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November 11, 2018

5 observations from shorthanded Sixers' loss to Memphis Grizzlies

There were a lot fewer people interested in Sixers-Grizzlies on Saturday night after news of a Jimmy Butler trade agreement broke early in the afternoon, and rightfully so. It's sort of difficult to get up for a game missing a couple of the team's important rotation pieces, the star coming to Philadelphia in return for them, and any semblance of rest for the players on the back end of a back-to-back.

But the undermanned Sixers fought anyway, and they had every chance to win a game they ended up coughing up on the road. There aren't many 112-106 overtime losses you're going to feel good about, but at least this one comes with plenty of context to consider.

A loss is a loss is a loss, but there are lessons to take away from all 82 if you look hard enough. And around here, to paraphrase Sean Carter, we're far from being god but we look goddamn hard.

A valiant effort in light of the circumstances

The Sixers have been on the other side of the back-to-back equation this season, and Brett Brown remarked that he believed there's often an early advantage for the team who played the night before. They come into the game with rhythm and can blitz their opponent while they're still working to find their legs.

You wouldn't call Philadelphia's first half a blitz, but the Sixers came out ready to rip on Saturday night despite massive changes to the starting lineup and rotation. Out went Robert Covington and Dario Saric, in came JJ Redick and Landry Shamet.

The super slim version of the Sixers worked well for the first 24 minutes of play, with the Sixers operating under one primary directive: run like hell. Every stop or made basket for the Grizzlies was followed by quick restarts, with the Sixers pushing the pace against a team that has long preferred to slow the game down. From the starters down through little-used players on the bench, like Furkan Korkmaz and Jonah Bolden, Philly played with purpose.

Things went to hell in the third quarter once those same bit players turned into pumpkins, with Furkan Korkmaz and Landry Shamet, in particular, having howlers in the second half. There just weren't enough solid contributors to get this over the line, and it showed.

There's a lesson here in spite of how fruitless it may seem to evaluate the situation before Butler arrives, but the Sixers' biggest task now is finding legitimately helpful depth to pad the areas around their stars. Shamet has been a nice story as a rookie, but he might not be ready to step up and produce at a high enough level to contribute to a team with Finals aspirations. Amir Johnson's legs have betrayed him, and I can't see things getting better for him from here. That they are so reliant on Mike Muscala and Wilson Chandler being big and flexible parts of the rotation is a little terrifying.

Those are stories for another day, though. Depth will be addressed once we see what Butler looks like in this Sixers team and who doesn't buckle under the increased pressure he brings to the organization. The spotlight will be blinding.

Markelle Fultz attacks, and then sits when it matters

Fair play to the young guard on Saturday night. He came out looking like a trainwreck against the Hornets on Friday, with all sorts of signs that his jumper (and thus, his offensive game) had regressed big time. And all he did Saturday — with a trade that looms large for him individually coming Monday morning — was play one of his best games of the season as an attacker.

When Fultz puts an emphasis on really getting downhill and challenging people at the rim, you are reminded of his Washington form even when the jumper isn't there. He was pegged a three-level scorer for good reason. All his efforts at throwing down poster dunks lately finally paid off, with Fultz uncorking the dunk of the Sixers' season so far on a pick-and-pop (and really a slip-and-pop) play with JJ Redick that is slowly becoming a go-to look in end-quarter situations.

The game opens up for Fultz when he plays this way, with teams treating him as a credible threat to score at the rim, opening up opportunities for him to create for others. He had an excellent dump-off pass to Amir Johnson in the fourth quarter, and we got a glimpse of what might have been the best-looking jumper of his NBA career. I am not kidding even a little bit — this is the closest we have seen him look to his old self:

So it looked like he would get a chance to play in crunch time, finally. His chance never came. 

Brown leaned on T.J. McConnell at the point when it mattered, and in fairness it was not McConnell at fault for the Sixers' loss on the road. The backup guard was instrumental in the team's best offensive possessions once their legs gave out, and fought hard defensively as he always does.

If you're looking for a source of debate, it's whether Fultz deserved to get his minutes over Landry Shamet, who couldn't hit water from a boat in Memphis. Here's the harsh reality of the situation: there's a case to be made that getting Shamet ready to play big minutes is more pivotal than it is for Fultz at this point. We'll wait and see how it plays out, but with the Sixers locking in a core three with their blockbuster trade agreement on Saturday, the opportunities for Fultz will likely dwindle in an effort to put shooters on the court at all times around Embiid, Simmons, and Butler.

In some ways, that's basically the perfect outcome for both sides of the Fultz debate. His critics will be happy to move on and note a demotion is warranted if and when it comes, while his fans will opine he wasn't given enough of a chance to turn the corner and show what he has. It's a situation to monitor, in any case. 

No legs for Joel Embiid

Embiid was clearly not himself on Saturday, and admitted as much after the game. Fatigued by a second-straight overtime game, the big man admitted to reporters in Memphis he was also dealing with headaches throughout the game and didn't have his best stuff.

I'm not sure it would have mattered whether he had a headache or not. Embiid was clearly running on fumes for most of the game, and it showed. He is still adjusting to assuming the responsibilities of a star in these tough situations, and that's okay — he has been so dominant otherwise that lagging performances in back-to-back situations can be understood for the time being. He'll never have to play those in the playoffs, anyway.

There was some debate about his shot selection at the end of the game, viewed mostly through the lens of how he was used by Brett Brown. Embiid was 0/6 from three against the Grizzlies, with a bunch of those shots coming with the game on the line in the fourth quarter and overtime. Cue a bunch of old school basketball fans soiling themselves at the idea of a hulking seven-footer stepping out to the perimeter when he should be (checking my notes here) backing fools down in the post!!!

Here's the reality of the situation: that's a meathead mentality and one that suggests you haven't watched the NBA since Allen Iverson was taking this team to the Finals in 2001.

Embiid is going to shoot threes, and he is going to have plays designed for him to shoot threes. It has been a bigger problem that he is not making them enough than it has been to prioritize him taking them. If the partnership is ever going to work with Simmons, there has to be a credible shooter between them. The only way you get there is by consistently giving him reps during games, because nobody is going to learn anything from Embiid merely making a ton of shots in an empty gym.

More importantly, as good as Embiid can be in the post, asking him to create out of nothing in the post when he clearly has nothing in the tank is just silly. Perfect example: there might be five guys in the league, total, who care about defense as much as Embiid does. And when push came to shove in the extra session, he stood flat-footed as Marc Gasol collected multiple offensive rebounds on a single possession, only interested in converging when it was too late.

That's not the body language of a player who is going to have any semblance of success backing people down. Some nights you just don't have it, and this was one for Embiid. Save whatever wear and tear you can and live to fight another day. 

Costly (and avoidable) turnovers for Ben Simmons

For stretches of this game, Simmons showed exactly why the team will have faith he can make the partnership work with Butler. Brown used him as a screener and cutter in lineups with several shooters on the floor at once, and Simmons went to work attacking the Grizzlies at the rim. He was a massive part of that early, high-octane push the Sixers made.

But dear lord, the turnovers he coughed up late in the game were absolutely maddening. And even on plays where he didn't end up throwing the ball away or having it stripped, Simmons put the ball in danger for no good reason. His halfcourt struggles have been well-documented from the moment he hit the league, but his recklessness and periodic ineffectiveness in transition are issues that need to be corrected.

Look at this pass Embiid has to save around his ankles, for example, and tell me that going full tilt in this situation was the right decision. And this wasn't even one of his six turnovers!

On a night like Saturday night, I'm okay with giving him somewhat of a pass for lapses in concentration late. He was fatigued like anyone else would have been in that situation, and I'm not going to roast a guy for looking below his best in those circumstances.

That said, this is too reminiscent of other games this season to the point where it's becoming a trend. If Simmons can't produce at an elite level on the break, his margin for error shrinks. And plays like the one you see above are a direct product of Simmons' limitations in the halfcourt — it's not shocking someone would go full tilt on the break when they're aware of their own limitations against set defenses.

The microscope on him is about to get a lot harsher when Butler arrives, and he better prepare his game accordingly if he wants to duck the scrutiny.

A fond farewell to two stand-up dudes

Finally, I want to step back from the between-the-lines stuff and take a moment to acknowledge what Robert Covington and Dario Saric brought to this team during their time here. It's easy to forget now, but Covington was one of the first guys to really bring some semblance of normalcy to the Process-era Sixers. The mere act of putting a shooter on the floor made them more competitive, and no one could have reasonably expected him to turn into an All-Defense caliber talent.

Dario Saric's life story is wildly different from that of Covington — a grinder from Croatia who went pro as a teen vs. a kid from the Chicago area who had to play lower level college hoops just to get his shot — but they are ultimately cut from the same cloth. Saric sacrificed a good deal of money to honor his word and come over early, turned his focus on shooting to fit in with the team, and scrapped his way to respect in the biggest moments of games.

There is a lot to be said about their respective play on the court, and I think it is all a product of who both those guys are as people. No matter how good or bad either played, they never ducked responsibility and always stood front and center when it was their time to face the music. If there is a culture in Philadelphia's locker room, Covington and Saric were instrumental in building it.

The worst thing you could say about Saric is that he's an odd fit in today's NBA, or that his love for his country didn't give him enough rest in the offseason. The worst thing you could say about Covington is that his cold stretches were maddening, or that his handle was part of why the Sixers were an easier team to defend in the playoffs.

At the end of the day, those guys are professionals who will be missed in the locker room. In Covington's case specifically, it takes a special person to be able to get your ass kicked day after day in the darkest days of the rebuild, only to emerge on the other side as a markedly better player.

You will not be able to tell the story of one of this era of Sixers basketball without mentioning Saric and Covington. For a guy who was once claimed to be "here to help the Sixers lose" and a guy who some believed was "never coming over," it was a heck of a run.

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