February 06, 2020
Stop me if you've seen me write this before — the Sixers started out strong on the road, only to wilt in the second half and lose by double-digits to a team that they want to be compared against. This time around, it was a national television loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, 112-101.
Here's what I saw.
• This was a good bounce-back game for Matisse Thybulle, who was sent to the bench and never returned after a dust-up with Brett Brown during the third quarter in Miami. He was disciplined enough on defense to avoid silly fouls but still aggressive enough to come up with some highlight-reel blocks on Milwaukee perimeter players, which is a line he has struggled to straddle in recent weeks.
Getting this version of Thybulle is imperative for Philly, even with the additions they've made at the deadline. He helps set the tone for the second unit, and he was excellent in that regard on Thursday night.
• One Embiid-related positive before we get to all of his negatives below: his two-man game with Furkan Korkmaz continues to grow, even if this is the first time we've really seen it work against a good team. The old actions Embiid used to run with Redick are starting to see some success with their third-year wing in Redick's place, which is not something I would have dreamed of when they brought Korkmaz back in the offseason.
That's all I got.
• If this is the Joel Embiid the Sixers are going to get, perhaps he needs to take some more time off to recover and let his hand get to 100 percent. There have been built-in excuses for him in other games this year — poor spacing, lack of touches, any number of things you could have pointed at to say, "Okay, but..." But when he gets outplayed by Robin Lopez for an entire half, it's officially time to sound the alarm.
Embiid is not living up to the standard that he needs to in order for this team to go where they want to go. The rest of the Sixers, flawed though they may be, lived up to their end of the bargain for most of Thursday night. Tobias Harris sprinkled in some scoring, Ben Simmons pushed the pace and found open shooters, they got bench contributions from Furkan Korkmaz and even Marial Shayok, but Embiid couldn't win one-on-one battles with players he should physically dominate.
Defensively, he wasn't much better. After playing one of his finest games guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo last time the Sixers played the Bucks, Embiid fell for a lot of cheap fakes in the paint, clearing a runway for Milwaukee to score. He is better than that, and that's an area where you can't blame his injured left hand for his play. The man had Wes Matthews blow by him with ease, which is not something I would have even considered possible in any other year of Embiid's career.
How much of an impact has the wrapped/injured hand had on his game? It's hard to say, but his shooting touch has been horrific and he is playing finesse basketball around the rim instead of trying to go through guys as he normally does. If he isn't right physically, he shouldn't be out there, and I will never call any player soft for wanting to wait until their body is 100 percent. But whether that means Embiid having the maturity to know he needs to recuperate more or someone putting their foot down and forcing the decision on him, someone has to have the best interests of the team in mind, not just Embiid.
That's sort of the problem with this organization. Who has the power to overrule him? He's the biggest figure in Philly by a mile. He feels an obligation to go out and compete, which is admirable, but you pay dozens of people to offer informed decisions on things like these. Embiid told reporters normal recovery time from his injury is a month, and maybe everyone should have listened.
But the bigger concern would be Embiid not being right mentally. He was clear about his frustration with their offensive identity days before the deadline, but games like these are events he normally gets up for. Yet the clunkers continue.
• Frankly, after this game, I feel like it's hard to pile on the rest of the team. Embiid played about as poorly as he possibly could have in the first half, and the rest of his teammates somehow managed to keep things close against a team that has blown everyone else away. Milwaukee's surge at the beginning of the second half that helped put the game away was a period where the Sixers played through Embiid almost exclusively, and that strategy obviously did not pay dividends.
Alright fine, I'm going to get on them anyway.
• I often watch this team play and wonder to myself what they would be like if Tobias Harris simply had all the shot opportunities that were afforded to Al Horford. In the floor-spacing role at the four, and even at the five without Embiid, Horford just gets wide-open three after wide-open three.
Thursday night was one of the rare nights where Horford had it going from deep, but just imagine what it would look like if the Sixers had, I don't know, a normal lineup on the floor instead of the Frankenstein's monster of basketball teams.
Even with a good outside shooting night to his credit, Horford does not look like the guy you should have banked your whole offseason on. Labeled a Giannis-stopper for his work against the Greek Freak in the past, Horford looked old and slow in a lot of possessions against him on Thursday, which falls in line with his performances against a lot of other teams and players this season.
Embiid looks better without Horford. Horford looks better without Embiid/when he is able to play center. I don't think this is too difficult to figure out. Too bad the trade deadline has come and gone. No solution is coming until at least the summer unless Brown decides to take the drastic step of benching last summer's big signing.
• There have been some grumblings about Ben Simmons' lack of involvement since Embiid returned. I don't necessarily disagree that it's an issue. Bad habits like getting stuck in mid-air between the free-throw line and the rim are returning, and I would much rather see Simmons try and fail to score than continue to beat his head against the wall with a group of overmatched shooters. I'm sure most of you reading it would, too.
He has to want this for himself. The Sixers didn't use him much as a screener or from the elbow as they have in recent weeks, but that's not an excuse for Simmons to go into full passive mode. The job of a point guard is to get his teammates going, but it's also to recognize when your teammates don't have it, stepping up yourself when need be. Go through the list of all the great point guards in history, and you see plenty of supernatural performances when their teams needed them to step up.
Simmons not only doesn't think like that, he doesn't really have the capacity to play like that.
• Losing to the Bucks on its own is not an unforgivable sin. Neither is losing on the road in Boston and Miami, where good teams who boast strong records on their home floor play.
What isn't acceptable is the pattern the Sixers are in right now — hang around for a while, fight long enough to make it a game, and then once adversity hits, fold like a cheap tent. They won a lot of close games early in the season because their compete level was high deep into games, which eventually allowed their talent to win out in the end. They aren't even giving themselves a chance right now, and for the third straight game, they were getting outworked and outhustled by a team that had already put the game out of reach in the final minutes.
Charles Barkley called the Sixers out for a lack of heart before the broadcast started, and he was right on the money. This team has earned nothing, accomplished nothing, and yet they carry themselves as if they are just going to magically transform into the team they believe they are.
The coach should be embarrassed that his players wilt like this. The players should be embarrassed that they are the laughingstock of the league at the moment and still can't summon the energy to play four quarters. The front office should be embarrassed that this is the sum total of a long rebuilding process and squandered asset after squandered asset.
And hey, guess what — they get to play a surging Grizzlies team on Friday night who actually shows up and plays hard every single night. They aren't getting a free win at home. They better be prepared, or they're going to get smoked again.
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