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March 12, 2019

Five Star Review: Sixers' turnover problem continues in win over Cleveland

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 clunker of a performance against the Cleveland Cavaliers. 

James Ennis establishing himself in the rotation

Ennis did not have the "best" performance of the night – that honor goes to the guy we'll talk about next. But as it pertains to Philadelphia's postseason success, he may have had the most important night on Tuesday.

The Sixers have been dying for somebody to step up and win the backup wing job over the last few weeks, with James Ennis and Jonathon Simmons both failing to deliver as the minutes shifted back and forth from game to game. Finally handed an opportunity to stick in the rotation, Ennis has risen to the top. I suspect he'll stay there, even if his play falls off a cliff.

"That is hard, just not knowing if you're going to play," Ennis said at practice on Monday. "[Jonathon Simmons] will play, then I'll play the next game, I'll sit two games, you can't get a rhythm like that. But just staying in a gym and working hard, that helps a lot."

(This is one way in which "the tournament" has been an issue, or at least how the Sixers have gone about it. Brett Brown wants to learn about Ennis and Simmons, but it's hard to get a real picture when you don't let anyone actually settle in.)

One way you can offset that problem is by doing the little things and letting things like rhythm sort themselves out. Ennis has been better than expected as an offensive rebounder, skying through traffic to come down with some contested boards that turned into second-chance points. "The ball finds energy" is a big basketball cliche, but Ennis was the embodiment of that on Tuesday:

Ennis' play has also given them proof of concept for what a Sixers starting lineup might look like if one of their star free agents walks in the summer. There are some benefits to having guys who are content doing the dirty work, though it's obviously preferable to have as much high-end talent as possible. 

Ben Simmons exploiting matchups

With Tobias Harris fading in the second half and Joel Embiid sleepwalking for roughly the first 47 minutes of the game, it was Simmons who had the best outing of the night. Simmons finished the night with 26 points, 10 rebounds, and eight assists, the exact sort of line you'd expect him to have against a Cavs team with few ways to stop him.

He was the only player sans Ennis to show the proper amount of urgency throughout the game. As the Sixers sputtered through some awful possessions in the second and third quarters, Simmons demanded the ball against Cleveland's smaller players on the low block, at one point drawing back-to-back fouls in the post within eight seconds of game time. Simmons' recent uptick at the free-throw line has emboldened him to attack, and it shows.

And despite the Sixers having a huge turnover problem on Tuesday, Simmons mostly took care of the basketball, coughing it up just twice, with one of those coming on an offensive foul. He and Embiid are at the center of that problem, so it's worth noting that he took care of the basketball on a night where they sucked at it as a team.

The plan behind Joel Embiid heading into the playoffs

As of right now, Philadelphia's plan is to go to Boban Marjanovic for the minutes behind Joel Embiid. They have time to figure out how viable that is (and whether a real alternative really exists) but this is a mixed bag right now, for sure.

The good news is that Boban is hilariously tough to cover on the interior for opposing teams. I'm still getting used to watching the Sixers toss entry passes that look like they'll sail over everyone's heads, only for Boban to reach up without jumping and pluck it out of the air like it's a tennis ball. It's almost impossible to cover, and any catches around the rim are surefire fouls or dunks.

How Boban copes with stretch bigs will likely define his role in the playoffs, however. Brown addressed this at Monday's practice, noting they can't just expect the defensive concepts to be the same when switching out Embiid for Boban.

"Schematically [you have to] change some things, what do you [have] to do to guard in May and June? How do you stay on the floor?" Brown asked. "I hope that we can retain that two-headed presence at the rim for 48 minutes."

Boban's issue in Philly is the same that it has been everywhere else he has played — he doesn't have the recovery speed to make a lot of plays, whether he's making the correct reads or not:

The first two plays in that clip are executed fine and the second even results in a miss, but Boban just doesn't have the speed to make a credible contest on the perimeter there. The third is probably more about confusion regarding his assignment — Boban seems to think he should chase Channing Frye toward the perimeter, and the moment of hesitation leaves him DOA when the pass comes to Collin Sexton in the paint.

The backup center is not going to play a lot of minutes in the playoffs with Embiid ramping up. But as we saw against Boston last year, games can be lost on the margins, and these sequences are a bit worrying in that respect. 

Joel Embiid sleepwalking through the game

You usually don't have to raise any questions about Embiid's competitive level. After everything he has been through, Embiid views his time in the NBA as a gift, and he plays as hard at both ends as any guy in the league. That was just simply not the case on Tuesday night.

I don't think this is worth stewing on too long, but we have to call a spade a spade. Embiid himself called the performance, "trash," and it was at least good to see him take accountability and make sure they came up with a win with more inspired play in the final minutes.

The everlasting turnover problem

There are nights when Philadelphia's turnovers are a product of matchup issues or a battle-tested opponent. When the Sixers play the Toronto Raptors, for example, Kawhi Leonard absolutely eats Ben Simmons' lunch, and the turnovers just cascade from there.

To put it gently, the 2018-19 Cleveland Cavaliers are not the effing Raptors. The Sixers coughed the ball up for absolutely no reason at times, and it was easily the most frustrating part about watching the game once, let alone twice.

Even sets we all to take for granted, like the dribble handoffs between Embiid and JJ Redick, seemed to be falling apart for the Sixers. This is a time of the year where everything should look crisp and the only surprises should be new (albeit small) wrinkles in the offense. Instead, it looks like either stagnation or regression, depending on how harsh you want to be about this.

All turnovers should not be judged equally. Sometimes you just run into great defensive players and things happen. Plays like these — a lazy DHO from Embiid and a turnover on an inbounds play — need to be cut if they are serious about doing damage in the playoffs:

Brown was asked after the game if he believes there's something the coaching staff can do to solve this problem, and he listed three things — timing, execution, screen setting — that could be worked on with his guys. But I'll add another one to this group: teaching the team to be more selective about pace.

That inbounds turnover is about nothing more than taking the initial inbounds pass for granted as the Sixers try to get up the floor after a made basket. The instinct is understandable, but it's a bit like a wide receiver being set on breaking up field before they complete a catch, only to put it on the turf. There's something to be said for making the simple play first and then going from there, rather than trying to rush through two steps and delivering on neither. We've seen other teams exploit the Sixers' tendency to run by picking off outlet passes, too, so this isn't exactly an isolated problem.

There needs to be a greater overall focus from the Sixers players on the floor. Asked about the pressure on Brett Brown heading into the postseason, Embiid noted on Tuesday that the coaches are not the people on the floor making plays, and that it's up to their guys to execute. That's an admirable stance, and it's one that reflects the star's respect for his head coach.

But there are still details I think Brown can iron out even as they try to build the identity of what is basically a brand new team. It is not a big ask to demand your players make sure they execute a freaking inbounds pass, and cutting down silly nonsense like this would go a long way.

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