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February 01, 2020

Instant observations: Sixers get punked by Celtics, continue to lose ground in Eastern Conference playoff race

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Al-Horford-Sixers-76ers-Celtics_020120 Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports

The Sixers have not given fans many reasons to be confident on their recent road trip.

The Celtics came out and punched the Sixers in the mouth on Saturday night. As it turns out, Philadelphia didn't have a plan for that, and they lost in humiliating fashion, 116-95.

Here's what I saw on Saturday night.

The Good

• If not for the Sixers being absolutely miserable in basically every other way, we would be talking a lot about how good Ben Simmons looked attacking the Celtics on Saturday night. This team and this coach has given him nightmares for years even when they've stuck mediocre defenders on him, and Simmons apparently decided enough was enough.

One of the reasons I suppose that I'm "softer" on Simmons than others would like is that at least he looks like he wants to be out there every night, which you can't say about all of his teammates, who we'll get to in a moment. The bare minimum that should be expected of you as a professional athlete is to play hard, so I'm not exactly handing him any awards for this, but he tries to lead by example even when other guys decide to mail it in, and I won't punish him because he can't drag them across the finish line.

Anyway, onto the rest.

The Bad

• Joel Embiid's recent absence came with a small silver lining — the Sixers were able to develop chemistry without him on the floor, figuring out lineup combinations and styles of play that work around Simmons. That's a boon for the second unit when they're fully healthy, but unfortunately, they still need to figure out how to get the starting lineup to work.

That starts with the big fella himself. Yes, the goal for him and this team is to keep him fresh and feeling good when the playoffs begin. That doesn't mean mailing in games and giving half-hearted efforts in order to get there. We can talk about the surrounding structure and how it doesn't always help him out offensively, but Embiid has not helped himself much at all over the past two games, rarely even attempting to establish deep position against much smaller defenders.

Whenever Embiid has these dips, the instinct is always to point to the matchup. "Well, Marc Gasol has his number! Well, Al Horford does a great job against him!" The last two games for Philly, he has had the luxury of being guarded by guys like Damian Jones, Vince Carter, Daniel Theis, and Grant Williams. The latter two are contributors to a very good defense, but the idea that Embiid can't physically overwhelm those guys and force the Celtics into no-win positions is ridiculous. 

All of his worst tendencies have reemerged after time off. Embiid made slow reads vs. doubles, over-dribbled, and even showed some hesitance when he had open jumpers, which naturally led right back to the first two problems. He wasn't a hell of a lot better on the defensive end, where he was a step slow on rotations and over-pursued blocks, picking up fouls as a result. There are times when he's not sensing a play as it develops, leading to open lanes for opponents, something that rarely happened in years past.

It shouldn't take Charles Barkley and Shaquille O'Neal ripping him on national television for him to get in gear. The half-hearted efforts needed to stop yesterday, because when he is engaged, he is still extremely difficult to stop.

• Speaking of being engaged, as I have said all season, if there is an argument I am most sympathetic to with regards to Brett Brown, it's the idea that Philly's core needs a new voice to get through to them. The more games Embiid mails in, the more they continue to get waxed on the road, the easier it is to make your case on this front.

Is it Brown's fault they have a roster so incapable of making wide-open threes? Certainly not. But when they come out of halftime after shooting like crap for 24 minutes, and then his players are jacking early-clock threes that aren't even good looks, that is a poor reflection on him. When Embiid barely has an impact in the first half and then the Sixers fail to do much to find him offensively after halftime, that is within his power to fix. When the Celtics are playing with more effort and energy to pull down offensive rebounds in a game where they were already comfortably in the lead — Grant Williams was punking the Sixers on the glass with Boston coasting to the finish line near the end — that's an indictment on everyone, coach included.

It's not an easy team to coach — they have an abundance of talent, but they also have an abundance of egos, a shortage of modern NBA skills, and the pressure of a team expected to contend. As you can tell if you spend any time on social media during the games, this season is a miserable experience for just about everyone. 

That doesn't excuse Brown when the same problems continue to haunt them every night, when the same bouts of apathy hit for their franchise center. If Brown can't help Embiid navigate the journey from mid-October to mid-April, they have to consider looking for someone who can. 

(Frankly, I am not sure that person exists. By virtue of their status as players and the chaos around them over the last few years, Embiid and Simmons have an insane amount of power and leverage in the organization. They are not blind to this fact, and this is part of what the organization would have to grapple with if they ever decide to make a change. At least Simmons shows up and plays hard every night.)

• Embiid's partner in the front court isn't/wasn't much better, and patience for the ultra-big lineup has to be wearing thin. There are stretches where they get by with it, there are games where you squint and think to yourself, "Hey, maybe they're onto something here," but ultimately Joel Embiid and Al Horford should not be playing together.

Even when Horford is apart from Embiid, he doesn't exactly look like Hakeem Olajuwon right now. The mandate to unleash Simmons as a screener makes sense to get the best out of Simmons, but it also takes Horford away from doing what he does best on offense, which is attacking as the roll guy either as a scorer or a playmaker on the short roll. To get Simmons going in that way, Horford is relegated to the same floor-spacing role that he has in the starting lineup, so you're never able to get the most out of his skillset.

Game-to-game, his defense isn't there either. He's can't summon the spring in his legs to regularly contest shots at the rim, so there are possessions where he ends up just standing flat-footed as someone dunks or deposits an easy layup. He has not been consistently good at anything in Philadelphia, and this is supposed to be the best part of his tenure when you pay for elite production upfront and expect a decline near the end.

Here's the major question facing Philadelphia — what reason do they have to believe he is going to get better from here? I would argue there isn't one unless they fundamentally change the roster with Horford still here and the scheme changing around him. And to be charitable to Mr. Horford, he ain't worth that much trouble.

• Here is the good: in the small role he was asked to play, James Ennis provided the same spark of energy he has in basically every game he has played.

Here is the bad: Brett Brown has decided he is less worthy of minutes than Mike Scott, who has stunk out loud all season, for reasons that are unclear to me. Brown has justified it when asked by saying he is spending his backup wing minutes on Matisse Thybulle and Furkan Korkmaz, but that's not really the argument here. The way NBA lineups are structured these days, there is no reason Ennis can't play the four or at least slide someone else up that spot on defense. 

• Shake Milton was out of the rotation for a long time for good reason. He's not exactly a reliable player on either end of the floor, and his defensive weaknesses (of which there are many) are particularly glaring against a wing-heavy team like the Celtics, who are especially good at punishing mismatches, as the Sixers learned in the playoffs two seasons ago.

And while we're on the subject of poor wing defense, Thybulle got absolutely abused by Jaylen Brown in the second half of Saturday night's game. You give some credit to Brown, who has put in a ton of work on his game over the years, but Thybulle was left swiping at air in a way we haven't often seen this season. Not a banner night for anybody on defense.

• It's easy to excuse the odd loss to a bad team when you're beating up on teams like the Celtics, Heat, Lakers, and the Bucks at times. You can convince yourself this is a flip the switch team, and even after getting embarrassed on Saturday night, the Sixers end the season series up 3-1 on the Celtics.

But the Sixers, even with a nice pile of wins over good teams, have dug themselves a hole that may not be possible to climb out of. They are four games back in the loss column from Boston and Miami, and five behind the current No. 2 seed Raptors. Tiebreakers are not going to matter if they continue to get smacked around on the road. Their "easy schedule" between now and mid-April is not something I can even put much stock in with how poorly they tend to play against lesser competition.

The Sixers started the season with their head coach wanting to fight for the No. 1 seed in the East. A week from now, they could find themselves drawing dead for homecourt advantage in round one. To say they have underwhelmed relative to expectations is selling it short. This team should be embarrassed about where they are with just days to go before the deadline. 

Just to emphasize this even more: Boston didn't even have their best player on Saturday night!

• I would have had a paragraph detailing Tobias Harris’ night but since he pulled a disappearing act it felt more appropriate to act as if he wasn’t even there.

The Ugly

• Rim protectors inevitably end up on the wrong end of someone else's poster at this point. Few are going to be as disrespectful as this Jayson Tatum dunk on Horford was:

Horford never even gave himself a chance on this play. 

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