February 03, 2018
You could feel the wave of sickness wash over the Wells Fargo Center crowd at the very moment it was happening. In one moment, the crowd was lobbing "E-A-G-L-E-S, EAGLES!" chants back and forth across the arena, shortly followed by loud groans at what was unfolding in front of them in the fourth quarter.
What started (and eventually ended) as a de facto Eagles pep rally turned into another chapter in the Sixers' book of blown leads. Up 28 early in the fourth quarter and with a back-to-back looming, Brett Brown did what many other coaches would do in that scenario: he turned to his bench. With Ben Simmons already on the bench and the Sixers holding that massive lead with 10:51 to play, Brown called on Amir Johnson, and it looked like his starters would get a well-deserved rest.
That was not to be, and the Heat ripped off a 16-0 run thanks to a whole lot of offensive ineptitude from the backups. That probably should have been expected with a group comprised of TJ McConnell, Jerryd Bayless, Robert Covington, Trevor Booker and Amir Johnson, and when I asked Brown about it after the game, his primary regret was pulling Embiid too soon.
I think I would have probably played Joel his full sort of rotation. It's just, you look up at the scoreboard and you're up 28 at home, and you have a back-to-back game the next home. I never take anything for granted, you walk a line of this is just smart, it's not we have this one wrapped up. It wasn't that. We were at home, we were playing quite well, and you click your heels and the NBA is the NBA. And if I had to do it again knowing what I know now, I would've ridden out Jo, because the group we had on the court, our bench group, there's some scoring deficiencies.
It's worth noting the Sixers did win this game 103-97, but the inability to trust the bench has killed the Sixers all year. It can be said until we're all blue in the face — and I am, at this point — and it is the catalyst for most of the problems the Sixers have. Leads crumble when the Sixers have to depend on their backups, and when the young guys are thrown back into the mix to reassert their dominance, they overcorrect and try to go for a kill shot instead of just playing steady. The same fearlessness that pushes them to large leads cuts against them when it matters most.
This isn't just a youth problem, though. The veterans brought in by Philadelphia's management are just as culpable in the collapses, whether it's botching offensive execution or flailing around like a dismembered octopus on the defensive end. Teams getting hot against the Sixers and cutting into the lead with unsustainable shooting is one thing. If the guys you're supposed to trust to play smart and experienced basketball leave guys wide open on the perimeter, you have a serious problem on your hands.
The same thing applies to the one veteran you really depend on to hold down the fort, JJ Redick. On the whole, he does a lot more good than harm and benefits the team on offense even when he's not hitting shots. But for a guy who has the wealth of experience he does in closing out a game, he sure has some major brain farts when it gets close.
Philadelphia has a general philosophy of taking early-clock shots if they find themselves open. That's all well and good and something worth believing in with their limited creation ability off-the-dribble, but Redick knows when and when not to lean into that. Or perhaps he doesn't, because he took a contested shot from the lowest value spot on the basketball court with two minutes to play, for reasons that escape me.
A lot of fans want to pin this on the coach, and no one is blameless in this situation. By his own admission, Brown wished he would have made a different set of decisions early in the fourth quarter, and everything may have unfolded a lot differently had he stuck with Embiid for just a few minutes longer.
At the same time, is the hill you're willing to die on that the coach should have played Embiid — a guy with a brutal medical history playing in his first back-to-back on Saturday — until it was impossible for the bench to cough up the lead? That's a silly and revisionist way to look at the game, especially on a night when Embiid had one of his worst games in recent memory.
From my view, what you see happen with the blown leads is a product of the style and age of the team's core pieces. It was a lot easier to hide Redick's miscues when he played alongside Chris Paul, a master of walking games down and a guy who could generate a shot for himself or a teammate at any point in the shot clock. Put him next to two young studs, talented though they may be, and warts start to rise to the surface.
These sort of things tend to work themselves out over time, assuming your young players mature and improve and aren't just fatally flawed. That doesn't appear to be the case with Embiid and Simmons, whose work ethics are raved about by anyone you talk to about the team. But knowing they'll eventually correct their issues doesn't make the present-day stuff any less infuriating to watch.
If there's any solace to be taken from the final moments of Philadelphia's win over the Heat, it's that they executed through their two young stars in crunch time. This tends to be the case with Embiid especially, but it is a hit-or-miss proposition for Simmons on a nightly basis. Lately, he has taken more ownership of the team's offense when they need it most, even if it means doing his work away from the ball.
Embiid and Simmons hooked up on a pivotal play with less than two minutes to play, reversing the roles they're accustomed to playing. The latter continues to improve in his work away from the ball, and the Sixers have to be thrilled to see him thriving in a variety of offensive situations.
As the young centerpieces of the team grow into their roles, they will figure things out. They will grow calmer and more collected in the fourth quarter, and they will react better to momentum changes during other parts of the game. It is all part of evolving from young star into bonafide, game-changing talent.
What is less certain is whether the Sixers will supply them with reliable help that can keep things on the up and up without them. Markelle Fultz being active would help a lot here, giving the Sixers an actual scorer and playmaker to turn the game to when the second unit hits the floor. But regardless of what he eventually offers, the bench simply isn't good enough for a team with playoff aspirations, and the Sixers will continue to find themselves in this position if they don't fix the problem.
Overreacting to one game is not a thing I like to do, but you saw exactly why Goran Dragic making the All-Star team over Ben Simmons was silly. Yes, the Miami Heat have a better record than the Sixers do, but Dragic has in no way shape or form been better at basketball than Simmons this year.
Miami's success has less to do with Dragic than it does the depth of their team. It is their tragic flaw in a way; no one on Miami is talented and young enough to have you believe they can credibly be a No. 1 option on a contender, and they are locked into the broader construct of this team because of their contracts. They are plenty good and deep, but not in a way that ultimately has an impact on how the NBA season will end.
That depth, though, is the reason why Miami found a way back into the game on Friday night. Dragic was named an All-Star on Thursday, and spent the fourth quarter of a pivotal matchup with his ass on the bench, Miami making their massive run back without him. This is not really a possibility for Simmons, the snub missing out on an All-Star honor because of Dragic, who carries a massive two-way burden for a playoff team.
Somehow, Simmons' impact on the defensive end has been downplayed by the very people who are supposed to be the gatekeepers of what really matters in basketball. Compare him to Dragic, who actively takes away from his team's defensive toughness while on the court, and it becomes even more egregious. Very few rookies ever have an impact on their team defensively, let alone do so while being a key offensive cog for a playoff team.
By nearly every measure, Simmons has been better than Dragic at basketball this season. But when asked if he was hoping for more injury scratches in the hope of getting the nod for the mid-season event, Simmons took the high road.
"I definitely don't want to see anybody get hurt. That's the worst," Simmons said. "I experienced that so I don't want to wish that upon anybody. I'm happy for the two guys who got selected [as replacements]."
That's good perspective from a young kid, and this is another opportunity for him to add fuel to his fire. He went out and proved he belongs, with a great 20 point, six rebound and five assist performance.
From the outside looking in, Saric strikes you as the sort of player who would get a ton of love from refs. He's a grinder who gets his offense without having to have much of it designed for him, and he plays a bruising, physical style without ever being dirty. That comes with respect in almost any gym you'd walk into, and combined with very little politicking over calls, you'd think they'd be willing to show the guy some love.
For whatever reason, that doesn't seem to be the case. Saric constantly finds himself on the wrong side of the whistle; he gets whistled for 50/50 calls on the defensive end, then sees the same people go silent as he deals with contact on the other.
Generally, officials reward players who seek contact and attempt to play through it. But that description fits Saric like a glove, and he's always left wanting a little extra love from the officials. He manages to survive and thrive without it, because he's a winning basketball player who tends not to let it impact his play. Still, imagine how much better he could be if he found himself in the good graces of a ref crew.
Perhaps that's missing the point. Saric broke out of a mini-slump on Friday night, giving the Sixers 17 points and 10 rebounds after carrying the team on offense in the first half. He finds different ways to get involved every night, and it's that versatility that would have you believe he will be an integral part of any Sixers team that plays deep into June.
When Saric sees one of his teammates in an advantageous position, he's not always able to get it there as soon as he'd like. But he's creative and crafty enough to make sure it gets there eventually, and the concerns about whether he could share the floor with Simmons appear to have evaporated.
You would have to be blind not to appreciate what Saric brings to the table. The city and his teammates adore him, and his front office would be wise to take note of why that is.