It’s time to take the Sixers seriously. With their best player “managing his load” from the sideline, Philly earned an impressive victory on Tuesday night in Utah—and in the process, pushed its win streak to five games. No one would have blamed the Embiid-less Sixers for coming up short to start a Western Conference road trip against a team with playoff aspirations, but Brett Brown’s squad was sharp from the get-go, leading by as many as 16 points in the first quarter. When it was all said and done, a confident Sixers squad won 104-97 to move to 6-4 on the year. Let’s look at five key takeaways from the solid performance.
1. Dario Saric found a groove
This was easily Dario’s best performance of the season. Maybe he needed a game without Embiid to remember last year’s stretch run when he was the league’s best rookie. Yes, better than Brogdon. Aside from a cold spell to end the first half, Dario’s shots were falling. He was 5 for 9 from deep, including a corner three that put the Sixers up 15 with five minutes to play. He also iced the game at the line and pulled down 10 boards to go along with his game-high 25 points. With Simmons replacing him as the primary oversized playmaker, Saric is still trying to carve out his new role, but it was nice to see a flash of last year’s confidence when he zipped a one-handed pass to Justin Anderson for a layup in the third quarter.
Foul trouble for Richaun Holmes and basketball trouble for Jahlil Okafor forced Brett Brown to play Saric at center for a few minutes during this game. Most games, a steady rotation of Embiid, Holmes, and Johnson will clog up all of those minutes. And defensively, it’s always an adventure with Dario, but it was fun watching him draw Rudy Gobert away from the basket on offense. Speaking of the French big man.
2. Rudy Gobert didn’t dominate
This game had to be circled on the schedule for both Gobert and Embiid, two young, elite centers who should be in the Defensive Player of the Year conversation for years to come. When word came out that Embiid would sit, all signs pointed to a monster night for the Stifle Tower. It didn’t help the Sixers that Embiid’s replacement in the starting lineup, Richaun Holmes, was limited to just 15 minutes with foul trouble.
The duo of Amir Johnson and Saric held their own while Holmes sat. Johnson scrapped his way to a team-high +20 finish in 21 minutes. Whenever Saric operated as a small-ball five, he brought Gobert out to the perimeter, freeing up space for his teammates to get to the rim. Despite a respectable stat line of 16 points, 15 rebounds, and three blocks, Gobert finished with a game-worst -21. The Jazz never made a concerted effort to get him going offensively. After falling behind early, Utah hoisted up 39 three-point attempts. Gobert wasn’t terrible by any means, and +/- can be a misleading stat, but by the eye test alone, he didn’t leave a strong imprint on this game. Credit the Sixers’ big men for that. Well, most of the Sixers’ big men.
3. Jahlil Okafor was a short-lived disaster
Yes, it’s asking a lot of any player who’s barely played to come in and contribute positive minutes. Yes, Jahlil Okafor is the type of player who needs to get into a bit of a rhythm, as opposed to a sparkplug off the bench. Still, wow. When Okafor entered the game, J.J. Redick made a free throw to put the Sixers up 26-10 with 3:09 to play in the first quarter. Okafor would play out the rest of the quarter before sitting for the remainder of the game. Here’s a little play-by-play of his limited minutes.
Okafor fouls Ekpe Udoh off the ball with the Sixers in the bonus. Udoh hits both free throws. 26-12.
Okafor hands the ball off to Redick on the wing, who curls in for a smooth jumper. Okafor gets the assist. 28-12.
Okafor misses an ugly-looking elbow jumper.
Okafor commits his second personal foul, sending Udoh back to the line. Udoh hits the first and misses the second. Okafor gets called for a lane violation on the second, giving Udoh a third attempt, which he makes. 28-14.
Redick turns the ball over looking for Okafor rolling to the basket. The two clearly weren’t on the same page, but Redick seemed to be more at fault. Udoh’s length may have made him pass on his way up to shoot.
Following the turnover, Jonas Jerebko hits a wide open three. Saric, who was guarding Jerebko, had to cover Udoh in the paint while Okafor struggled to make it back on defense. 28-17.
One possession after Ben Simmons hit Justin Anderson for a gorgeous alley-oop, Okafor is stripped near the block and loses the ball.
Okafor commits his third foul, hitting Thabo Sefolosha on a drive to the basket. Sefolosha hits both. 30-19.
Simmons gets caught ball-watching as Sefolosha sneaks in for two, but Okafor provides no help in the lane. 30-21.
Rookie Donovan Mitchell emphatically stuffs Okafor’s shot, forcing a jump ball. A layup from Justin Anderson gave the Sixers a 32-21 lead to end the quarter.
In his three minutes, Okafor finished with a very noticeable -5. At one point, the Jazz broadcast team even joked that his entry into the game was the best thing to happen to Utah in the first quarter. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the last time we see Okafor in a Sixers uniform outside of a blowout. He’s a complete liability on the court, and this team is finally focused on winning basketball games. Hopefully, for his sake, he has a chance to continue his career elsewhere sooner rather than later. No one wants to see any more of this, including Okafor.
4. Ben Simmons continues to look like a budding superstar
In the words of Simmons himself, “That was probably the worst game individually I’ve played since I’ve been in the league.” Aside from a lackluster performance against the Celtics in game two, he might be right. On offense, in particular, Ben’s flaws were all on display. He refused to shoot from the outside, missed some open looks from mid-range, and turned the ball over too much. But guess what? He still looked like the best player on the court.
Simmons stuffed the stat sheet with 16 points, 13 rebounds, six assists, three steals, and three blocks. He continues to run the offense with a veteran calm while helping his teammates succeed. On defense, he’s more engaged than anyone anticipated this early, and he’s using his length and quickness effectively to cover guards and forwards alike. The stat-chasing reputation that followed him from LSU seems laughable already. Simmons is a team player whose powers are fully unleashed when he’s surrounded by NBA talent. The kid is special, and he’s just getting started.
5. The Sixers expected this outcome
Brett Brown is pushing all the right buttons, and these guys are starting to believe in themselves. Sure, every Sixers fan who’s stayed with the team during the Process era was anticipating an unfathomable loss when the Jazz pulled to within three at the end. This team still has a long way to go in terms of closing out games with confident execution, but they're giving opponents everything they can handle for 48 minutes each night.
Truth be told, Philly's best player has been relatively underwhelming so far compared to the lofty standards he established last season. Embiid is still working his way back into game shape, and it shows in his conditioning and decision-making. Just look up and down the rotation, though. J.J. and RoCo are hitting timely threes. TLC and Justin Anderson are providing defense and a bit of scoring off the bench. Amir is holding his own as a sturdy, rebounding back-up. T.J. is doing a little bit of everything. This team is having fun right now, and it’s fun to watch. Give Markelle Fultz all the time he needs to get right. For once, the real story in Philadelphia is what’s happening on the court.