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December 08, 2017

5 observations from Sixers vs. Lakers

Entering the week, the Sixers had a pretty obvious path toward a 15-9 record, a mark that would have looked great for a young team dealing with a brutal opening slate. But after an uninspiring loss to the Suns and an uneven performance against the Lakers, the Sixers' record has dropped to 13-11, with a back-to-back against the Cavaliers and Pelicans looming over the weekend.

The Lakers needed a last-second shot from Brandon Ingram to win the game, but their 107-104 victory was deserved when all was said and done. They played with more of a bounce this time around, perhaps wanting to prove something after Joel Embiid kicked their teeth in during the first matchup of the teams earlier this season. Had the Sixers matched that focus from the opening whistle, we'd probably be talking about a very different game the next day.

On a night with some nice individual achievements — Ben Simmons picked up his third triple-double of the year in the loss — there was one stretch of basketball that towered above the rest.

Joel Embiid almost carried the Sixers to a fourth-quarter comeback

It will get buried in most recaps (and rightfully so) because the Sixers didn't end up pulling the game out. But what Joel Embiid did in the fourth quarter against the Lakers was special, and is the reason the team handed him a massive contract extension despite the uncertainty surrounding his health.

Down nine entering the quarter after a backbreaking stretch to end the third, the Sixers just kept feeding the big man to start the final period. He splashed a pair of three-point shots that forced Lakers coach Luke Walton to call a timeout, and when the teams got back on the floor, Embiid took the next possession down the floor and went to the low block, earning a pair of free throws and stopping the clock.

The Lakers did their best to send more doubles at Embiid this time around, but he wasn't dependent on his scoring to make an impact on the game. On one of the few threes JJ Redick was able to knock down on the evening, Embiid played his part by resetting the offense after his path to the basket was cut off, and then leveled Josh Hart with a screen to free his shooter.

These sort of plays tend to get lost amid the blocked shots, post moves, and trash talk from Embiid, but they are integral to his and the team's success. By virtue of his talent and having the ball in his hands a lot, Embiid is going to get his. So it's critical for him to make life easier on his supporting cast, even if it just means creating an extra foot of separation for his shooters with a good screen.

In the fourth quarter, you also saw the reason you hear a lot of analysts and ex-players fetishize "two-way players." He couldn't clean up everything, but Embiid created turnovers and then got down the floor immediately, punishing LA for the mistakes they made.

Embiid got his in the fourth, dropping 16 points in 10:35 of game time during the final frame, but he was in no mood to talk about his successes following the loss. He told reporters the Sixers flat-out failed to execute on their gameplan coming in, and his depiction of what happened was fairly straightforward.

"They got a lot of offensive rebounds, the gameplan was we have to rebound the ball. I didn't do that tonight, and that's one of the reasons why we lost," said Embiid. "They were active and they got what they wanted."

He may have come up short on the rebounding, but Embiid did just about everything else you could have wanted from him against the Lakers. You look up at the end of a game and realize he had 33 points, seven rebounds, six assists, and five blocks on 11/17 shooting, and it doesn't feel that foreign anymore. A player who was on a minute restriction last season is casually playing 36 minutes in primetime. For this, you can be thankful, even if the loss stings.

Rebounding focus is becoming a problem

The Sixers are by and large a great rebounding team. That tends to happen when you play jumbo lineups all the time, and have pieces like Embiid and Ben Simmons who are elite at rebounding for their respective positions.

So there's really no excuse for a play like this, where the Sixers can't figure out who's going to grab the missed free-throw, and they give up a second-chance three as a result of their indecisiveness.

Somebody has to come up with a better effort on this play, someone has to speak up and actually communicate. Even TJ McConnell, who does the right thing and goes to collect the board while his bigger teammates box out, only half sells out to bring it in. 

That wasn't even the worst one they gave up on the night, though I'm not sure you can pick one that is definitively the worst. Do you prefer the play where they're too concerned with getting up the floor to end the possession or the play where Simmons has the ball fall into his hands and squanders the opportunity?

Only one of those plays actually led to a made basket from the Lakers, but you simply can't keep giving teams second opportunities to put points on the board. Those will come from the natural flow of the game no matter what, and you don't need to amplify that by forfeiting even more through effort.

The most frustrating part, which both Embiid and his coach alluded to, was that the Sixers knew they had to win that battle on the glass after the Lakers gave them problems there in the first game between the two teams.

"I think that stuff at the end of the third period was harmful. We go on a 13-2 run, we have a turnover and then we miss an offensive rebound on a free throw," said Brown. "Offensive rebounds hurt us when we played these guys in Los Angeles, they have a lot of athletes that chase balls. We have to do better." 

JJ Redick hits his low point as a Sixer

Speaking of needing to do better, that is probably the worst game Redick has played in a Sixers uniform. He was bad in just about every facet of the game against the Lakers, and he didn't do nearly enough to compensate for it with his shooting.

Even during bad Redick games, you can usually say he wasn't actively harmful to the team. But Redick turned the ball over four times on Thursday night and brought the team to a screeching halt on more than one occasion. Two fourth-quarter possessions stood out in particular, and you could argue the cough-ups from Redick on these plays cost them the game on their own.

The first play is the more egregious one for me. I have a relatively high tolerance for turnovers assuming you put in the work to minimize the damage after you hand the other team the ball. What you can't do is run around like a headless chicken on defense after you turn it over, and that's what Redick did on the ensuing LA possession.

There's just not much to gain trying to press Ingram on-ball as he dribbles back out toward halfcourt. If he's going to take a pull-up three after coming around the screen by Lopez, you tip your cap if he makes it. At least then, you can get a decent contest by sinking under the screen and closing hard. What you can't do is let him just walk right into an uncontested jumper, waiving a token hand in his face without bothering him.

And of course, there was the ultimate rally killer with 1:20 to go, on a play where the Sixers had no reason to rush into an offensive possession. Redick is here to be the steely-eyed veteran during winning time, but you wouldn't have been able to tell by watching this sequence.

He has had a rough stretch over the last week or so, though I wouldn't start sounding any alarm bells over it. Redick shot nearly 41 percent from three in November, and even he is conscious of the fact that he'll go through peaks and valleys over the course of an 82-game schedule.

Then again, you can live with him just missing shots. Handing extra possessions to the other team can't happen because his younger teammates already do plenty of that on their own.

Richaun Holmes proves he should be a factor in the rotation

The Sixers were lifeless in the first half again on Thursday, following up a sleepy performance against Phoenix with another one on national TV. They badly needed a dose of energy, and unlike on a normal night, they didn't get a whole lot from backup guard TJ McConnell.

In stepped Richaun Holmes, the backup center who has bounced in and out of the rotation throughout the year and has lost most of his playing time to Amir Johnson. His offensive play in the final quarter sent the Wells Fargo Center into hysterics because it is hard to watch what Holmes does and not feel like you've been hit with a jolt of lightning. He punctuates his dunks with primal screams, and M.O.P.'s "Ante Up" — the best hype-up song ever made, for my money — thunders through the arena after every one of his buckets. You'd have to be dead not to feel something.

What might be the most important development for Holmes from the Lakers game was displaying an ability to play alongside Embiid in double-big sets. His minutes have had a cap on them primarily because there are only so many center minutes to go around. But Holmes and Embiid played off each other well, and Embiid even hooked his running mate up with an assist in crunch time.

He was more than just a dunker during his 22 minutes of action. Holmes nearly returned the favor to Embiid with less than a minute to play, and Embiid came painfully close to scoring through contact. It is one of those big what-if plays from the game; had Embiid finished the shot and made the free throw, how does the rest of the game unfold?

Playing Holmes alongside Embiid is much more situational than it is something the Sixers can rely on nightly. The Lakers play some double big lineups, which are increasingly rare around the league. But when you see him lifting the crowd and the players around him up through nothing more than force of will, how do you not find a way to get him into games more often?

Holmes only has one speed, 100 miles per hour, and Brown has to find a way to channel that for the team's benefit. From what Holmes told me after the game, he doesn't even necessarily worry about what this game means for his future playing time and insists you'll get the same guy no matter what he does from one night to the next.

"For me it's just about whenever my name's called, always being ready," said Holmes. "I let the coaches decide everything else. Whenever I get an opportunity I'm thankful for it, and just try to do the best I can with it."

On certain nights, that will look like Holmes getting into foul trouble because he's too amped up during his limited run. But the Sixers will be happy to take the good with the bad if he gives them an adrenaline boost like that.

The foundations of a potential rivalry are set

I don't like proclaiming much about rivalries before there's some real skin in the game. Both the Sixers and the Lakers have a ways to go before they arrive where they want to be, so what you're seeing right now is two teams trying to find their way on the backs of talented young guys.

But there was a little extra juice in the building Thursday night, and that trend will likely continue for many Sixers-Lakers games going forward. Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram will always be compared as the No. 1 and 2 picks in their draft class, there has been animosity directed towards Lonzo Ball and his family from members of the Sixers, and there's plenty of history between the franchises in big moments throughout history.

The hatred for Ball was palpable on Thursday night. Fans booed him every time he touched the ball, and every missed shot drew a sarcastic cheer from the Philadelphia faithful. He may not be responsible for it, but the musings of his father have turned him into an avatar of the sort of athlete Philadelphia tends to loathe. People don't mind if you talk trash and have a big personality here, but you better prove your merit on a big stage before being compared to some of the game's best players.

There was a surreal moment with about five minutes to play in the game when the crowd finally discovered where LaVar Ball was seated in the arena. While the game was going on and important possessions were taking place, hundreds of fans stood and turned in his direction, consumed with jeering one of the most controversial figures in sports today. A larger contingent of fans burst into a "Lonzo sucks!" chant shortly afterward, highlighting the point they'd already made clear with boos.

Both teams have to actually become good in order for all this to matter over the long-term. They only play twice a year, so unless LA vs. Philly becomes a litmus test game worth caring about, the Ball hatred can only carry you so far.

Either way, it's fun to feel like some of the franchise's historic rivalries finally matter again. When the crowd is living and dying with every shot, it is a hell of a lot more fun to be in the building.