3 observations after Sixers hold off Bulls to win 5th straight originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia
There’s only so much the Sixers can control.
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The opponent in front of them is not within their power, but the fate of the race for the Eastern Conference’s top seed is.
Facing another shorthanded team Monday night, the Sixers won and improved to 44-21, a full game ahead of the Nets in the standings. A 106-94 win at United Center over the Bulls was the team’s fifth straight.
Zach LaVine has been cleared to rejoin the Bulls after being in the NBA’s health and safety protocols but the team is in the process of ramping him back into action, head coach Billy Donovan said pregame. He missed an 11th consecutive game Monday.
Fellow All-Star Nikola Vucevic (right adductor strain) and Troy Brown Jr. (left ankle sprain) were also out.
Tobias Harris had 21 points on 10-for-13 shooting and nine rebounds.
Seth Curry posted 20 points on 7-for-10 shooting.
The Sixers will conclude their three-game road trip Wednesday in Houston. Here are three observations on their win in Chicago:
Simmons, Harris back on track
After a scoreless first half Sunday in San Antonio, it only took Ben Simmons a minute to record two points Monday. He finished with his right hand in the paint off of a pick-and-roll with Green, and he drove in for a dunk a few minutes later.
Simmons slammed in an alley-oop shortly after following another pick-and-roll with Green. When he’s off the ball, that’s the player the Sixers want Simmons to be. He’s best when he’s putting pressure on the defense in some form, which he certainly does as a roller.
Simmons finished with 15 points on 6-for-7 shooting, six rebounds, five assists and three steals. He defended second-year guard Coby White, who scored 23 points. White got hot early in the fourth quarter with Simmons sitting and Tyrese Maxey on the floor.
Harris also turned in a very nice performance after a 3-for-10 effort against San Antonio.
Joel Embiid did not replicate his 50-point February performance against the Bulls. He had an off night with 13 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks.
Though Simmons and Harris are very good players, a moment in the third quarter served as a reminder that the Sixers’ championship hopes rest on Embiid’s health. The big man collided with Simmons during a fight for a rebound, grabbed at his left leg and appeared to be moving gingerly for a couple of possessions.
Earning the No. 1 seed would be great, but it would feel hollow for the Sixers if an All-Star went down in the process. Again, the Sixers have limited control over health, but they can manage minutes and exercise cautious with any injury concerns that arise over their final seven games.
Shooters do their thing
The Sixers started 14 for 18 from the floor, building a 32-15 lead. Outside of five turnovers, the team’s first-quarter offense was excellent.
Curry was in a groove early on for a second straight game, scoring 11 points in the opening period. There’s no mystery about it at this point: The Sixers’ offense is better when he’s looking to score. Good shots seem to come his way when the offense is gelling, too.
Green is another player whose offensive success is usually a sign that the Sixers are playing well as a team. He knocked down his third three-pointer of the first half when Harris received a behind-the-back feed from Simmons and found Green open in the corner.
In the playoffs, it’s inevitable that Embiid will see a ton of double teams. If Curry and Green are shooting without hesitation, they’re more than capable of making opponents pay.
Curry’s marksmanship was expected, but there was perhaps some uncertainty about Green following a relatively down shooting year with the Lakers. It’s helped the Sixers immensely that he’s taken a career-high volume of threes and made over 40 percent.
One negative development on the shooting front for the Sixers: Furkan Korkmaz suffered a right ankle sprain with 8:02 left in the second period and was ruled out for the remainder of the game. He also sprained his right ankle on April 21 and missed two games after that injury. Korkmaz has been the 10th man in the Sixers’ rotation.
Another lead dwindles
The Sixers don’t have many weaknesses, but they’ve known for a long time that transition defense is one of them.
Despite the time they’ve dedicated to that area, it’s sometimes seemed mysterious. Live-ball turnovers and crashing for offensive rebounds contribute to it, sure, but why has it been such a lingering problem? Aren’t many of the solutions rather simple — diligence about getting back on defense, picking up dangerous players early, etc.?
Monday was a good night for the Sixers’ transition defense, which conceded three fast-break points. Matisse Thybulle was a defensive standout with three blocks and a steal in 16 minutes.
The Sixers’ bench, however, was poor overall in the second half. With the team leading by over 20 points in the third period, the Sixers’ first unit should’ve been able to relax for the game’s final few minutes.
Instead, the Bulls pulled within a point in the fourth, capitalizing on late defensive rotations and offensive stagnancy. It’s rarely easy to close games on the second night of a back-to-back, though, and the Sixers' starters got the job done late.