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April 03, 2019

Observations: Sixers mail it in with another dreadful loss to Hawks

Sixers NBA

When you treat the end of the regular season as if it doesn't matter at all, teams that show up ready to play are going to beat you. That's life in the NBA, and the Sixers have been on the wrong side of that equation far too often lately. They fell again on Wednesday night in a 130-122 loss to the Atlanta Hawks.

Here's what I saw, with the Sixers returning to Philadelphia tomorrow for a meeting with the East-leading Bucks.

The Good

• With his 227th three-pointer of the season, JJ Redick passed former Sixers player Kyle Korver for the most threes made by a Sixers player in a single season. Two things stand out about that achievement — Redick's importance to this team, and how insane of an accomplishment that was for Korver to hold onto that record for 15 years as the league began bombing more and more threes.

During Redick's downturn following the All-Star break, it was fair to worry if he was going to have the juice in his legs to produce in the playoffs. It looks like that won't be much of a concern, because Redick has been in a good place lately even when he hasn't had his dance partner, Joel Embiid, setting screens to free him for looks.

There have been a lot of troubling signs for this team lately, so at least Redick has shaken out of his funk.

• I'm not going to sit here and pick out a bunch of good individual performances when the Sixers lost to the Hawks for the second time in the last few weeks and defended worse than a 50+ men's league team on the Mainline. 

The Bad

• If I copied and pasted a section in here about the defense of the backup bigs here every single night, I wonder how many of you would even notice at this point. It's a bit pointless to keep hammering away at this point, but it remains a pivotal flaw in Philadelphia's structure. When Joel Embiid is not around to clean things up on the back end, they do not have a prayer on defense.

This shouldn't really be the case when you have a defender as versatile as Ben Simmons and one as theoretically good as Jimmy Butler. Simmons competed fairly hard in comparison to the rest of the team on Wednesday night, but he's drawing dead when the Sixers don't have an anchor behind him. There are only so many fires Simmons is capable of putting out.

The shame of it is that Boban Marjanovic was pretty damn effective on offense against Atlanta, dominating on the offensive glass early on. But it just doesn't matter when he can get attacked relentlessly at the other end, either by forcing him to defend out to the three-point line or blowing right by him in the paint. Trae Young even toyed with him by knocking down floaters over him repeatedly, which made matters worse.

Here's the good news: the Sixers decided to bring in another center who struggles to defend in space this week, so they should definitely expect improvement.

• Let me make sure I say this as clearly as I can: this team should not be giving up 40+ points in a quarter to anyone, Embiid in the lineup or not. Just like in the last meeting, the Hawks ran absolutely nothing special, with a lot of their best looks coming out of spread pick-and-roll sets involving John Collins and Trae Young.

On both ends of that player equation, Philadelphia defended the play as poorly as possible. They don't have a point-of-attack defender and haven't for some time now, and their options beyond Embiid at the rim are ghastly, as noted above. Even if the Sixers do have a switch to flip between now and next Saturday, I can't see this problem going away.

And the worst part is that the incumbents are part of the chemistry/communication problems as much as the new guys. Brett Brown and Butler ripped T.J. McConnell a new one when he blew an assignment in the second half against Atlanta, and you know what, he probably deserved it. 

• If it seems like I'm harping on defense a lot here, it's because it's half of the game, but Tobias Harris is a guy I'm starting to get worried about for playoff reasons. Though he's longer and more athletic than Redick is, Harris' physical tools aren't great enough to save him when he routinely leans the wrong way, giving ball-handlers the crack they need to slip through for a bucket around the rim.

In the slower-paced style of the postseason where teams can scout and game plan for one specific opponent, it's possible teams will look to attack Harris more than they have in the regular season. Perhaps Embiid cleans that up anyway, but it's a something to keep an eye on.

• If the Sixers simply made their free throws, we're looking at a different ballgame. Even the usually reliable Redick was part of the problem on Wednesday after he missed 2/3 on a single trip in the first half. Jimmy Butler got gifted two free throws plus a possession on a soft flagarant foul call on Trae Young, and he missed both on top of missing the shot that followed.

• One of the reasons I'm not especially optimistic about Simmons developing an outside game is that his touch is pretty poor even at his best spots on the floor. Simmons' field-goal percentage is certainly good, but whenever he has to make adjustments against length inside, he struggles to get it done.

If there were any signs of development there — the early signs of a floater, improved use of spin off of the glass, basically anything at all, I'd be optimistic about Simmons expanding his range and his skill set. But we see the same things happen all the time, the same failures pile up. If there's not a clear runway, odds are the shot won't fall.

Simmons gets around this by adding value as a defender and a passer, but they are not going to be able to hit their ceiling if he can't dominate the one area of the floor that he's able to attack on offense.

• Trae Young may be a great offensive player, but he's a guy who can be exploited on defense if you make an effort to do so. The Sixers didn't get Simmons, Butler, or Harris matched up with him nearly enough, and that's a failure that starts with the coaching staff and certainly extends to the players on the floor. Everyone should be able to recognize the mouse in the house.

The Ugly

• The Sixers are not a group that has earned the right to be a "flip the switch" team on any level. Not as individuals, not as a collective, not in general. 

There was a play in the third quarter where Hawks forward Justin Anderson looked to have traveled across the lane before passing to a teammate in the corner. The Sixers, as athletes sometimes do, raised their voices and gestured at the non-call as a shot went up from the perimeter. And they were so busy doing so that Anderson corralled the offensive rebound that came from the miss, and was fouled as the Sixers reacted late.

That's the sort of thing you came to expect watching LeBron James' teams in Miami and some of the Finals teams he played on in Cleveland. Do you know what the difference is between teams like those and this one? They had one of the greatest players of all-time on their team (and an all-time great sidekick in Dwyane Wade) who were capable of running almost any team in the league out of the gym at their best. And they also had considerable hardware in the trophy case — MVP awards, championships, you name it.

I get it, there's not a lot of incentive to be great right now. But the Sixers haven't even been good, and they have way more ground to cover to be a championship contender than a lot of their competition does at this stage of the year. It's not a lot to ask for them to finish plays and try to build something before the playoffs.

• James Ennis had to intentionally foul a Hawks player to get himself out of the game early in the fourth quarter, and he walked back to the locker room immediately with pain on his face. We'll have to wait and see how serious the issue is, but not what you want to see in a basically meaningless game, and this team is painfully short on depth as it is.

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