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December 14, 2021

Instant observations: Sixers lose Embiid to late scratch, get rolled by Grizzlies

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The Sixers got absolutely smoked by the Grizzlies in Memphis, dropping a 126-91 beatdown after Joel Embiid and Seth Curry got scratched from the lineup shortly before the game began. It was the definition of a burn the tape game.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• The wind came out of everybody's sails in the moments before this game as a result of Joel Embiid's late scratch, but at least we got to see an invigorated Tyrese Maxey down in Memphis. He has had a tough time finding his footing with the franchise center in the lineup, and with the rule of the roost on Monday, Maxey looked a lot more like the player who broke out in November, carving out lanes and even canning a pair of threes in a 23-point outing.

Maxey had more than the scorer's shoes with him in Memphis. He was one of a select group of players to make decent defensive reads, and though we often remark on his size and how it limits him on that end, Maxey did a nice job of using every bit of his wingspan to deny passing lanes and even come up with a first-half steal, calling his own number on the fast break that ensued.

If you're asking me, his first half and most of this game provided evidence that Rivers needs to rethink Maxey's role and the rotation. He has earned the right to start or at least play heavy minutes, but more aggressive staggering would allow Maxey to lead bench-heavy lineups and harness his gifts as a scorer, giving a lift to guys who need it more than Embiid does. You can still play him plenty with Embiid regardless.

With a better collective effort around Maxey, it would have been worth getting into the weeds of this performance. As it is, the Sixers will have to take it as a silver lining in an ugly loss.

• Charles Bassey was okay in a backup role, but just okay for most of the game even though he showed out in garbage time and ended up with a career high. As I've said in previous articles, I wouldn't mind seeing him get a look in the backup center role more often, even when Embiid is healthy. But there is a cost to the highlight plays, and you'd have to be willing to live with some typical young big mistakes. Sign me up, of course.

That's it for the nice things tonight.

The Bad

• You can understand some level of uncertainty with Philadelphia's defense this season, with lineup instability and inadequate pieces undermining them on a lot of nights. They had to cope with both in Memphis, and boy did it show, with the Grizzlies doing basically whatever they wanted against the Sixers on Monday.

Without a human savior to prop them up from the paint (or the motivation to stop an NBA record as a team), the Sixers looked like the team they are, a roster filled with iffy defenders and guys a little too small or slow to guard their respective positions. 

They did not do themselves any favors with turnovers, either. As efficient as the Sixers were on offense for at least the first half of this game, they undermined good offense by throwing passes away, losing sight of help defenders, or simply putting the ball in the hands of guys who need to handle it less. Shake Milton had two ghastly turnovers in the first quarter when he was asked to initiate possessions, and though he seemed convinced he deserved a foul call on either or both plays, he probably wouldn't have been in a tough spot to begin with if his own handle didn't let him down.

Desperate to do anything to shake this game up, Doc Rivers tried to go small in the second half to shake things up. One problem with that strategy — the guys he used in the small frontcourt aren't all that good in their defensive roles with a normal team available and Embiid manning the paint, so asking someone like Georges Niang or Tobias Harris to serve as the nominal five is doomed to fail from the outset. And failure is exactly what happened, with the Sixers continuing to drown as the game wore on.

I'm not inclined to be particularly harsh after this one. Getting thrown into this situation because of a late scratch is unfair to expect a group of role players to absorb, and it's an example of why perhaps the Sixers should make a Ben Simmons deal sooner than later. Philadelphia's role players are being put in a terrible spot and being asked to turn in outlier performances in bigger roles to absorb the constant absence of a guy who has been clear he isn't showing up. You can't plan for all of Embiid's games missed, but they have to resolve the other problem.

• I don't mind the concept of Danny Green coming off of the bench, especially if it's in service of trying to get Thybulle in a groove as a two-way guy. I complain about Thybulle's impact on spacing as much as anybody, but the Sixers are going to need him to be playable when it counts, so you might as well live with some growing pains to build his confidence and help him figure out a discernible offensive role.

But there's one noticeable issue bringing Green off of the bench — the Sixers' backup unit is just painfully slow. Between Green, Milton, Georges Niang, and (usually) Furkan Korkmaz, this is a group that is going to be stuck in the mud more often than not. It varies opponent to opponent, but you run into a lot of guys on second units who are athletes learning how to be basketball players, so this version of Philly's bench feels prone to being roughed up and blown by.

Niang has probably had the furthest fall from grace (relatively speaking) in the time since Philly got off to a hot start to the year. He was absolutely on fire to start the year, quickly winning over the home crowd with a barrage of made threes and plenty of outward passion in big moments. But there have been a ton of games recently where he feels off the pace of the evening, his instincts betraying him on defense while his touch evades him from three.

Regardless of your thoughts on the minivan specifically, this group lacks dynamism in a big way. Playing a team like the Grizzlies, who dress a lot of guys with multi-faceted talent, you see the limit of stacking up a lot of specialists on your roster. 

• Holding onto a challenge until late in the game is an approach I understand, but it felt like a missed opportunity for Rivers to challenge when Isaiah Joe got dinged for a phantom foul with less than a second remaining in the first half. The officials awarded three free throws to Memphis for Joe swiping at air, and given the amount of time left on the clock, Rivers seemed to have a clear path to taking points off of the board while nearly guaranteeing they wouldn't immediately go back there. A jump ball at midcourt with a tenth of a second left would have been impossible for the Grizzlies to score on, and it was a unique game situation to manage.

Rivers opting not to challenge isn't surprising, but it does show the value of thinking about the review system beyond believing you need to keep it for the final minutes of a game.

• Harris just can't beat guys off-the-dribble this season. His effectiveness as an offensive player can be boiled down to his ability to hit tough shots over defenders from midrange, and though he has put in a lot of work on that craft and even succeeded some as a jump-shooter on Monday, it's very difficult to carve out an effective and impactful role playing that way.

When Steven Adams was at his athletic best, there were certainly times when he could take a smaller defender and credibly defend them on a switch, using his size to keep a guy in front of him. But he is not that guy anymore, and the worst part is that Harris barely even thought about trying to exploit a speed mismatch against the bigger Adams. It's the sort of opportunity that should have Harris foaming at the mouth in excitement, and he's either not seeing them or calculating that he can't make anything happen going to the rim, both of which are concerns if they're true.

The problem, as far as I see it, is that nobody looks at Harris as the guy who is going to pull them through a situation like this where the chips are down and their best player has been pulled from the lineup right before the game can begin. That's a buzzkill for a guy who is being paid for that very responsibility. You're mostly hoping for a high-level role player performance, a 30-point game if you happen to catch him on one of his best nights of the year. Even that's not coming with plus playmaking or impactful defense, so his ability to put the team on his back and carry just isn't there.

Harris the human being is much more than his contract. But the reality of making a huge percentage of the salary cap is that you need to be counted on to carry the weight. Those nights are rare.

The Ugly

• The undermanned Grizzlies are admittedly a bit further down the totem pole than, say, a matchup with the Brooklyn Nets later this week, so perhaps the Sixers were just showing an abundance of caution late scratching Curry and Embiid on Monday night. If this was just trying to buy rest and being a little too arrogant about it, it was a dumb move, but I would get the strategy behind it with a back-to-back coming up.

If Embiid is still dealing with some unexplained pain in the rib cage, that's a problem we will really need to keep an eye on moving forward. Pain in that area can make basic activities throughout your day painful, let alone when you're dragging seven feet of man up and down a hardwood court all night. The hope has to be that a night off helps this dissipate. 

(Honestly, a game like this is a great example of how the NBA product would benefit from there being fewer games during a season. Using game days as off nights in service of getting a little extra rest for guys absolutely sucks.)

• One of the issues with the remote broadcast setup the NBC team has used this year is it seems to leave them at the whim of an unmerciful clip-puller whenever they want to show a replay in the game they're showing. It often doesn't matter what the broadcast duo is talking about or what just happened, they end up having to narrate and comment on a recent game highlight regardless of whether it interrupts their flow or not. It's hard to know if there's actual intent behind it, but it also skews toward homer far too often — no one needs to see a basic layup from several plays ago, but people might want to see and discuss a turnover, a questionable foul, or something worth dissecting.

The crazy thing is, broadcast partners have a leg up on everyone when it comes to access, the ability to create compelling content, and opportunities to tell interesting stories. They're not even making an attempt, and it's embarrassing, or at least it would be if it felt like NBC was inclined to care.

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