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December 01, 2017

5 observations from Sixers vs. Celtics

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An 11-point loss to the Eastern Conference leader isn't the worst thing in the world, especially when it comes without the services of Joel Embiid. But no loss to the Celtics will ever sit well in the minds of the Sixers, and there were some real missed opportunities in Thursday night's game. Nineteen turnovers tell the story of a Sixers team that couldn't get out of its own way at times.

If veteran players aren't offering stability, other players deserve opportunities

One of the biggest complaints about the Sixers' radical rebuild was the absence of veteran contributors on the roster. There were a few token veterans toward the end of the bench, but by and large, the Sixers prioritized developmental minutes as they worked their way back to relevance. Critics believed they were in need of stabilizing forces on and off the court, and those were supposed to have come over the last two offseasons.

I think the JJ Redick signing could be considered a plus on that front, but the play of Jerryd Bayless on Thursday night is an example of how being a veteran doesn't make you magically immune to silly mistakes. He turned the ball over five different times against Boston, and the majority of those were just complete giveaways, killing momentum and the Sixers' ability to have a shot to win the game.

Boston has been winning games on the strength of their defense, so taking care of the basketball is an even bigger priority against them than against an average team. They'll force you into plenty of unforced errors as is, and don't need you to gift them free stops. This pass, shortly after the Sixers battled to come up with a missed free-throw, is just not going to cut it.

Perhaps you could say Ben Simmons needs to make more of an effort there, and I'd say that's fair enough. But Bayless continued to cough up possessions down the stretch with the Sixers desperate to hang around, and at some point, the finger-pointing has to head in his direction.

Look, everybody has off nights and Bayless did do his job as a shooter. I continue to believe having him in the rotation is necessary because they need to have guys in the lineup who can knock down open jumpers as the attention on Simmons and Joel Embiid creates open looks. It is just tremendously frustrating to watch guys make easily-avoidable mistakes who are supposed to offer a steady hand.

It's especially frustrating when it appears there are better options on the table. Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot has been erratic this season, but he had one of his best stretches of the year against the Celtics, knocking down 3/4 attempts from deep and giving the Sixers a badly-needed lift from their bench. Brett Brown is usually a little more inclined to ride with hot hands, but he deferred to the veteran option on a night where that clearly didn't pay off.

The primary issue is that any choice puts Brown in a hard spot. With TLC in the game, the Sixers lose any secondary ballhandling to help Simmons shoulder the load and usually a shooter's touch, and with Bayless in they sacrifice length and athleticism on defense, in addition to some off-ball movement. Markelle Fultz should end up representing a happy (and more talented) medium, but his availability remains a mystery for the time being, and the team is forced to roll with imperfect options in the meantime.    

Robert Covington needs to rediscover his stroke

Everything was coming up roses for Robert Covington just a few short weeks ago. He was one of the best three-point shooters in the league, he signed a life-changing contract to keep him in Philadelphia for the long-term and was finally getting the respect diehards have been saying he deserved for years.

Not a whole lot has gone right since. Covington has had one of the worst shooting weeks of his career, connecting on just 4 of the 24 three-point attempts he has put up. It's one thing to miss shots, but Covington hasn't even come close on some of his shots lately, and you've been able to tell when they left his hand they didn't have a chance.

Even the best shooters in the world have bad runs, and Covington has had a tough week on the personal front, too. Some time to clear his head might be all it takes to get right again, and this could look like a small blip on the radar down the line.

The Sixers desperately need it to be a small blip on the radar. When people think about the Sixers "needing" Covington and Redick to knock down outside shots, it's for all the reasons that immediately come to mind. The floor-spacing opens the game up for Embiid and Simmons, and is a critical component of any modern NBA offense.

But the Sixers are fairly unique in that they have two stars who get the bulk of their offense from two-point range. Yes, Embiid likes to step out to the three-point line and get shots up, but his bread is buttered from about 15 feet and in. That goes double for Simmons, who lives predominantly off of layups, dunks, and floaters from in close. They can overcome the math deficit of shooting twos over threes by being more efficient and getting to the line, but it does put extra strain on role players to nail every three-point opportunity they have.

Role players are generally role players for a reason, and their ebbs and flows are more uneven than those for guys like Simmons and Embiid. Regardless, the Sixers need Covington to settle back into his groove on offense.

Please, for the love of all things sacred, stop bumping into shooters on pull-ups

This is increasingly becoming one of my biggest pet peeves of the season. Getting beat on a pick-and-roll or even a simple isolation play happens, and while it's frustrating it's something you can live with in spurts. What you can't do is compound that with a foul.

I'm really not trying to pick on Bayless for his performance on Thursday, but this is a foul that is both completely avoidable and a no-win play.

Yes, he is barely brushing Kyrie Irving as he goes up for the shot, but NBA officials will call this every single time. The Sixers seem as if they get called for at least one of these a game, and while I know their intentions are in the right place, they are just gifting other teams points by doing it.

I'll hand out an honorary "award" for this section and highlight another foul that is just beyond comprehension. Amir Johnson had Aron Baynes stuck by the three-point line with no dribble on a play early in the third quarter, and all he had to do was keep Baynes in front of him. Instead, he got too handsy and bailed Baynes out of a rough spot.

When you put the work in to put yourself in that position, you don't have to be inside Baynes' jersey to have done your job. 

Simmons returns to form on defense

Dealing with several medical issues over the last week or so, Simmons has looked worse on defense than I think he has for most of the season. He's a rookie, so lulls (and even general incompetence) are to be expected, but he bounced back nicely against the Celtics, and his activity and effort on the defensive end was stellar in Embiid's absence.

There was one defensive possession I thought was emblematic of Simmons on defense to date.

You see both the good and the bad here. After Simmons flashes across the lane to prevent a backdoor cut, he takes a risk on trying to haul in a pass and go the other way with it. It leaves him temporarily out of position, but he has the recovery speed to close out on Marcus Morris, and then follows him well and offers a solid contest on Morris' pull-up. The result doesn't go his way, but the engagement and effort level are both high.

When you saw him operate on the defensive end the rest of the night, you understand why he felt empowered to take a gamble there. He came up with five steals against the Celtics, and he is routinely snatching passes and going solo for two points the other way. This is not as easy as he makes it look:

Eventually, Simmons will probably cut down his gambling and learn that he can conserve effort and motion and have a bigger impact on the defensive end. That the baseline of effort is there at all bodes well, and his switchability will serve him well as he matures into a smarter defensive player.

Seeing this sort of performance from Simmons while he had an uneven night on offense is encouraging. It wasn't a bad game by any means (15-7-6-5 on 6/14 shooting), but it wasn't up to the standard he has set for himself, and yet he still competed hard across 40 minutes against Boston. Plenty of reason to keep his head held high.

The mental aspect of managing the center rotation

I think Amir Johnson has performed pretty well lately and he did his best to step into a starting role on Thursday sans Embiid. The current arrangement, however, has had one unintended consequence that I'm not exactly sure Brown will be able to remedy.

Richaun Holmes' best friend and worst enemy is his exuberance. You love it when he's flying in for offensive rebounds and depositing them for two, and you get frustrated when it leads to him picking up cheap fouls. Buried in the rotation for much of the last couple weeks, Holmes played like his hair was on fire during his first minutes on Thursday, playing as if he had everything to prove.

And he does! But he has to learn how to channel that effectively because too often the games he plays without Embiid end with Holmes in foul trouble. He picked one up 18 seconds into his first substitution of the night against the Celtics, and though the second foul he picked up was a softie, it came just over three minutes after he'd entered the game.

You certainly don't want to tell a player to take his competitiveness and energy down a notch, and Holmes is keenly aware of how precious his minutes are. He needs to look no further than Jahlil Okafor to understand that message; they were drafted in the same year, and the guy with a huge leg up in the prestige department didn't even make the trip to Boston. His opportunity could disappear completely at any time.

Brown has made an attempt to insert Holmes into the rotation in creative ways, even including him in some double-big lineups against the Orlando Magic last Saturday. The question is whether he can get him in enough to establish any sort of continuity, and effectively save him from his own tendency to play 350 miles per hour. If he can't, it will raise all sorts of questions about the position moving forward, because the Sixers need stability behind Embiid above all else.

This may seem like small potatoes right now, but the plan behind Embiid this season and beyond is one of the more fascinating subplots in Sixers world. How do you invest your resources financially and developmentally behind a dominant center whose health record is terrifying? I guess we'll all find out soon enough.