Philadelphia 76ers’ president of basketball operations Daryl Morey and Houston Rockets’ general manager Rafael Stone watched Wednesday’s game at Wells Fargo Center together, chatting and viewing the action about 15 feet from center court. Morey saw his current team top his former co-worker’s squad in a 118-113 win without Ben Simmons, who was sidelined by an illness, as the Sixers hung on to win despite a shaky fourth quarter after leading by 26 points at halftime.
Joel Embiid returned after sitting out Monday with back tightness, and recorded 31 points, a season-high nine assists and 11 rebounds. Seth Curry (25 points, five assists) and Tobias Harris (24 points, 15 rebounds, five assists) were the 19-10 Sixers’ other main offensive contributors in Simmons’ absence.
Here are three takeaways from Wednesday’s win:
Thybulle in his element on zone defense
Matisse Thybulle started for the first time this season and was highly effective shifting the game’s momentum early on in that role.
As he showed during the Sixers’ comeback win over the Pacers on Jan. 31, Thybulle’s college success in a zone defense certainly translates to the NBA. When the Sixers went to a zone in the first quarter after a rough defensive start, Thybulle stole the ball from John Wall twice and produced six transition points off of those thefts, a Danny Green three-pointer, and a triple of his own.
His quick hands and sense for how to create trouble for the opposition are exceptional, and those talents shine when he’s roving menacingly at the top of a zone.
Milton’s return could be soon, Joe gets early minutes
Shake Milton, who missed his fourth consecutive game with a left ankle sprain, went through a pregame workout. Though head coach Doc Rivers offered no timeline for Milton’s return, it doesn’t seem the Sixers’ sixth man will be out for much longer.
Isaiah Joe had a brief fourth-quarter appearance in the rotation during the Sixers’ loss Monday, which seemed largely a byproduct of the bench’s overall ineffectiveness and Furkan Korkmaz’s shooting woes. He appeared a lot earlier against Houston, checking in during the opening period and playing solid basketball.
The rookie found Thybulle for a layup in transition, knocked down a corner three on his first try, and drew an offensive foul on Eric Gordon after picking up full court to begin the second quarter. He finished with three points on 1-for-6 shooting and two steals in 12 minutes.
If nothing else, Joe might assist in increasing the Sixers’ low three-point volume, something that’s been a deficiency for the team. We’ll see if he’s still in the mix once Simmons is back.
“Of course I probably won’t have the green light I had at (Arkansas), but the team is bringing me on for a reason and that’s to shoot the ball,” Joe said in November. “They’re not going to bring a shooter on a team to not shoot the ball. That’s what I’m going to do.”
Curry, Embiid, Harris and Korkmaz all spent time handling the ball for the Sixers, who had no true facilitator without Simmons. They still played decent offense against both man-to-man and zone defense, with their 32 points off the Rockets’ 18 turnovers a big help.
The Sixers’ 23 giveaways allowed Houston to stick around and make things interesting down the stretch.
Embiid works through back tightness
Embiid wasn’t quite at his best in the first half against a depleted Rockets team missing Christian Wood, Victor Oladipo, and P.J. Tucker, though he was nevertheless very good in this game.
It looks like Embiid’s back is a lingering concern. He bent down to stretch in between two free throws late in the second quarter, then appeared to be in discomfort and moving gingerly on his way back into the locker room at halftime. He played just fine to open the second half despite whatever physical issues he was dealing with, scoring twice inside on DeMarcus Cousins and converting a fadeaway jumper.
Embiid’s health is obviously paramount to the Sixers’ success. One illustration of that fact is the team entering Wednesday’s game with a net rating 20.7 points better when he was on the floor than when he was off it, per Cleaning the Glass.
That’s an extreme figure, but it doesn’t feel like a grossly inaccurate representation of Embiid’s impact. Embiid should be named an All-Star starter Thursday night for the fourth time.
The 19-10 Sixers’ next game is Friday at Wells Fargo Center against the 12-15 Chicago Bulls.