Wendell Carter Jr. hitting from the mid-range on his way to 10 points in the opening period. Embiid put up 14 first-quarter points on 5-for-6 shooting with his usual blend of overwhelming strength and skill.
The Sixers had success using him at the top of the key, where he was difficult to double team. The variety of offensive floor spots for Embiid has been a fruitful development in Rivers’ first year on the job. With Simmons out, it made sense to give Embiid the ball on most half-court possessions and let him survey the floor for the best look possible. That was often a shot for himself, although he did dish a nice assist to Danny Green for a corner three-pointer and made several other impressive passes.
Carter was called for a Flagrant 1 foul with 5:28 left in the first after blocking Embiid’s shot and then hitting the All-Star center in the face with his follow through, drawing blood. The officials, upon review, deemed the play “unnecessary contact to the face.”
Though Embiid has obviously been motivated and given excellent effort all season, he seemed especially engaged in the matchup against Carter.
“Every single night, I feel the same way," Embiid said. "What got me even more going (is) I was pissed off that Carter ... he had a quick eight, 10 points. ... I needed to play better defense and then also go on the other end and get him in foul trouble or just score on him — just will the team."
The big man earned the Sixers extra possessions by scrapping for offensive rebounds, carved out post position, and even went coast to coast for an and-one, Euro step layup late in the second quarter.
He didn’t lose any steam after halftime, either.
This is a special player having a special season. The question of whether he’ll be healthy when the playoffs arrive is always a question lurking in the background, but he moved incredibly well for a 7-footer Friday night and didn’t seem hampered by the back tightness that has bothered him this season.
He essentially sealed the game with a fadeaway jumper that players his size aren't supposed to be capable of making.
Not a ton of support
The Sixers’ bench continues to look unsteady and unable to dependably hold leads built by the starters. Roles appear to still be up for grabs — as they should be — and Isaiah Joe remained in the rotation Friday, at least during the first half.
One of Joe’s better qualities early in his NBA career has been his attention to detail defensively. He generally rotates well and is where the team needs him to be, as was the case on a second-quarter steal when he dropped down to snuff out a potential Daniel Gafford layup. His shot hasn’t fallen the last two games, though, as he misfired on both his field goal attempts against the Bulls in his six minutes on the floor.
Furkan Korkmaz committed two first-half turnovers that could best be described as throwing the ball to nobody in particular. Though Rivers has been patient with Korkmaz, who was sidelined for 11 games earlier this season with a left adductor strain, the Turkish wing will have to make three-point shots, play passable defense and be a solid decision-maker if he wants to stick in the rotation all season. He hasn’t been checking those boxes recently and, despite his disappointment about not playing more during the playoffs last year, has yet to prove he’s capable of productive postseason minutes.
Tyrese Maxey had a rough night, too, converting 3 of 11 field goal attempts and allowing Ryan Arcidiacono a backcourt steal and layup with a careless inbounds pass early in the fourth quarter.
“We’ve got to have Tobias, Joel or Ben with that unit," Rivers said. “And when we don’t, sometimes you just look at the lead. Tonight was one of those things where honestly, I was just looking at the score. You could see it’s going to be one of these games where it’s going to come down to the end. We used the second unit in the second half to get to eight minutes (left in the game). That’s what we were trying to do.”
Overall, Embiid’s teammates provided very little offensive assistance and a lot of missed open shots. Harris’ 13 second-half points were vital as the Sixers found advantageous matchups with him in the post.
“When you look at different guys who are matched up with me, it’s either I’m taller than them, or stronger or faster," Harris said. "I try to just use one of those every night."
Neither team had a good evening from three-point range as the Sixers went 7 for 21 and Chicago was 7 for 32. The Sixers will take it as a relatively rare game in which they didn’t concede an advantage beyond the arc to their opponent.
Thybulle on LaVine
Matisse Thybulle was the Sixers’ primary defender against Zach LaVine, who entered Friday’s game averaging 28.5 points with a 64.9 true shooting percentage. The Sixers were willing to switch when required and shaded help in LaVine’s direction on his drives, figuring he was less dangerous as a passer than as a scorer.
The assignment was a good test of Thybulle’s discipline and he passed it by mostly playing solid positional defense and avoiding foul trouble, which very well could’ve been costly without Simmons. LaVine still led the Bulls with 30 points on 9-for-28 shooting.
Thybulle again contributed little offensively, though the Sixers likely didn’t expect much from him on that end of the floor. He’s tremendous in a zone but certainly not anywhere near shabby playing man-to-man.
“Matisse is like the secret sauce tonight," Rivers said. "People are going to look at his line and they’re not going to see much. What did he have, two points? But he was so huge tonight defensively. When you can get away with not double teaming Zach LaVine in a game … it makes you a much better defensive team.
"Our whole thing was funnel him down, funnel him down. Matisse did that. I thought his length bothered him a couple times. LaVine made one tough three late. On that three, we told Matisse, ‘Make him beat you off the dribble, funnel him to Joel, stay on the sides and use your length.’ And Joel was there. Both guys were huge.”