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November 09, 2017

5 observations from Sixers vs. Kings

The good times had to stop at some point, right? After stealing a win from the Utah Jazz without Joel Embiid, the Sixers barfed up an opportunity to win their sixth straight game, falling to the Sacramento Kings 109-108. Though they've suffered a few tough losses already this year, this is the first truly terrible defeat of the season, both because of how they lost the game and who they lost it to.

Let's start this one out on a positive note.

Robert Covington is unbelievably good

Covington was pretty much the only reason the Sixers were in the game after three quarters, because with Ben Simmons in foul trouble and Joel Embiid struggling to get anything going, he was a one-man show on both sides of the court.

The eye-popping number is his 6-12 night from three-point range, and Covington remains absolutely unconscious from three right now. He has been the best three-point shooter in the NBA through 11 games, and he even upped the degree of difficulty against Sacramento. At one point in the second quarter he made threes on consecutive shots while being fouled, and only a missed free throw stopped him from converting back-to-back four-point plays.

He also looked like the only guy prepared to play defense for a lot of the game. The Sixers were lackluster on that end of the court, and Covington's crisp rotations had to go into hyperdrive to keep things afloat. He handled all sorts of defensive assignments throughout the game, switching onto big man Skal Labissiere and locking down De'Aaron Fox in crunch time (minus the game-winning shot, of course).

Covington shouldn't be waiting a single day past November 15 to get his new deal, and at the rate he's going, the Sixers should hope he doesn't try to squeeze them for some more money after the en fuego start to the year.

Joel Embiid's game is all peaks and valleys right now

Embiid separated himself from his rookie peers last season by doing what most young players are incapable of: being consistently good in his first season. He didn't have his best every night, sure, but you constantly felt like he was making a difference on at least one end of the court. The highs were high, and the lows never got all that low.

Perhaps it's because expectations are different this year, but Embiid's performances have been much more erratic. In a 30-second span in the third quarter, he committed a turnover and missed a bunny at the rim. In the 90 seconds that followed, he came up with an impressive block on Willie Cauley-Stein and drained his first three of the game. So it goes.

Frankly, Embiid has been more talented than good for long stretches of the season so far. The good news? He's extremely talented, so he doesn't need to have his best to come up with big plays down the stretch.

The bad news is there are a bunch of other talented guys in the NBA, and they have no remorse kicking Embiid's ass if he doesn't come prepared. After snagging an offensive rebound with 30 seconds to play, Embiid and the Sixers had every reason to play clock management offense and reset. Instead, Embiid went right back up with the ball and got snuffed.

Even if Embiid was intent on staying in attack mode here — and I don't think that's the worst idea in the world — Cauley-Stein went flying at the mere hint of a blocked shot on Thursday night, and Embiid has to know that's his tendency. A simple fake would have more than likely had him in the air, and then Embiid is either going through him for foul shots or around him for an easy bucket.

He is good enough to make those plays, and he made plenty in the fourth quarter. But that 22-15 line (with three blocks) is nowhere near as pretty as it looks, and he has to clean some things up moving forward. Give him some time, because he's earned that, but let's check back in on his progress in a few weeks. 

The Sixers need more from their backups... yes, all of them

Sometimes the stats don't tell the story of the game, but there was one number that summed up the entire game. Sacramento's bench outscored Philadelphia's 56-17, and it's nearly impossible to overcome that big of an ass-whooping.

Sacramento has some talented players coming off their bench, namely Fox, but there's no excuse to get your butts handed to you like this. With Simmons in foul trouble, this was the night for guys off the bench to step up, and they brought little to nothing to the table. Your best players are not always going to be able to carry you to victories.

This sort of game is where you really feel the absence of Jerryd Bayless, and when you start to question the placement of Dario Saric in the starting lineup. Saric has been playing better as a starter, but the Sixers needed a guy who could be more of an offensive focal point propping up the bench unit tonight, and Saric's starting spot took him out of consideration.

The loss isn't all on them, not by a long shot. But these guys have to be able to pick up their stars when they have a down night.

Foul trouble for Simmons is trouble for Philly

Simmons ended up having a pretty sizable impact on this game when it was all said and done, thanks to a spectacular fourth quarter. But that only came after he spent most of the third quarter on ice, having picked up his fourth foul less than two minutes into the second half.

The bench problem is inherently tied to Simmons' absence. He tends to stay on the court when Embiid gets his first sub in each half, and his presence helps prop up the bench guys long enough to hold down the fort for Embiid's return. It makes it so the Sixers are never playing without one of Simmons or Embiid on the court, at least for any extended action.

They did not have that luxury against the Kings, with Simmons losing roughly nine minutes of his usual play time. And it was a real shame, because when Simmons was on the court, he gave you the usual dose of spectacular you're growing accustomed to seeing from him.

It was made even worse by the fact that the foul calls on Simmons were dubious at best. His fourth one came when Kings guard George Hill just straight up ran into Simmons, who stared at the official in total confusion after the foul was made. When it's a case where players are getting caught reaching in and playing lazy basketball, it's hard to get mad at the refs for calling it, but Simmons was the victim of a couple of softies on Thursday.

Get well soon, Markelle Fultz. These are the sort of nights when it'd be really nice for the Sixers to have a dynamic combo guard to keep everything humming.

No, Brett Brown did not need to call a timeout

I freely admit I may end up in the minority on this one. The Twitter backlash was strong after the final possession ended in a fadeaway jumper for Joel Embiid, and the usual calls for Brett Brown's head made their appearance. He's really not the guy to blame here.

Brown's philosophy in end-of-game situations has been spelled out over time, and Brown always doubles down on it during his media availability sessions. He would much rather let his guys grab the ball and go late in a game, running their offense against a defense that isn't set and can't get defensive substitutions to create ideal matchups. He was noticeably mad after the game ended—at least by Brown standards—and when pressed on why he didn't call a timeout, Brown laid out his reasoning clear as day.

"That particular play is most disappointing because we had all the stoppages, I didn't need to take a timeout," said Brown. "The game was stopped for a minute, we didn't need to waste a timeout. We talked, we had a play designed, we've been doing well closing out games, and we went rogue. We didn't show discipline... [it's] the end result of chaos."

Brown's claim that his players just didn't run their offense is interesting, although I don't even think that part matters too much. Focus on this clip around the :15 mark:

JJ Redick had the separation to shoot a three with plenty of time left on the clock, and instead of letting it fly, he pump-faked himself into being covered, the offense stalled, and the team ended up with the desperation shot you saw from Embiid. The Sixers have made their offense look really pretty at times by passing up decent looks for great looks, but when a deadeye shooter like Redick gets even an okay shot with time running out, you live with it. Nobody would have walked away unsatisfied with the final shot if it was Redick missing a moderately-contested three.

As easy as it is to blame the coach, the players have to execute. They had the talent on the floor to get it done, and I trust Brown that they had a gameplan. The fact of the matter is it never should have come down to the final 20 seconds, or even the last five minutes. Philadelphia is a much better team than Sacramento, and there's no excuse for playing poorly enough to let them have a chance to steal a win.