Instant Observations: Sixers Begin Road Trip With Win Over Bulls Despite Embiid Missing Second Half

Chicago Bulls guard Patrick Beverley (21) defends Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) during the first quarter at United Center. Mandatory Credit: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

The Philadelphia 76ers began a four-game road trip with a convincing 116-91 win over the Chicago Bulls at the United Center on Wednesday night.

Tobias Harris finished with 20 points, nine rebounds and eight assists. Tyrese Maxey added in 21 points, five rebounds and four assists. Joel Embiid’s streak of games with 30-plus points came to an end at 10. He played in just the first half (more below), finishing with 12 points, seven rebounds and seven assists.

The Sixers played this game without James Harden (left Achilles soreness) and Jalen McDaniels (right hip soreness). Head coach Doc Rivers said after the loss to the Bulls on Monday Harden was “hurting.” Getting him healthy heading into the postseason is a top priority, so it made sense for the team to hold him out of this contest.

The Bulls were led in the loss by Coby White, who finished with 19 points off the bench. Zach LaVine added in 16 points and four assists. Chicago was without Lonzo Ball (left knee surgery), Alex Caruso (left midfoot soreness) and Justin Lewis (right knee surgery). DeMar DeRozan exited the game early with a right quad strain.

The Sixers currently sit at 49-23 on the season. Their road trip continues with a matchup against the Golden State Warriors on Friday night. Here are instant observations from the win over the Bulls:

– The Sixers’ offense was stuck in the mud on Monday against Chicago. Their start in this game was the antithesis of the way they played in their prior game. The ball movement was crisp and the shots were falling, they connected on seven of their first nine shots of the game. The result was a 17-0 run to open things up, forcing the Bulls to call two timeouts within the game’s first three and a half minutes. The lead ballooned to as high as 23-1 before Chicago’s offense got anything going. The Bulls first made field goal did not come until a Nikola Vucevic dunk with 6:34 remaining in the first quarter.

Philadelphia’s offense did not miss a step despite Harden being out the lineup. Multiple players stepped up their playmaking abilities to effectively run the offense. Harris made good reads with the ball, especially when playing out of the mid-range. He was also productive as a scorer, making multiple off-ball cuts that resulted in either a basket for himself or freeing up someone else. He has received more consistent touches in recent games, and that has helped him get back into rhythm.

The ball movement was excellent overall as well. Twenty-three of their 26 made field goals in the first half were assisted. They had an answer for everything the Bulls through at them whether it was traps, double teams or something else. It helped that the shots were falling, unlike on Monday night when the Sixers shot just 42.2% from the field.

– Embiid took advantage of Harden being out to showcase what he is capable of as a playmaking center, pulling out a plethora of moves from his bag of tricks. There were multiple plays where he brought the ball up in transition and found an open teammate. On the play below, he utilized a yo-yo dribble on the fast break before finding Danuel House Jr for a dunk.

Embiid masterfully orchestrated the offense through the nail and elbow areas. Late in the second quarter, he whipped a pass out of the post to De’Anthony Melton for an open 3-pointer. He also had success when facing up at the elbow, efficiently dissecting Chicago double teams and finding the open man. He has progressed as a playmaker to the point where he will destroy teams who choose to leave open shooters around the perimeter. The lone playmaking blemish on his night came when he turned the ball over twice in the final minute of the first half.

It is not fair to everyone else around the league to have a player with the combination of his size, athleticism, scoring, playmaking and defensive abilities. His performance against the Bulls can serve as a reminder of all he is capable of.

Embiid did not come out of the tunnel at the start of the second half, prompting a lot of questions. The NBC Sports Philadelphia telecast said over halfway through the third quarter Embiid was “unlikely to return” due to the “score differential”. The Sixers held a 28-point lead coming out of halftime. Nobody knows why it took nearly 20 minutes for the team to release an official reason for his absence. Getting him some extra rest would make sense considering the Sixers have a back-to-back beginning on Friday.

After the game, the story changed. The team announced Embiid did not play in the second half due to “mild right calf tightness.” He is still expected to play on Friday against the Warriors. The way this entire situation was handled is odd, in other words it was classic Sixers.

– Maxey made a large impact on the game for the Sixers. His role did not change much despite Harden being out of the lineup. Most of his damage came from his scoring ability, specifically on his 3-point shooting. He canned four shots from long distance in the first half, helping to space the floor and spread out the Chicago defense. The progression he made in his outside shooting since being a below average shooter at Kentucky is incredible. He also used his speed and change-of-pace ability to carve up the Bulls’ defense on drives to the basket.

– Melton notched another strong performance onto his belt, making a two-way impact against the Bulls. His defense on LaVine effectively slowed him down, never allowing the Chicago guard to get into any rhythm. He also used his active hands to pester the Bulls’ offense. Chicago ball handlers needed to always know where Melton was on the floor. There were a few occurrences of Melton poking the ball out from behind.

Offensively, Melton continued to be in rhythm from beyond the arc, knocking down four of his nine attempts from long distance. He was in a cold stretch in the month of February, but over the last few weeks he regained form and is back to tallying all-around stat lines. He finished this game with a team-high 25 points to go with four rebounds, four assists, three steals and a block. The Bulls are happy to be rid of Melton after what he did against them the last two games.

– With McDaniels out, House Jr took his spot in the rotation and ran with it. He brings a certain amount of energy and chaos to the floor the Sixers’ second unit could use on occasion. He has the athleticism to be a solid defender, and when his offense is clicking he can be a useful player in the rotation. In recent weeks, he has done enough offensively to warrant receiving more minutes. Against Chicago, he recorded two steals and did a fair job spacing the floor (1-of-3 from 3-point range). Teams will leave him open in the corner, he just has to knock down those shots often enough to make opposing defenses pay.

Paul Reed also had a good performance off the bench. He was active on the glass, recording four rebounds (two offensive). It is clear he is putting in the work to expand his offensive game, although the results are not always there. He attempted a jump stop while driving the basket in the first half but was called for a travel. In the second half, he euro-stepped his way through two defenders for a layup.

One mistake the Bulls made was to attempt to run out a small-ball lineup with Reed on the floor. Reed and the Sixers made them pay. He ate up the smaller Chicago defenders, killing them on the glass and often getting to the free-throw line. Between his defensive impact, expanded offensive ability and effort on the glass, Reed has turned himself into a good rotation player.