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April 21, 2021

Instant observations: Sixers fall just short in hard-fought battle with Suns

The Sixers came within a Joel Embiid heave of taking the Phoenix Suns to overtime, but they fell short in a 116-113 loss on the front end of a back-to-back.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• For the first quarter-and-a-half of this game, it felt like Embiid was putting up decent box score numbers while still leaving a lot on the table. Some of that can be blamed on the officiating — there was a lot of contact being let go on both ends of the floor — and some of it has to be placed on the big guy himself. He tried hard to bait the refs into a bunch of calls, and they proved unmoved by his efforts.

After picking up a frustration tech in the second quarter, though, it was time for Embiid to come alive. Staring down a matchup with former teammate Dario Saric, who Embiid has long believed has no chance to guard him, Embiid used his rage from the officiating as fuel for a strong close to the half. Embiid absolutely bullied the Suns in the late part of the second quarter, going over, around, and even through Saric, ducking and dodging swipes at the ball from other Phoenix players.

His biggest problem in the second half, aside from an issue we'll get to further below, was how Rivers chose to distribute his minutes. By the time he returned to the game with about half of the fourth quarter remaining, the Sixers had undergone a mini-collapse to give the Suns a lead they would never squander. 

Still, Embiid did his best to pull the Sixers out of the hole late in the fourth, scoring 14 straight points in another rampage to finish the fourth quarter, and eventually powering his way to a preposterous 38-17-4 line. Too little, too late, unfortunately, and he almost pulled off the game-tying shot of the century to close the game.

Here's a look at it again:

• Coming into this game, Devin Booker had a career average against the Sixers better than any individual player outside of Michael Jordan. He has absolutely skewered Philadelphia over the years, and with Ben Simmons on the shelf, there were probably a ton of bets on the over for his points total.

Matisse Thybulle had something to say that. In conjunction with a good gameplan against Booker — the Sixers played relatively high and refused to let him get going as an outside shooter — Thybulle turned in one of the best individual performances of his career, perhaps the best shutdown defense he's played on a high-level opponent. And unlike in a normal game, where he's the guy who gets to be the chaos creator off of the bench, this was done as the first option against Phoenix's most dangerous player.

You couldn't have asked for much more out of Thybulle. He had Booker in such bad shape that unless there's a mystery injury we don't know about, Thybulle actually sort of changed Monty Williams' rotation patterns, with Booker not playing a ton of minutes in spite of an injury to another Phoenix starter.

Even when Booker was able to create separation against Thybulle, the space was closed quickly.

There just aren't many guys in the league who are capable of closing ground like this while making a play without fouling. One of them happens to be an injured teammate. When his defense is this good, you barely even have to think about his offensive contributions. Booker's late game heroics were a credit to his own ability to persevere, not any sort of mark against Thybulle.

• I still doubt Tyrese Maxey will be a factor in the playoff rotation, but his play this week is a reminder that he still has a bright future with this team. He is more of a live wire than any of the other players they bring off of the bench, and even against a small, speedy Suns team, Maxey was able to use a quick first step and bad intentions to put pressure on Phoenix's basket.

Perhaps more importantly, Maxey finally seems to be finding his footing on defense. Defense was a strength of his at Kentucky, but like almost every young guard in NBA history, he has had a rough go of it tracking players on and off the ball this season. Wednesday's game against Phoenix was perhaps his best game on that end as a pro, with Maxey making sharp reads off-ball and staying lued to his man when he had to guard Phoenix's initiators.

Maxey can't get the threes to drop right now, which is a problem in the short term and needs to be cleaned up eventually. But he certainly looks like a more confident shooter as of late, and as long as he's not a "record scratch" guy when the ball swings his way, they'll have to live with the growing pains.

• George Hill made multiple off-the-dribble threes with a hand in his face on Wednesday night. In recent years, that has been a foreign concept for Philly, with many of their best shooters in the catch-and-shoot mold. If Hill does absolutely nothing else, that alone makes the pickup a key addition.

But it looks like he's prepared to offer the Sixers much more than that. Once Hill got handed the controls of the offense in the second half, something that was overdue if you're asking me, the Sixers finally seemed to look like a semi-competent team even without any of their starters on the floor. He is just rock solid on offense — he'll hit a gap when it presents itself, he's an adept playmaker, and he's got enough length to finish in traffic, even with the loss of burst that hits any player in their mid-30s.

• I like this Phoenix team a good bit. Two high-level ballhandlers, a bunch of tough, physical players on both ends, and a good head coach. They'll be a tough out in the playoffs. 

The Bad

• Giving Shake Milton a lot of room to create and run the offense made plenty of sense to start the year. Building off the momentum of a great close to last season, Milton looked the part of a breakout candidate under his new head coach, helping the Sixers get off to a good start to the year.

I have absolutely no idea what happened to that guy. Everything (aside from some periodic outside shooting) looks extraordinarily difficult for Milton at the moment. He can't beat anyone off of the dribble, he's forcing up terrible shots inside the arc, he's dribbling himself into traffic and into trouble, and his passing has been a borderline disaster, with Milton firing passes at guys ankles or way over their heads like the basketball embodiment of Donovan McNabb's worst stretches.

It has created a pretty serious problem for Rivers, who can't exactly abandon one of his nailed-on inclusions in the rotation but also can't afford to play him if he's this bad. There is not exactly a lot of time left to get him back on the right track, and the rotation figures to be erratic between now and the playoffs as they add George Hill to the mix and strategically rest guys to get everyone as healthy as humanly possible.

There's one thing to do that seems obvious — take creation responsibilities out of his hands. The first two games with Hill in the lineup, Rivers has continued to go to Milton as the primary initiator when he's on the floor with other guards, which seems to defeat the purpose of acquiring a guy like Hill to begin with. Trying to let Milton work through this is understandable, but they also need to get the new guy reps unless they genuinely want him to spend most of his time hanging out in the corner waiting for dribble handoffs to happen.

• For all the good Embiid did in this game, he made some absolutely ridiculous errors when he was in the game. The most egregious example was his attempt to dribble through the Suns in transition midway through the third quarter, an adventure that ended with a predictable turnover, and a Suns run out the other way.

We're way too deep into his career to be making excuses for poor decision-making or issues with pressure bearing down on him. The spacing is hardly going to get better than it has been over the last couple of games, and while we've seen some great passing and playmaking out of him this week, that was far outweighed by his mental mistakes against the Suns. Eight turnovers is an unacceptable number.

(I can't believe I'm complaining about a guy who put up the numbers Embiid did on Wednesday, but heavy is the head that wears the crown.)

• If Rivers was simply trying to make sure he didn't overwork Embiid on the first half of a back-to-back, we'll ultimately look back on his minutes distribution as no big deal. Perhaps we should do so regardless of his reasoning, because delivering Embiid to the playoffs healthy is really the only thing that matters for the Sixers. 

Still, this was a winnable game against a very good team, and these are the decisions that are going to be scrutinized a heck of a lot more in about a month's time. Live to fight another day, sure, but a few more minutes probably wouldn't have been the difference between a low wear-and-tear night and a catastrophic load Embiid couldn't handle.

• Transition defense of this caliber is not going to get it done in the playoffs. It hasn't mattered whether we're talking bench or starters, young guys or vets, this group has not gotten back and done the work on the break.

• I can understand going the conservative route with injured and ill players for this one, but a loss to Phoenix puts the Sixers under a decent amount of pressure to get at least a split against the Bucks in this upcoming two-game set. Milwaukee will be coming off of two days rest with the Sixers on a back-to-back tomorrow night, and if the Bucks manage to pic up both wins, they can make the race for the No. 1 seed a three team affair.

The Ugly

• Mike Scott was given a pass that hit him right in the midsection with nobody near him under the basket in the fourth quarter. He somehow managed to fumble it and blow the opportunity, allowing Phoenix to reestablish their positions on defense. 

• That was an embarrassing effort from the officials. This Sixers team is not exactly filled with hotheads who are constantly running afoul of ref crews, so I'm inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt when they pile up a bunch of technical fouls in a single game.

The worst part was that they seemed to ignore some legitimately dangerous contact in service of calling questionable, ticky-tack fouls that barely impacted the game at all. Bad stylistically, bad from an accuracy perspective, bad all the way around.

• I've always understood the logic behind the Mikal Bridges trade on draft night, but boy, that trade has aged in absolutely miserable fashion as the years go by. He killed the Sixers from the corners and in transition, and his defense is a big part of Phoenix's growing reputation as a threat out West. He would fit like a glove in this Sixers lineup, and it's hard to blame anyone who still dwells on what could have been.

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