December 3rd. December 1st. November 11th. October 23rd. At least in one respect, the Sixers are moving decisively in the right direction.
Yes, the Sixers posted a W, and it's still a week until Halloween. Earlier-starting season helps, of course, but what helps even more is having Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Robert Covington in the lineup. The three of them dominated in Detroit last night, particularly in the fourth quarter, and the 76ers were able to cling on to an early lead to escape with a 97-86 victory.
This was by no means guaranteed, by the way. The Pistons were 2-1, with a decent roster and far more year-to-year lineup consistency -- a loss would hardly have been shocking, which would've dropped the 76ers to 0-4 going into a matchup with the firebreathing Houston Rockets. And man did it look like the Sixers were gonna cough this one up, despite leading by as much as 21 in the second and by 10 with just five minutes to go, with the Pistons multiple times cutting the lead down to a single possession.
But Joel Embiid would not be denied on the evening. You knew The Process was gonna bounce back from his career worst 4-16 performance against Boston in the Sixers' home opener, and bounce he did, to the resounding tune of 30 points on 11-15 shooting in just 28 minutes -- with seven turnovers and five fouls, but both forgivable considering what an efficient force he was otherwise on both ends, finishing a resounding +21 on the night. It was Embiid's first 30-point performance since that fateful final Houston game last season, and you knew how valuable he was on the night by how much you had to grit your teeth whenever he wasn't in there -- especially since you wouldn't trust Amir Johnson to throw out a 95% empty soda can (or prevent anyone else at the party from doing the same) at this point.
And yet Embiid's stat line was not the Sixers' most impressive. Those honors go to one Benjamin David Simmons -- you get the triple-double, you get the triple name -- who scored 21 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and handed out 10 assists, with an extremely excusable four turnovers. It was easily Simmons' best performance in the half-court, working the pick-and-roll beautifully with Embiid late, lofting him floaters to where only he could grab 'em and slam 'em. He also hit a couple jumpers, and most impressively, he's showing consistency on his short hook shot in the paint, which he should be able to get approximately 20 times a game if he wants it when he drives the paint, freezes and turns.
As boring and misleading as it can be to emphasize statistical history so early in the season with a player like Simmons -- especially when the team went 1-3 over his first four games -- the numbers are impressive enough that it's worth giving 'em the bold-and-underlined treatment. In four NBA games, Ben Simmons has still yet to *not* post a double-double, and according to ESPN, he's the first player since 1967 -- 50 years ago!! -- to post a trip-dub so early in his playing career. He's averaging 18-11-7, he's shooting 49% from the field (and an acceptable-ish 62% from the line), and he has a PER near 20. He has been awesome, and it's been just the beginning.
But as amazing as our apparent franchise twin pillars were last night, I still might give the game ball to Robert Covington for this one. Cov was an absolute savior last night, bailing the Sixers out with a couple crucial late-game steals and one enormous triple in the fourth, and just generally being his usual hands-all-over self on defense, disrupting the Pistons on the perimeter and playing safety in and around the paint. He is as critical to this team's success as anyone, and he showed it on the court last night, if not as obviously in the box score. (Also special shout-out to T.J. McConnell, who hit arguably the biggest shot of the night with a corner three to give Philly some late breathing room -- like Shaq, he makes 'em when they matter.)
To rave about all this good, we need to at least touch on a little of the bad, which means we have to talk about the MFer a minute. There's not really much else to say about Markelle at this point -- he's playing tough defense, he's moving the ball pretty well and he generally looks like he gives a crap, but he just isn't helping the team when he's not shooting his jumper. The good news was that we didn't have to have a heart attack over his free-throw form in this one, but the bad news is that's because he didn't get to the line. He went careening into the paint, and because the defenders new he wouldn't pull up, they were able to play him straight up and force sprawling misses, Fultz finishing 1-5 for 2 points. (BTW, don't think you're getting off the hook either, Jerryd Bayless -- you ever jack from three on a 3-on-1 in transition again, you're on the bench till Christmas. Only one J.J. Redick allowed per team.)
But whatever. The Sixers are on the board, and even earlier than a handful of other teams. We beat a playoff hopeful on the road in our third game in four nights, and we did so unspectacularly but convincingly -- y'know, like an average decent team would. That's the Sixers right now: worse than the good teams, better than the bad teams. An exceedingly reasonable place to be, especially since as Embiid and Simmons (and once we find him a jump-shot exorcist, hopefully Fultz as well) continue to develop chemistry, things should only be getting better from here.