The Sixers’ ceiling is, without a doubt, highest when both of their All-Stars are available.
Still, they couldn’t have replaced Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid much better than they did Thursday night at United Center. With that duo quarantining after exposure to an individual who tested positive for COVID-19, the Sixers cruised past the Bulls in their first game after the All-Star break, a 127-105 victory.
Tony Bradley scored 14 points on 7-for-7 shooting and had five rebounds and three blocks, while Matisse Thybulle tied his career-high with five steals. Tobias Harris posted 24 points on 8-for-15 shooting.
If Embiid returns a negative lab-based PCR coronavirus test Friday, he will be cleared to play in the Sixers’ game against the Wizards. The earliest Simmons could return to team activities is Saturday.
Here are three observations on the 25-12 Sixers’ win over Chicago:
Replacement starters shine
Bradley started for the first time since Jan. 31 and took full advantage of the opportunity. He was sharp and obviously ready to play in his first stint, slamming in a dunk after he rolled to the rim off of a dribble handoff with Harris and banking in a crisp jump hook over Wendell Carter Jr.
We knew heading into this season that rebounding was a strong suit for Bradley, but he showed Thursday that he possesses some touch and offensive skill, too.
Embiid was watching and impressed by what he saw from Bradley.
“I love the support, especially with Tony," head coach Doc Rivers said. “Tony has lost a good 25 pounds since the season has started. He works every single day on his body and on his skill. Just because he doesn’t play doesn’t mean the other guys don’t notice what he’s doing. I thought the entire bench — everyone — was so happy for him as he was playing.
“Those first two baskets, Dwight (Howard) was running around the floor celebrating, because they see the work. The fans, they’re not able to see the work that guys who don’t (regularly) play do. That was good tonight, for all of us.”
Thybulle, who started in Simmons’ place, was excellent from the jump, picking up four first-quarter steals and disrupting just about everything the Bulls tried to do offensively. Zach LaVine didn’t score until Thybulle went to the bench. He had 19 points on 7-for-16 shooting in the game.
That Thybulle is capable of checking a star while also creating havoc away from the ball remains very impressive. The balance between being solid and going for highlight-reel plays has at times been tricky for Thybulle early in his NBA career, but there’s no question he’s able to do both when he’s at his best.
We’ve cited this statistic several times, but it’s a good one: Entering this game, both Thybulle’s 3.2 steal percentage and 2.6 block percentage were comfortably best among all NBA wings, per Cleaning the Glass. He is an outlier.
Not every performance has to tie back to the March 25 trade deadline, of course, but we’ll simply say that the Sixers appreciate Thybulle’s special defensive talents and view him as more than a decent young player, as they should. His ability to defend top perimeter scorers still projects as very valuable in the playoffs.
Not that it was necessary for him to have a positive impact, but Thybulle’s jumper was falling, too. He scored a season-high 13 points on 5-for-5 shooting.
Not 50, but not too shabby
Asked before the game what the Sixers hoped to see from Harris, Rivers said, “Fifty points would be great, you know.”
That’s the amount Embiid scored the last time the Sixers played the Bulls, his career-high, and obviously not a realistic goal. Harris was well off that pace in the first period, missing his first five field goal attempts, but he didn’t lose any aggression. He took eight first-half free throws, making seven.
So much of the Sixers’ offense comes from Simmons and Embiid, but Harris doesn’t seem to mind when more responsibility shifts onto his shoulders. Rivers knows he’s comfortable operating in the pick-and-roll and skilled at consistently finding mid-range looks for himself, and Harris was good in both those areas Thursday.
Despite the slow start, Harris had his way against No. 4 overall pick Patrick Williams, looking the part of a veteran star. The Sixers didn’t need him to be otherworldly because of what they got from Thybulle and Bradley, but give Harris credit for leading the way offensively without Simmons and Embiid.
Rivers, who was feeling under the weather Wednesday and missed the Sixers' practice, also liked what he saw from Seth Curry, who had 12 points on 5-for-15 shooting, seven assists and two steals.
“It was really encouraging," he said. “I was obviously in bed during practice, but I watched it on film. Him and Tobias yesterday set the tone. We had a hard practice yesterday. ... Back in my day, everyone called it the garbage-can practice where you’d practice for three or four hours and they’d just put a garbage can out until the first guy threw up, and then practice was over. You can’t do that these days. But we went hard, and I thought Seth and Tobias in particular set the tone ... and I thought that carried over today.”
Second unit strong as Howard does his thing
The Sixers’ bench helped turn the tide in the second half of the team’s win over the Jazz before the All-Star break. Howard improbably made a three-pointer during a productive flurry, helping to give the Sixers a chance to beat Utah.
Led by an aggressive Furkan Korkmaz (16 points) and a physical, rim-rolling Howard, the second unit picked up where it left off in Chicago. Howard didn’t convert every opportunity near the hoop, missing a dunk and chucking the ball out of bounds on one play where he thought he’d been fouled, but he stuck to his strengths and was largely effective.
When he’s playing well, Howard is still a nuisance for the opposition, and not just because of his regular off-ball jostling. He posted a season-high 18 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks.
Though former Sixer Thaddeus Young had 14 points in 17 minutes, proving difficult to handle at times for Howard and Bradley, the Sixers’ bench outscored Chicago’s by a 55-33 margin. Rivers used a nine-man rotation, with Tyrese Maxey not appearing until the game was decided in the fourth quarter.
“I think it shows that we have what we need to win," Howard said. “We’ve just got to believe. We have a full roster of guys who are very talented and can help on both ends of the floor. It’s just all about believing and I think for guys like Tony tonight, it shows him that he can compete and he can play at a high level. He’s just got to continue to work hard like he’s been doing every day.
“I’m very proud of him, proud of this team and how we came out tonight — but we’ve got to keep it going. We celebrate tonight on the plane and when we land in Washington, it’s all about what we’ve got to do in Washington. I’m really happy for this team and the success that we’ve had, but we’ve got to continue to get better.”