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January 11, 2019

Instant observations: Sixers suffer bad loss to Hawks with Joel Embiid out

Sixers NBA
011118-BenSimmons-USAToday Bill Streicher/USA Today

Philadelphia 76ers forward Ben Simmons (25) attempts a shot past Atlanta Hawks guard Justin Anderson (1) during the first quarter at Wells Fargo Center.

The Sixers were missing Joel Embiid for Friday night's date with the Atlanta Hawks, but that was no excuse to lose to a team that entered the game just 12-29. But lose they did, and after a Wilson Chandler putback rimmed out in the game's final seconds, the Sixers earned one of their worst losses of the year, a 123-121 squeaker.

Here's the quick version of what I saw from tonight's game.

The Good

• Anytime Joel Embiid is ruled out, a lot more responsibility gets handed to Ben Simmons and Jimmy Butler by default. I liked the sort of responsibility Brown gave his two remaining stars early on, with the Sixers leaning into Simmons' versatility and Butler's preferred style of play.

Following the film session heard round the world, Butler has been force-fed a lot more pick-and-rolls, and that trend continued early on against the Hawks. The Sixers used screeners as small as T.J. McConnell on Butler's defender, forcing switches that allowed him to attack matchups he could win with ease.

That turns out to be a winning formula for Philly, naturally.

On the Simmons side of things, Brown kept Amir Johnson in cold storage, turning to Simmons to play some first-quarter minutes at center. The increased mobility on the floor out of that look is intriguing and allowed the Sixers to force a few turnovers and get out on the break. Always a good thing.

• Anecdotally, Butler's hands looked like they were much more active on the defensive end than they have been in a lot of games this season. Why that is? Hard to say. Perhaps Butler was just sharp on his reads tonight, or maybe he viewed the young Hawks as a team he could afford to take some gambles against.

Whatever the case was, his increased intensity on the defensive end was a welcome sight.

• Mike Muscala picked a good game to get going from deep. He's been in a bit of a funk lately, and with Embiid on the bench, someone had to pick up the slack. It might as well be the guy who had to take his place in the starting lineup.

• I would love to see more of this urgency from Simmons on a nightly basis. Bad as the Hawks are, there were some moments in Friday's game where it felt like they were on the verge of going on a run and building a bigger lead. But Simmons always seemed to make a play when these moments came — an offensive rebound, a steal in the backcourt — to keep the Sixers in range despite the team playing like trash.

It feels like outside of his shooting, we talk about Simmons much less than Butler and Embiid. But this is absolutely his team too, and when he takes ownership of it the way he's capable, he is a delight to watch.

Simmons can do just about everything there is to do on a basketball court. He fills in the blanks as well as any player in the league, and that helps mask how bad Philadelphia's depth is on any given night. The only downside here — that he has to do it all on nights without Embiid, because it would be nice for Simmons to get some rest on the bench sometimes, too.

• T.J. McConnell was quietly very good on Friday, and they needed his energy as badly as they did his shot-making. He came up with some plays in the fourth quarter, including a clutch three and an offensive rebound in the trees, that he has absolutely no business making.

That's why you keep someone like him around and keep giving him minutes. He has limitations, but he plays with no fear and will always give you every last bit of energy that he's got. The Sixers needed that jolt on Friday night.

The Bad

• Whoever was in charge of the confetti cannon during last year's playoffs must be in charge of the Wells Fargo Center lighting, because they made a huge error in the first quarter. With the game still ongoing, the lights began to dim and the dance team began marching to the court before someone quickly figured out that there was actual basketball still being played.

It wasn't all bad, I suppose. Vince Carter was in the process of checking in, and it had the effect of making it seem like the Sixers were giving him a dramatic introduction complete with a light show. One of the better parts of the first quarter, truthfully.

• One negative side effect of Butler's seizing of the reins: he has settled for a whole bunch of garbage shots lately. Rather than stepping into catch-and-shoot threes — which he's pretty damn good at, by the way — Butler is running the clock down and taking tough, contested two-point jumpers, the sort of shots that opposing teams are happy to live with.

Butler's ability to score in isolation and hit those tough jumpers is a blessing when you get into crunch time and things slow down. But routinely settling for them is not going to cut it, and he knows that. Brown gave him plenty of freedom to run things his way, running pick-and-rolls deep into the fourth quarter. It's on him to make it work.

(And hey, by the way, he was brought in to be the closer in crunch time. Got to hit those free throws.)

• I have no idea how Wilson Chandler missed that putback attempt to end the game.

• Muscala knocking down some shots is always good. Muscala being overmatched physically against pretty much any frontcourt player against the Hawks is less good.

• I've said this a million times and I'll say it again — the Sixers turning the ball over doesn't irritate me on a general level. The way the Sixers turn the ball over is unbelievably frustrating and seemingly avoidable.

They come in many different forms. Guys passing up open looks to try to make the perfect play? Check? Needlessly throwing highlight passes when a simple one will do? Yep. If I thought there was an overarching solution to the problem, I'd offer one, but they come from different players in different contexts and make it hard to pin down the One Big Thing.

• Embiid is a really hard player to replace, no doubt. But it does not exactly flatter Philadelphia's depth for his absence to be the difference between blowing out the Hawks and having to grind it out with them for most of the game. The Sixers have a considerable talent advantage on Atlanta (at least at the top end), and they didn't make it matter even a little bit.

The Sixers have left a roster spot open for a considerable amount of time with no real justification, and they are suffering for it. Perhaps the most concerning thing is that they are constantly outgunned in the athleticism department, and that's not something they're going to be able to change overnight.

Zhaire Smith will help there. More Jonah Bolden may help. But the Sixers skill guys (e.g. JJ Redick, Landry Shamet, Furkan Korkmaz to a lesser extent) are all needed for their shooting while being constant defensive liabilities. It's a problem, and we saw that when Sixers players got hunted in the playoffs last year. 

The Ugly

• It's probably for the best that Joel Embiid got a night off against a terrible Atlanta Hawks team. But starting off the night hearing that he's out for the evening is not the best way to get fired up for a presumed snoozer.

But I have to tell you, the games Philly has had to play without him sort of strengthen his MVP case. The Sixers look out of their depth when they have to play their big man, and he remains the rising tide that raises all ships. Remember to appreciate him whenever and as long as you can.

• Alex Len caught Jimmy Butler up high late in the third quarter, and Butler was not at all pleased about it. But with Butler enraged on the ground, it was T.J. McConnell to the rescue, with the backup point guard physically dragging Butler away from the scene of the crime.

The world needs more teammates like T.J. McConnell.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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