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November 18, 2017

5 observations from Sixers vs. Warriors

After the first 24 minutes of Saturday night's game, the Sixers were beating the reigning NBA champions by 22 points. The Wells Fargo Center was louder than it has been for any regular season game in recent memory, and everything was trending in a positive direction. A fan even sunk a halfcourt shot to win everybody at the Wells Fargo Center free Chick Fil A.

And then the Warriors, those relentless, sublime, sometimes insufferable Warriors, happened. They turned a 22-point deficit into a 10-point lead by the time the fourth quarter started, and the air was completely sucked out of the building. Just like that, the moment was gone, and the Sixers ended up losing 124-116.

There is no shame in losing to the Golden State Warriors

Any time a team concedes a 20+ point lead to lose at home, the first reaction is to look at someone to blame. Fingers were pointed in every direction, to Brett Brown, to a lacking bench, to the turnovers coughed up by Joel Embiid. No one was safe from criticism.

Let's try to keep some perspective here. These Warriors are perhaps the greatest team of all-time or at the very least the most talented. LeBron James averaged a 33-point triple-double in the 2017 NBA Finals against this group, and the Cavaliers still barely managed to push them to five games. We can point out the flaws in Philadelphia's performance and roster construction without getting angry about the loss itself.

For example, there were points they gave up that were 100 percent avoidable. You can live with the Warriors making shots, not with lazy transition defense.

I would just urge caution in trying to make any sweeping declarations following a loss to this Warriors team, especially when you're playing an eight-man rotation.  

There was a lot of talk about Golden State "flipping the switch" in the second half, but that's not the game I saw. It wasn't what Embiid claimed he felt in the thick of the action, either.

"Nah, they didn't flip a switch, we were just bad in the third quarter," said Embiid. "But you've got to give them a lot of credit, they were aggressive and they were physical with us, especially in the second half. They did what they had to do and they got a win."

Sure, the Warriors were uncharacteristically sloppy at times — a miscommunication prompted their coach to call two timeouts in an eight-second span in the first half — but they were fully engaged the entire game, even when they were down double digits. Kevin Durant and Draymond Green talked all sorts of trash to Embiid before the scoreboard gave them any reason to, not caring how big the margin was between them.

The Sixers caught a ton of breaks in the first half, and you sort of have to in order to build a massive lead against the Warriors. Regression to the mean hit the Sixers on both ends of the court in the third quarter. Even when it looked like the Sixers were on the verge of getting a stop, the Warriors found a way to pull a rabbit out of their hat.

The Sixers need someone else to help shoulder the offensive load

This has been a constant theme for much of the season, but never was it more evident than against the Warriors. The Sixers are playing elite-level basketball when they have their starting unit on the court, and then things go off a cliff when they need to get their top guys some rest.

The biggest difference between a team like the Warriors and the Sixers (besides experience) is their ability to stagger elite players in a way that guarantees they always have one on the floor. If Steph Curry hits the bench, Kevin Durant is still out there. When Durant gets his turn, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson are still out there. They come at you in waves, and while there is certainly more talent on their bench than Philadelphia's, that depth of elite talent helps amplify the things their bench does well.

The Sixers don't have that same luxury. With the state the team is in right now, they need their starting unit to be quite literally the best unit in the league to even have a chance to win games. Philadelphia's offense and defense fall off a cliff when any of Simmons, Embiid, and Robert Covington hit the bench, and that's not a sustainable formula for winning.

He won't answer the defensive problem, but the reason the Sixers drafted Markelle Fultz is to spread the offensive load around. Regardless of whether he starts or comes off the bench, having Fultz and Simmons allows Brett Brown to stagger his lineups in a way that provides the team with a plus ballhandler at all times. With all due respect to the work TJ McConnell has put in to become a legitimate NBA rotation guy, he doesn't put a lot of stress on opponents offensively. When he can be a secondary handler next to someone like Simmons, he can be great, but far too often he's placed in a position where he's the only guy on the floor who can do more than dribble in a straight line.

Every NBA offense goes through lulls, and when Simmons needs to get his rest, they don't have a perimeter player who can create enough separation off the dribble. The Sixers become far too reliant on throwing the ball to Embiid on the block and asking him to create something out of nothing. 

Another part of this equation, however, is about rewarding Embiid with shooting when he does make the right reads on offense. He is increasingly making plays like this, and the guys around him have to capitalize.

The shortened rotation has been hurting the Sixers because they don't really have any curveballs to throw at teams. Fultz—at least the UW Fultz—represents a change of pace from Simmons at the very least, a herky-jerky scorer at all three levels who forces defenders to play him tight. A Fultz centric attack necessitates a completely different defensive gameplan from Simmons led lineups.

Simmons had another monster game against the Warriors, dropping 23-8-12 on 11/15 shooting, but the Warriors know they can focus a majority of their energy on Embiid if Simmons is off the floor. 

Gambling on defense did not pay off

The Sixers have a few risk-takers on the defensive end, none more prominent than Covington and Simmons. The former has cut down some of his more risky behavior the last couple seasons as he transformed into a smarter, better defender, but he'll never cut that mentality out entirely. Against the Warriors, you saw some of the ill effects of playing that sort of defensive style.

It's hard to fault Simmons too much on this play, because Curry's pass does look like it's ripe for a breakaway dunk going the other way. But those few inches Simmons misses by are costly, and even an excellent read on the kick out by Covington can't prevent Durant from making a corner three.

Later in the same quarter, Covington makes a similar gamble on a pass aimed at Durant. Once again, Richaun Holmes does an admirable job at getting a hand in his face, but allowing Durant to breach that first line of defense and get a look closer to the basket is already a loss for the defense before the shot goes in.

You can defend these instincts by pointing out they have high reward potential, and I can't argue that point. Simmons and Covington have done a damn good job at getting into passing lanes all year, and the Sixers have turned similar plays into dunks and layups on the other end.

But plays like these show how thin the margin for error is when you play the Warriors. Take one wrong step and they will punish you, even if your actions were sparked by good intentions.

Ben Simmons offsets his shooting woes by playing at hyperspeed

Simmons had a rough go of it against the Warriors in Oakland last week, where Golden State showed no respect for his shooting ability. Draymond Green gave him all sorts of space to work with, and Simmons rewarded their strategy by going 6/17 from the field. He faced a lot of looks like this one:

Simmons was not content to have a similar performance in the rematch. Golden State schemed him similarly in Saturday's game, but the rookie didn't give them as many chances to set up in their half-court defense. He had the Sixers playing at a breakneck pace in the first half, and the chaos it created helped spark their dominant performance.

The speed was so noticeable at times that when I went back through my game notes and rewatched plays at home, I noticed something I found hilarious: NBC Sports Philadelphia returned from the usual cutaway shots and the Sixers were already putting the Warriors on their heels:

That one is sort of cartoonish, so here's a more repeatable example we can look at came later in the first quarter. With 18 seconds left on the shot clock, Simmons has already posted up Andre Iguodala, and his early work was rewarded when a dump off led to a nice finish through contact by Holmes.

There are countless offensive possessions where the Sixers are only barely crossing halfcourt with 18 seconds left on the shot clock. You can't sprint the ball up the court on every possession, but playing with an intent to get into action early is always a plus. Some of the Sixers' crunch-time failures have come when they've tried to slow the game down too much, and they would be wise to continue taking advantage of their enormous point guard's ability to dictate tempo.

A Golden State defensive switch helped change the game

The Warriors made a pretty large adjustment on defense that likely changed the outcome of the game. Durant replaced Green as the primary defender of Simmons shortly before halftime, and it was a completely different game after that went down.

The move did not necessarily put Simmons in shackles, but the rearrangement made life miserable for the Sixers on offense. Durant's length and athleticism are lethal when he's in defensive attack mode. Faced with a rolling Embiid and Simmons flashing out to receive a pass from JJ Redick, Durant cheats just enough to help Klay Thompson eliminate the Embiid option and then darts into the passing lane to create a turnover.

Once again, this is the level of luxury the Warriors have. The schemes and matchups were not in their favor in the first half, so Steve Kerr was able to go into the locker room and decide that a borderline alien was going to be tasked with sticking on Simmons. 

The style of defense also changed with the personnel, which is arguably the more important piece here. Durant gives Simmons a little bit of space at times during this possession, but on the whole he's much further out than a lot of opposing defenders have been this year.

I'm interested to see if more teams show a willingness to play this style of defense on Simmons, preventing him from getting a head of steam going. I'd bet not, given that few guys are as well-equipped to play him that way as Durant, but at the rate Simmons is producing, it's going to take some experimenting to figure out the best way to slow him down.

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