More Sports:

February 12, 2021

Instant observations: Sixers drop tight game to Blazers on last second foul call

The Sixers could not come up with a final shot against the Blazers on Thursday night, and a foul from Tobias Harris ultimately doomed them in a 118-114 loss.

Here's what I saw. 

The Good

• Thursday night's first quarter may be the best stretch of basketball we have seen Ben Simmons put together this season. It's the sort of flash that inspires some people to dream of what he could be as his game rounds out over time, and some people to grow frustrated we don't see it out of him more often.

From my view, a lot of what you saw has been building over weeks now, with Simmons relying less on drive-and-kick attacks and more on leveraging his size from starting points closer to the basket. 

Against a guard-heavy team, Simmons exploited any size mismatch that was handed to him, and he often didn't really need that to begin with. He tortured former teammate Robert Covington, dropping in hook shots and using decisive moves to get clean looks at the rim. The righty hook has been a massive part of Simmons' uptick in form recently, in part because he has been more willing to use it. 

There's something else important that has flowed out of that aggression — Embiid has actively made an effort to find Simmons more when he feels he has a mismatch, returning the many favors his point guard has offered him over the years. 

As a result, they look much more like a duo than a pair of guys who happen to be playing basketball together on offense. It worked all the way into crunch time for Philly, where a Simmons entry pass to Embiid turned into a Simmons bucket on the give-and-go when Portland dared to double the big guy.

If there were no other developments for the team this year, this alone would be the sign of a successful year for Philadelphia even if they don't ultimately win a title. Their defense together has been a constant over the years, but it has often been difficult to get both of these guys playing well on offense at the same time, and they're helping each other get there much more than they used to.

And by the way, Simmons may not have had his best defensive game, but that's because he has set a high bar. He was essential in helping to cool Lillard down and keep him contained in the second half, with his size making it difficult for the All-NBA guard to get to his spots. Hell of a game.

(And as a Simmons-centric note, as I keep hammering home over and over again in these recaps, these performances show passing and scoring don't have to be mutually exclusive for him.)

• Bit of a strange night to evaluate for the man in the middle. I'm beginning to suspect that I have been spoiled by Joel Embiid's play this year, as I'm sure many of you are. 

All I could focus on for most of the first half was the fact that he was bailing Enes Kanter out a lot of the time. You love seeing Embiid fight for deep post position against whoever he's playing, but the one thing Kanter can do okay on defense is body somebody up in the post. Embiid had trouble finishing for stretches of the first half as a result.

Then you look up at the end of the first half, and the big guy has 23 points at halftime thanks to a furious barrage to close the quarter, a continuation of the midrange success that has powered him to this start. Both things can be true — Embiid had a positive impact on the game, but he left a lot on the table by letting Kanter sit on him in the post.

The Sixers asked Embiid to play high, aggressive defense against Damian Lillard in pick-and-rolls, trapping more on Thursday than I think we saw from him in the four years he played prior to this one. For a guy who some believe is not at 100 percent right now, I thought he was light on his feet and relatively successful at slowing the Lillard barrage a bit.

Embiid being able to impact the game as much as he did on Thursday while having a subpar night by his recent standards is encouraging, especially as he's being asked to play in different styles that he has few reps in on defense. There were hiccups and missed opportunities, but these games will serve him well looking toward the playoffs.

• Bit of an up-and-down night for Seth Curry on offense, but the transition three he came up with in the final minute was a monster shot, highlighted by the subtle fake he used to create separation and get a clean look at the rim. He is the shooter's shooter.

The Bad

• Tobias Harris is not a big free-throw guy almost by design. A big part of his role is to lurk on the perimeter and knock down open threes, and his preferred area of operation is from midrange. That makes it even better when he gets in a foul-drawing mood like he was against Portland, taking advantage of the same size discrepancy that aided Simmons' night.

Seven free throws in the first half allowed Harris to shrug off a tough half from the field, though it didn't ultimately transfer to the second half.  This was not a night of crunch-time heroics for Harris, whose shot was off all throughout the night, and then he compounded it with an absolutely terrible foul on Carmelo Anthony with the clock winding down.

In fairness to him, it was a soft-ish call in an end-game situation, but he put himself in jeopardy and paid for it. I would prefer an outcome where the officials did not decide the game. So it goes.

• The coverage he was playing notwithstanding, Embiid let Enes Kanter get to far too many offensive rebounds, even if that's something Kanter is legitimately good at bothering teams on the glass. As a matter of fact, he has had too many up-and-down nights on the glass generally lately.

It's especially important to take care of business when you're up against a team like Portland that can shoot the lights out for stretches at a time. You have to make sure you're killing possessions off when you actually force misses and create a stop, because second chances can easily turn into another three points for the opponent. The Sixers did a poor job of that, and you have to look at the man in the middle even if he was not in his usual positions for most of the night.

Embiid has had his struggles with Kanter on the glass in games the two have played against one another previously, including their Christmas Day matchup in New York years back where Kanter seemed to pull down an offensive rebound every other play. A weird matchup quirk, maybe, but a problem all the same.

• It was a rough night for the "Harris and bench guys" lineup that has helped Philadelphia hold serve in recent weeks, and it was a tougher pill to swallow when you consider the Blazers were offering up their own bench-heavy lineup to buy Damian Lillard rest.

There was almost nothing working for that group aside from the occasional Furkan Korkmaz pull-up jumper. Tyrese Maxey looked like a guy who has been out of the rotation, Matisse Thybulle dribbling the ball should come with a parental advisory label, and the Dwight Howard experience is, well, quite something these days.

I would hope at some point that Rivers decides to stagger Simmons and Embiid more, though this has been a winning formula for the Sixers this year, so doubt that happens any time soon.

• If I were more confident that someone could step into his place and give them steady two-way play, I would view Danny Green as more of a swing guy in the rotation — you leave him in when he makes shots and/or is a positive on defense, and remove him when he doesn't have it. When he looks bad, he looks real bad this season.

Thursday was one of those nights where it felt like he was playing with his shoelaces tied to the opposite foot. Green had an impossibly bad turnover in the first half, several possessions where he got absolutely left in the dust by Portland bench guards, and he could not buy a basket. The Blazers still respected him as a shooter, but that was about all he contributed.

There are a lot of people who would like to see Matisse Thybulle elevated into his role, and I would be okay with that if I didn't think it could have a drastic impact on their offense. Even in his small role, you can see what happens when Thybulle has to do anything other than shoot an open three, and it is ugly. The other guys you could elevate all have pros and cons to their game, and they don't have the track record of success Green does on both ends of the floor.

We might reach this point soon regardless of how I feel or fans feel, at least if Green keeps playing like this.

• Someone needs to figure out what got into Dwight Howard during the opening stretch of the season and get him back in that headspace because he's become more and more unstable seemingly by the game. There's absolutely no reason for him to be picking up a loose ball foul on a free-throw attempt from Matisse Thybulle with 3.6 seconds left in the third quarter.

The worst part about plays like those is they often follow legitimately good stretches of effort. Thybulle got that free throw in the first place because of Howard working his butt off on the offensive glass. He has been around more than long enough to be smarter in his approach. 

The Ugly

• When the Sixers screw up and let a team get rolling because of poor schematic choices, poor effort, or botched execution of whatever they're running, I am happy to let them have it. But start to the game was an absolute bloodbath for reasons that were out of their control, with the Blazers shooting out of their minds to start the game. Gary Trent had a three that dropped after nearly bouncing to the shot clock off of the rim, if that's an indication of how things were going.

Philly was playing reasonably good defense, and I thought they made the correct call playing more aggressive coverage against Lillard, often trapping him when he had the ball in his hands to try to force it to somebody else. They still weren't necessarily rewarded for it, mostly because Lillard is capable of breaking just about anything you throw at him.

Then in the fourth quarter, Carmelo Anthony decided to have the best quarter he has played all season. Anthony has been downright bad on offense for most of this year, shooting 38 percent from the field coming into this one. If he's going to make a bunch of nonsense shots with a hand in his face, you just have to tip your cap.

• I always try to watch the national broadcasts whenever the Sixers are under the bright lights, and a lot of people tend to complain about Reggie Miller's contributions on TNT. Hot take: I like him just fine. Sure, he can be corny a lot of the time, but he seems to actively love his job and the sport, which is a lot more than you can say about some of the other options at the big networks. You could do a lot worse.

• Doc Rivers' refusal to use a challenge is sort of crazy, and something I suppose I need to get to the bottom of.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

Like us on Facebook: PhillyVoice Sports

Subscribe to Kyle's Sixers podcast "The New Slant" on Apple, Google, and Spotify