December 04, 2017
Anytime you have a member of your team open up his postgame availability with a comment like this, you know you've had a tough night at the office:
They outplayed us tonight. They competed harder than we did...That's not who we've been all season, That wasn't our team tonight. We're all disappointed, that's not good enough, that's not our team, that's not who we've been.
That's what JJ Redick had to say after the Sixers took a 115-101 loss against a young Suns team nearly everyone expected them to beat. It was a brutal performance from a Sixers team that hasn't had many of those this season, and the assessment is quite simple after watching that game.
If you were to take a look at the final box score for this game, you'd be under the impression Devin Booker had it going on from early in the game. Sometimes you get beat by a hot shooter, and there's nothing you can really do about it.
That wasn't the case on Monday night. Booker was dreadful in the beginning of the game, ending the first quarter 2-11 from the field, and the Sixers had every opportunity to kill the game with a strong opening stretch. Instead, they turned in one of their worst efforts of the year and ended the first period with the score knotted up at 28.
Where do you even begin here? Perhaps the surest sign the Sixers didn't show up ready to play was their inability to deal with pick-and-rolls. Tyson Chandler has only had one way of scoring his entire career: catching and finishing lobs. I know this, you know this, the Sixers definitely know this. Yet there he was, sauntering down the lane in the second quarter, with almost zero attempt to prevent the play made by the guy covering the ballhandler (Ben Simmons) or the center matched up with Chandler, Joel Embiid.
Both guys are at fault here. Simmons' poor positioning leaves him exposed, and though he tries to do the right thing from there by funneling James toward Embiid, the center shows little interest in trying to prevent the pass and just sort of floats through the paint.
Those two would end up on the wrong side of a lob play later in the same quarter. This time, I think the finger deserves to be pointed at Simmons and Dario Saric, who are slow to help when Embiid tries to cut off Booker's path to the rim. Embiid gets caught in no man's land and earns some of the blame, but nobody picks him up as he so often does for them.
It was a night where players up and down the roster just didn't appear to be in sync. This one doesn't pop much on tape, but with the second quarter winding down, a pair of teammates had a bit of a disagreement as to how to handle a possession.
From our seats on press row, Simmons got pretty visibly upset that Bayless didn't take his quick outlet pass off the inbounds play and attack. It was the reason he made the pass to begin with; Bayless was matched up with Suns big Marquese Chriss, and his point guard expected him to force Chriss to defend him on an island. You can only see the tail end of the interaction here, but Simmons voiced confusion at Bayless' hesitation, and you can spot Simmons keeping his gaze on him just a little longer than he usually would.
This is not to suggest there was or is any real animosity between the two, but it was one of many plays in which Sixers players were not on the same page. They turned the ball over nine times in the first half against the worst defensive team in the NBA, which is unacceptable even for a group that has trouble taking care of the basketball.
To a man, the Sixers owned up to a lack of focus after the game. Redick was not the only guy to criticize the team's mental preparation for the game.
"I think we lost that game from the jump ball," said Embiid. "We took them lightly and we paid for it."
Nowhere was that more evident than on the defensive glass. One of Phoenix's only strengths is on the offensive glass, a fact Brett Brown pointed out during his pre-game availability. But rather than treat that area of the game like an important battle to be won, the Sixers approached it as if they could half-ass that area of the game and still come out smelling like roses.
Losing 50/50 balls or shots just coming off the rim weird is one thing, and over the course of an 82-game schedule, you'll have some bad nights rebounding. What happened on Monday night was not a matter of luck.
The majority of Phoenix's 15 offensive rebounds came on plays where the Sixers just did not properly prepare themselves to go up and grab a rebound. It wasn't even necessarily a problem of being in the wrong position. The Sixers approached the rim with the intent of rebounding, and then when the opportunities came they couldn't be bothered to raise their arms in the air.
If Tyson Chandler is skying over you and grabbing a board every so often, you live with it. If Chandler is grabbing a rebound that hit the hardwood without anyone coming close to touching it, you have a problem.
What happens on this play is fairly similar. Phoenix attempts another three-pointer, which gives the Sixers maximum time to prep for a rebound. But you see the same lackadaisical approach once they turn their attention toward the rim, and the ball pops out to Chriss all the same.
There were other times when the Sixers just failed to do even the initial work to seal off Phoenix's players. After TJ Warren hoists a three-point jumper here, the Sixers allow Dragan Bender to grab another floor board with minimal irritation. They recover and force him into a tough shot on the follow, but he should never have the chance to do so in the first place.
The Sixers are a very good rebounding team on both ends of the court and have all the size in the world to beat opponents on the glass. They simply did not care enough about ending possessions after missed shots against Phoenix.
One of the more peculiar answers of the evening came from Embiid after the game, when pressed on what he would take away or learn from the loss.
"I felt like I wasn't aggressive, especially in the fourth quarter," said Embiid. "I don't think I touched the ball more than five times, and I feel like I need to be aggressive next time for us to be better."
If there was any fault from Embiid on Monday night, it was not due to lack of aggression, at least on the offensive end. There were times where it seemed he was a little too interested in going one-on-one on the offensive end of the floor.
During one sequence in particular in the fourth quarter, Embiid could not seem to fathom doing anything aside from attacking the basket himself. Saric had Tyler Ulis—a player giving up roughly a foot to Saric — guarding him in the post, which Embiid seems to initially recognize. But instead of trying to exploit that matchup, even if it takes swinging the ball back around, Embiid goes into scoring mode, and eventually puts up a tough jumper that rims out.
He has to be better than that. Brown and Embiid's teammates always stress the need to feed Embiid and keep him engaged, but he also has to return that favor by finding guys who get into favorable positions. If you want the ball when you establish position deep on the block, it's only right.
Picking up bad losses is just part of the NBA grind. You can't play your best basketball for all 82 games of the season, and there will inevitably be several nights out of the year where you just don't have it.
But the Sixers have to minimize these sort of losses more than perhaps any other playoff hopeful. They have more question marks than the average team battling for a playoff spot in the East. How many games will Embiid play? Will he be able to play back-to-backs? Will defenses exploit Simmons' lack of a jumper more over time? When will Markelle Fultz return, and how will his inclusion in the rotation change what they have going?
Brown did not pull punches in his discussion of the loss after the game, and he underlined the seriousness of throwing away games as a playoff hopeful.
A game like this is without a doubt a missed opportunity. When you have a goal to make the playoffs, we're all going to look at somebody that's 41-41, 42-40, and it's going to be that close. You only have so many times you're able to poke yourself in the eye. Tonight was one of those for us here at home, and we walk out of this gym not feeling great at all about very much of what we did tonight.
The franchise has come some distance from where they were just two years ago, and they have a lot to be proud of with the way they started the year. But surviving their tough start with a solid record means nothing if they can't win the games they're supposed to win.
We spent a lot of November talking about the emergence of Philadelphia's starting five—Simmons, Redick, Covington, Saric, and Embiid—as one of the premier groups in the league. They were the best lineup in the league to play extended minutes together, blowing teams off the floor on both ends of the court.
Their early work still has them sitting pretty as the fifth-best lineup in the NBA, but their numbers took a major dive starting with last Monday's game against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Their collective NETRTG has dropped from 29+ to 16.2, which is a spectacular mark if it holds for a full season and one they could be proud of. And yet, it's obviously much worse than it looked even a week ago, and their play is trending in the wrong direction.
The Sixers have been able to survive some shoddy third quarters and bad stretches because when they've put that starting group on the floor, they are winning the matchup going away. If the starters begin to come back even closer to Earth, some of these close wins the team has been pulling out may start turning into losses. If that's the case, criticism is going to start coming in fast and furious.
The regression of that five-man unit is something we should all keep an eye on in the weeks to come. I've been adamant the team needs more secondary playmaking to help avoid stagnation, and it would also help if Covington and Redick could consistently make the open jumpers being created for them. We'll know soon enough if this was just a tough slate of games or something to worry about.
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