Horford, Harris Lead the Way Without Embiid as 76ers Defeat Pistons 117-111

By Matt Gregan, Sports Talk Philly Editor

It was not pretty, but the Philadelphia 76ers got it done on Saturday night. Playing without superstar big man Joel Embiid, the 76ers battled and defeated the Detroit Pistons 117-111. Philadelphia is off to a 2-0 start to the season for the first time since the 2013-14 season. 

After a sloppy first half, Philadelphia headed into halftime down 57-54 and with some things they needed to change. The Pistons came out of the half and went on a 13-3 run, building up a 10-point lead. However, Tobias Harris caught fire for 16 points in the third quarter to give the Sixers a slim lead going into the fourth quarter. 

In the fourth quarter, Ben Simmons and Al Horford dominated to the tune of a 34-28 advantage in the final quarter. Horford scored 15 of his 23 points in the final quarter of play, including hitting a key three-pointer in the game's final minutes. 

Here are some observations from the team's hard-fought victory.

Al Horford shows why the 76ers signed him in free agency

On Saturday night, fans got their first taste of the 76ers without Embiid (left ankle sprain). One of the reasons general manager Elton Brand signed Horford was for nights like Saturday, and Horford filled in with a good performance that included an excellent fourth quarter and some solid defense. 

Heading into the fourth quarter, Horford was struggling on offense to the tune of only eight points. However, something clicked in the final quarter and he caught fire. He got more comfortable on the floor and the Sixers utilized him in some pick-and-rolls to great success. He finished the quarter with 15 points, including a couple important three-pointers, and played a big role in helping the team overcome some sloppy play to still be able to get the victory. 

On the defensive end, Horford did a good job rebounding and altering shots at the rim. Albeit not as good of an inside defender as Embiid, Horford still has the basketball smarts and the ability to be a top-line defender at his position. While it does not show in the box score (only one steal and no blocks), his impact on the game defensively was almost as big as his impact offensively. 

Another big positive from Horford's night is his confidence never wavered. After shooting the ball poorly in the first three quarters, he kept continuing to shoot in the fourth and the shots started going in. His veteran presence on Philadelphia's roster came into play against Detroit, which was especially good on a night when they did not have Embiid. 

Has the Clippers' version of Tobias Harris arrived?

Since being traded to Philadelphia in the middle of last season, Harris has never quite been himself on offense. In 27 games as a member of the 76ers last season, he shot a meager 32.6% from 3-point range and struggled to fit in an offense filled with multiple big-time scorers. As a member of the Clippers for the previous two seasons, Harris consistently shot over 40% from deep and was a 20-point scorer on a nightly basis. 

Harris exploded for 29 points (10-of-15 shooting, 4-of-6 from beyond the arc), including 16 in the third quarter, in what could prove to be his coming out party this season. His role in the Sixers' offense this season is much clearer and bigger than it was last season, and it has clearly already had a positive effect.

Harris is arguably the team's best outside shooter and will be relied upon to consistently hit shots from beyond the arc and come up big in clutch situations. For at least one night, he showed he could be the go-to guy when the Sixers need him. Let's hope he can do it consistently. 

Matisse Thybulle's first NBA start

With Embiid out of the lineup on Saturday, head coach Brett Brown gave rookie Matisse Thybulle his first career start, replacing Embiid's spot in the starting lineup. Thybulle had an up-and-down game. He continued to interrupt the opposing offense, recording two steals and affecting a countless number of other plays, while bringing a speed and energy to the floor that the 76ers needed. 

However, his offensive game is very much a work in progress. He failed to score a point while missing all three of his shots. He could clearly benefit from slowing the game down mentally, as he rushed multiple layup attempts  and committed four turnovers against Detroit. 

Mike Scott, James Ennis III lead the bench unit's strong performance against Detroit

One of the areas the 76ers have improved in the most from last season is their bench production. Mike Scott came in and hit a countless number of threes throughout the game, finishing with 17 points while shooting 5 of 6 from beyond the arc. His first-half performance was one of the bright spots in an otherwise bleak first half for the Sixers. 

James Ennis III also came in and played some solid minutes of basketball for the 76ers. He finished with nine points and three rebounds in 11 minutes of action. Both Ennis III and Scott bring a certain level of grit to the court that goes a long way towards helping improve the 76ers' bench unit. 

Shake Milton makes his case to pass Furkan Korkmaz in the rotation

Through the first two games this season, Brown has gone to Furkan Korkmaz as one of the first wings off the bench. Korkmaz has the potential to be a good shooter off the bench, but he has yet to show it thus far in his NBA career. Against Detroit, Korkmaz failed to score a single point and finished with the worst +/- on the team. When he is not making his outside shots, he provides little to nothing on the court. 

Shake Milton is a young player on the 76ers' bench who should be getting more consistent minutes over a player like Korkmaz. He is younger and has a higher potential. On Saturday night, he had one of the best performances of his career, finishing with an efficient 10 points while also recording two assists and two rebounds in 12 minutes off the bench. Milton has the scoring ability, especially as a slasher, and should be receiving more minutes off the bench so he can continue to develop and produce on the floor. 

Stats and other important things

  • The 76ers shot 38.2% from 3-point range against Detroit. However, that does not tell the whole story. For much of the game, Philadelphia could not hit anything from outside (other than a couple of threes by Mike Scott). Harris exploded in the second half and Horford's shots started going through the bottom of the net in the fourth quarter. Outside shooting should still be a concern for the 76ers this season. They need to add more consistent outside shooters if they are to reach their potential this season.
  • Kyle O'Quinn had a quiet night overall while playing as the team's backup center, but he did make a few good defensive plays against Andre Drummond in the fourth quarter. 
  • The 76ers played sloppy basketball for the first three quarters, whether it was missing open shots or committing bad turnovers. The team finished with 22 turnovers and struggled to shoot a high percentage from the free-throw line (only 66.7% on 30 attempts). Against good teams, the Sixers will have to play a better and smoother brand of basketball if they are to win.