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December 22, 2015

Grizzlies 104, Sixers 90: Is 28 turnovers a lot?

Let’s jump ahead to the end of the third quarter.

The Sixers were holding for the last shot, with rookie point guard T.J. McConnell dribbling down the clock. Usually, the worst-case scenario is that you miss the shot and the quarter ends. But just before the buzzer sounded, there was Courtney Lee, laying the ball in at the other end of the floor after Mario Chalmers picked McConnell’s pocket.

It was just one of those nights (well, another one of those nights). The Memphis Grizzlies defeated the Philadelphia 76ers 104-90 as the Sixers committed 28 turnovers. As far as explanations, that is all we really need. Just ask the coach.

“You can write ’28 turnovers for 36 points,’” Brett Brown told reporters after the game. “It can be a headline, it can be a single-sentence article, and we can all go finish our Christmas shopping.” 

While I appreciate the offer, let’s keep going. Coming into the night, the Sixers had a turnover percentage (estimate of TO’s committed per 100 plays) of 16.7%. Believe it or not, that number would only be the fifth-highest mark since the 1999-00 season. Here are the teams:

Team (Record)
99-00 Bulls (17-65)
95-96 Raptors (21-61)
02-03 Nuggets (17-65)
96-97 Knicks (57-25)
15-16 Sixers (1-28)

How about those Knickerbockers, huh? The question is why the Sixers are turning the ball over at such a historic rate. Is it anything more than a group of young players being asked to do far more than they are capable of?

“I think the physical side [in the paint] bothers our young guys more than I wished it did, where people get hands on balls,” Brown said.

“They close out our shooters so we play catch-and-go game and we get one dribble a little too deep in a crowd or try to make things happen in a physical sense that we just can’t back up.”

From a physicality standpoint, the Grizzlies are a bad matchup for the Sixers. OK, almost everyone is a bad matchup for the Sixers, but still. This edition of the Grizz might not be Grit n’ Grind at its peak, but Memphis still has plenty of strong bodies that force turnovers at the second-highest rate in the league. 

Tony Wroten, who got the nod over Kendall Marshall (both guys can’t play back-to-backs yet) because Memphis is his old team, made five Fast and the Furious style turnovers. Robert Covington, who coughed up the ball six times, had a ton of trouble finding both his handle and shot. Jahlil Okafor, guilty of four giveaways, got stuck in the post more than once.

During one stretch at the end of the first quarter, the Sixers turned the ball over on three consecutive possessions (JaKarr Sampson twice and Nerlens Noel once), and Memphis then turned them into three layups on the other end.

The Sixers did some good things, but it’s hard to separate them from the major ball security issues. As Brown said after the game, when the team plays decent defense for much of the game only to have its offense hand the other team points in bulk, it’s very deflating.

“One thing we got to do better as a team is learn from it,” Covington said. “We’re very young, we try to do the right things, but sometimes we put ourselves in bad positions.”

The one major bright spot of the evening was rookie Jahlil Okafor, who rebounded from a rough performance in Memphis a few weeks ago to shoot 8-12 en route to 18 points. He also earned a plus-2 in 34 minutes. This was a nice effort from the third overall pick. You can't overplay the big fella to his left, Marc:

While Okafor could have rebounded better (he finished with five boards) and was also bitten by the turnover bug (four), this was an encouraging performance against the physical Grizzlies frontcourt of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph.

“It’s definitely a challenge,” Okafor said. “Marc Gasol is amazing and Zach Randolph is, too.”

When asked to pinpoint the reason for his young low-post player’s improvement, Brown looked to the calendar. As Okafor gets more experience under his belt, the coach believes his game will grow.

“He still needs to be a better screener, but he’s getting better than he was at the start of the year,” Brown said. “He still needs to be a better rim protector, but he’s a lot better than he was at the start of the year. He’s a lot better at not waiting and hoping the ball finds him like he has his whole life. The ball has found Jahlil Okafor.”

On the flip side, Nerlens Noel came off the bench so that Brown could stagger his two young big men’s minutes. The third-year forward struggled, only managing a 1-3 performance from the field and taking a minus-17 for the game.

On the bright side, Noel did collect eight rebounds and throw some nice passes. But as Brown correctly noted before the game, the Sixers’ performance has been very poor when Noel and Okafor share the floor. When a team like Memphis goes small with Matt Barnes at the 4, that means somebody has to come off the bench.

“I’m just playing basketball,” Noel said when asked whether the move came as a surprise.

Follow Rich on Twitter: @rich_hofmann