Joel Embiid, Dwight Howard Lead Sixers Over Pistons

3 observations after Sixers' big men, spot starters shine in 8th straight win originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

Ben Simmons and Seth Curry watched from the sidelines in street clothes and didn’t need to worry about squandered second-half leads Saturday night.

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The Sixers who suited up were comfortable, too. With Simmons (back tightness), Curry (left hip flexor injury recovery) and Furkan Korkmaz (right ankle sprain) out, the Sixers beat the Pistons at Wells Fargo Center, 118-104.

Joel Embiid scored 29 points. Dwight Howard posted 19 points and 14 rebounds. 

Tyrese Maxey started and had 22 points, five rebounds and four assists.

The 47-21 Sixers’ “magic number” to eliminate the Nets from contention for the No. 1 seed is one. Brooklyn will tip off against the Nuggets on Saturday at 10 p.m. ET. To eliminate Milwaukee from the running for the top seed, the Sixers’ magic number is two. The Bucks will play the Spurs on Monday night. 

The Sixers will have will two days off before facing the Pacers. Here are three observations on their eighth straight win:

More Thybulle highlights and bright Maxey moments 

The Sixers started the game on an 11-2 run capped by a Matisse Thybulle steal and ensuing slam dunk.

Thybulle picked up his second foul on a Jerami Grant jumper, though both Sixers head coach Doc Rivers and the 24-year-old expressed to the officials that Grant had kicked out his leg to draw a whistle. Regardless of the accuracy of that particular call, it’s true that Thybulle’s eagerness to block jumpers will lead to a few fouls. Perhaps he’ll build a reputation around the league as an elite wing shot blocker and receive the benefit of the doubt in some of those situations down the line. 

When Thybulle is on the court, he’s a near-guarantee at this point to cause trouble for the opposition. Teams wary of his presence have their offensive rhythm disrupted, while opponents who aren’t cautious enough feed into his constantly growing package of highlight steals and blocks. 

Thybulle finished with five steals. His 105 on the season are tied with Jimmy Butler for second in the NBA.

Early in the third quarter, Thybulle poked the ball away from Grant and then dove on the floor in pursuit of another steal. He appeared to hurt his left hand on the play but returned later in the third after being assessed in the locker roomer. 

Maxey, the Sixers’ other spot starter, played a team-high 35 minutes. More often than not, he’s been a bright spot when he’s gotten extended playing time. A floater from the foul line, catch-and-shoot wing three-pointer and fast-break lefty dunk were among his nice moments Saturday. 

The final four regular-season games and postseason are first on the Sixers’ agenda, but it will be very interesting to see what role Maxey plays next season.

He’s developed well over his rookie year and, at 20 years old, still has a ton of room to grow. 

Another subpar stretch for bench 

Perhaps aware of the Sixers’ struggles against the Pelicans’ zone defense Friday night, Detroit turned to a zone late in the first quarter after George Hill and  Howard entered the game.

The Sixers started with three empty, somewhat tentative trips before Tobias Harris decisively broke the zone with a drive through the middle seam and lob to Howard for a dunk.

Rivers continued to employ an all-bench lineup in the opening half, which meant the first rotation minutes in a long time for rookie Isaiah Joe. In addition to bench regulars Howard, Hill and Shake Milton, Mike Scott was the other member of the Sixers’ Saturday night second unit. 

Joe air-balled a corner three attempt and didn't play in the second half until garbage time.

As a whole, the Sixers’ bench did not play well in the second quarter, allowing a 22-point lead to drop as low as eight. Missed threes and a dip in defensive execution both contributed to the poor stretch. In the first half, the Sixers shot 1 for 11 from long distance. 

Reliable stars 

Harris picked up where he left off in Friday night’s fourth quarter, scoring 11 first-period points. Though he cooled off after that, it was still important for the Sixers to jump out to a double-digit lead after a win over New Orleans that seemingly satisfied no one. 

A missed second-quarter free throw makes it nearly impossible for Harris to have a 50-40-90 shooting season. Before the miss, he would’ve finished the season at exactly 90.0 percent from the foul line with 10 consecutive makes. 

Still, he’s improved as a passer, defender and clutch scorer in a strong year. He’ll be judged in large part on whether he carries over this level of production to the playoffs. 

As is the norm, Embiid didn’t need many shots to do damage. When he’s able to size up his defender, his mid-range jumpers have looked automatic this season. His fadeaways are a weapon, too.

Embiid’s backup also had an efficient night. Howard even made a corner three in the third quarter, the 14th long-range make of his career. 

Howard moved into 11th on the NBA’s all-time rebounding list Saturday night, passing Walt Bellamy. He’s fashioned a highly unique, Hall of Fame-worthy career for himself. 

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