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March 06, 2019

Five Star Review: Failure to adjust dooms Sixers in final minutes vs. Bulls

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Everybody likes awards and shiny things. Five Star Review is our way of catering to that urge, spotlighting key sequences and performances, in-game oddities, puzzling quotes, and everything in between from each Sixers game. This space offers a chance to reflect further on observations from the night before using video, quotes, and good old-fashioned logic.

You should all know how a five-star scale works: a five-star performance is the best of the best, a one-star performance is the worst of the worst. Mistakes take precedent in defeat, excellence takes precedent in a victory. You get the picture and are encouraged to submit your own set of stars in the comment section below.

Today's game: a brutal 108-107 loss to the Chicago Bulls that was marred by poor decisionmaking. 

Brett Brown not adjusting in the game's final minutes

The people on the Sixers beat tend to take a decent amount of heat for what Brett Brown critics think is "protecting" the head coach. In many cases, it just tends to be a difference of opinion — I certainly don't agree with everything Brown does, but I care about the logic and process as much as I do the results.

It was all bad on Wednesday night. Brown's instinct, as it was against Orlando, was to go small against the Bulls and use Ben Simmons and Mike Scott up front. It's perfectly defensible to start out that way. It's not at all defensible to watch the Bulls force switches and crush you at the point of attack for the final few minutes and not make a single adjustment.

You don't have to be a film junkie to see what the Bulls were doing late in the game. For most of the last five-plus minutes of the game, they were putting the ball in Zach LaVine's hands and running pick-and-rolls or dribble handoffs, either to force a switch or buy LaVine some separation to turn the corner. When he got that, the result was often an open shot and/or a make. When the Bulls couldn't convert, Robin Lopez had nobody to deal with him on the offensive glass, and the Bulls extended possessions longer than should have been possible.

Scott was at the center of all this. The Sixers were definitely short on frontcourt options on Wednesday night, and if they were going to make a lineup change, it probably would have involved playing Amir Johnson, who no one is clamoring for on a normal night. Defending in space is not his specialty, so forcing him to keep up with LaVine on switches could have been trouble.

But Johnson had played well throughout the evening, leading the team with a team-high +12, and I thought he probably deserved a chance to close the game out. At the very least, he had earned a chance to get subbed in for a possession or two when it became clear that Scott wasn't offering any resistance in the painted area. In the configuration Brown stuck with, they didn't get any of the theoretical benefits of playing Scott in that spot — his switchability was rendered useless, the Sixers were punished on the glass, and Scott wasn't making shots. So why bother?

If there's one primary area I take issue with Brown, it's the speed at which he adjusts. He wasn't up against some great tactician running amazing sets on Wednesday night, but the Sixers did need him to make a change to cope with what was happening out on the court. If the Bulls are running plays with the same personnel every time and you don't think Johnson works to combat it, why not switch Ben Simmons onto Lopez at some point? Scott could have easily stayed with Lauri Markkanen, who was almost wholly uninvolved with the sets late.

Brown will catch a ton of heat for this one, and deserves to.

Giving away an opportunity to take the No. 3 seed

Once Victor Oladipo went down with a serious injury earlier this season, it was presumed that one of Philadelphia or Boston would rise to the No. 3 seed in the East. Without their best offensive player, who would expect the Pacers to hang around and outpace teams with much more talent?

Funny thing, that. Indiana has maintained its grip on the No. 3 seed in the East. The assumption here is still that they will relinquish it by the end of the season, with their tough schedule to end the year contrasting Philadelphia's relative cakewalk. But guess what doesn't matter if you play down to the competition anyway? Your strength of schedule.

The Pacers have remained at No. 3 because for the most part, they don't beat themselves. They're the second-best defense in the league, which helps them overcome the fact that they have to score by committee and are the picture of average on the offensive end.

One of the biggest developments for Philadelphia this season has been their regression as a team on defense. Pick a reason that works for you — Lloyd Pierce leaving, swapping out Robert Covington for Jimmy Butler, schematic changes, Joel Embiid missing time recently — the bottom line is they haven't been good enough, and it's disappointing after they were an elite defensive team last season. Combine that with an offense that is high variance and you have a recipe for a lot of games that end up closer than they should be.

Yes, this group is new and developing. Yes, it is hard to build an elite defense when you're incorporating new pieces and subtracting elite defensive players as part of that process. But they were playing a team who was also on a back-to-back that has much less talent than they do, even with health caveats. There's no excuse to lose.


Philadelphia's offense falling apart in the fourth quarter

Here's the thing about sticking with that small group when it mattered most — you could have justified it if the Sixers were producing on the offensive end of the floor. But they sucked there too and did not deserve the amount of rope they received.

 The Sixers had twice as many turnovers (six) in the final quarter as they did made shots (three). That is simply inexcusable. It was a teamwide problem, with five different players coughing the ball up, but a lot of it circles back on Simmons, who needs to be the team's steadying influence if the team is going to call him and play him as a point guard.

Too frequently, he is not that. This was, for my money, the single worst play in the game on Wednesday night:

You absolutely can't turn the ball over there in any circumstance. If you want to know why Brown still turns to T.J. McConnell despite his limitations, it's because he trusts him to understand time and score and game situation. Up two points in a game that is down to the final minute, there is absolutely no reason for the Sixers to push the tempo after Simmons creates the turnover. And he doesn't have the excuse of somebody making a great defensive play — this play was just about Simmons crumbling in the moment, nothing more.

Simmons' lack of a jumper is a problem in high-leverage situations. It's a much bigger problem that his situational awareness is as low as it is. We've seen him throw home-run outlets late in close games, force passes into tight windows for no reason, and go through the usual free-throw struggles. Eventually repeated actions are just a pattern, not a coincidence.

Mike Scott not switching on the final defensive possession

Scott is a veteran and should have done better on the final defensive possession. That much is crystal clear.

However, the problem is that he's being asked to defend in a high-leverage situation to begin with. I think Scott is tough and versatile and will have a role to play in a lot of late-game situations come playoff time. But he was getting absolutely abused on the defensive end late in the game on Wednesday night. Expecting different results without changing anything there was insane.

So we have to note that yes, he was the guy who screwed up. But I don't believe he should have been in position to screw up in the first place. 

James Ennis, surging ahead in the "tournament"

If there was a silver lining on Wednesday night, it's that the Sixers got the best performance they've seen from James Ennis since he joined the team. Brown has called the process of determining Philadelphia's final bench piece a "tournament" for weeks now, and it has been one where it felt like everyone is losing, including the people at home.

But Ennis stepped up on Wednesday night, and from my vantage point should be considered the prohibitive favorite to win the tournament. In 17 minutes against Chicago, Ennis was 5/7 from the field for 11 points, and he supplemented his scoring with seven rebounds and some timely defense.

The case for Jonathon Simmons to play over him rests mostly on the fact that he can handle a little better and he's better equipped to defend guards. But the former mostly leads the other Simmons to take ill-advised adventures with his handle. Ennis plays within himself, and he had a couple nice takes off the dribble vs. the Bulls:

We'll see if Ennis gets a chance to seize this role and take it for good over the next week or so, but he did everything a coach could ask for, between his efficiency, his hustle, and his positioning on defense. He was the set of nice deck chairs on the sinking Titanic.

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