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December 23, 2021

Instant observations: Sixers earn another embarrassing loss vs. Hawks

Sixers NBA
Sixers-76ers-Joel-Embiid_122321_USAT Bill Streicher/USA Today Sports

Joel Embiid continues to be a potent two-way player this season.

The Sixers got another opportunity to play a team ravaged by COVID, and they vomited all over themselves in a 98-96 home loss. 

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• Tyrese Maxey was back in the lineup on Thursday night, though Doc Rivers brought him off of the bench in his first game back, a decision we'll hope to get an explanation for after the game. Regardless, Maxey was the only positive for the Sixers for a lot of a miserable night, carrying the offense and at least showing he cared on defense, which was more than you could say about some of his teammates.

Regardless of who he was playing with, Maxey's change of pace stood out at basically all times, with the Kentucky product exploding past defenders in both halfcourt and transition settings. The move of the game and the highlight of the night was the third-quarter cross that gave him an opportunity to load up and throw one down at the rim.

Honestly, I am always a little surprised when Maxey rises up and punches one. You can understand why he doesn't attempt these all that often given how much size he's giving up to guys around the basket, so it's nice to see a smaller guy hammer one every so often.

The scoring arsenal for Maxey has expanded this year, featuring stepback threes on top of the runners, layups, and trips to the free-throw line that sustained him as he came on down the stretch last season. And at the very least, he's one of the only guys on the team who is actively fun to watch, and that counts for something when you follow this slow-paced, middling team every night.

• Philadelphia's bench unit was not exactly loaded with talent on Thursday night — you can thank the health and safety protocol for that — but they did do their job and offer energy as a group, bringing the team back to life after a horrible start. With Maxey as the head of the snake on offense, it was up to the rest of the guys to fill roles, and the unsung cast did a decent job of it.

Filling in for Andre Drummond at backup center, Charles Bassey hs shown plenty to like early in his career, though his exploits as a rim runner have quieted down after some flashes out west in November. With activity on the offensive glass, Bassey was part of a bench effort to put the Hawks in early foul trouble, something the starters were able to capitalize late in the quarter even as shots weren't falling. Add on a blocked shot and some nice efforts to contest, and he had himself a nice half even if he didn't fill up the stat sheet.

Paul Reed, who has been mostly out of the picture after a promising start to the year, continues to show just enough discretion to make a difference when he's on the floor. His length and activity ensure that he'll get to some tough rebounds and 50/50 balls, but rookie Reed would often toss-up wild shots, travel, or lose the ball dribbling as a result of being too ambitious. He has cut those plays out this season, swinging the ball when necessary and playing with his head up more often.

And new addition Tyler Johnson didn't do anything special, but he didn't look totally out of sorts on a new team with zero working knowledge of how to play with these guys. If nothing else, he's willing to take open threes, which helps set him apart from the vast majority of their rotation. He only got one to drop against Atlanta, but more will probably come if he keeps letting them fly, and Johnson was engaged on defense. 

The Bad

• For a team that can broadly be described as, "Joel Embiid and shooters," the Sixers have a major problem on their hands — they have too many guys who don't actually seem confident shooting the ball. That's true of their good shooters, it's true of their decent shooters, it's true of their streaky shooters. And it's just not a mentality this team can afford to play with given the lack of a true lead creator and how difficult it often is for them to get clean looks in the first place.

We've talked about this problem with guys like Seth Curry and Tobias Harris, but for all of his faults, Furkan Korkmaz has typically been a shooter who will unload the clip whenever he is given the opportunity to shoot. The Turkish wing was noticeably gunshy in his first game back after a layoff, which is a problem even if you don't want to see Korkmaz on the floor in the first place. If the guys who are on the floor to make threes aren't willing to get them up in the first place, you're not actually gaining anything by building a roster filled with "shooters."

This didn't end up mattering much in the end, because the Hawks are down a few of their best and most important players, but the Sixers have to figure this out, or their offense will never be functional in the games that actually matter.

An added layer to that: Embiid simply has to be better than he was in this game. The reluctance to shoot everywhere else makes him look worse by extension, making most passes he makes out of doubles basically worthless and rewarding teams for pressure and doubles on and off the ball. But when he started to play with some pace in the third quarter, Embiid was getting most of what he wanted around the basket. This isn't rocket science.

The good stretches make it easy to see how different it looks when Embiid is making quick decisions vs. when he's overdribbling in the post and inviting trouble. Embiid's best offensive performances, save for the games when he shoots the lights out and it doesn't matter, come when he makes quick moves in the post and doesn't deliberate. And without a true lead ballhandler to pair with, Embiid is taking too many creative liberties with the ball in his hands, leading to dumb turnovers and/or clunky possessions.

You definitely sympathize with him when he's playing out of a phone booth, but even if they had four of the best shooters in the league around him, Embiid would be facing pressure and double teams. That's the responsibility he carries as the franchise player, and he was nowhere near good enough against a team that had absolutely nobody who should be able to guard him. We all watched him crush poor Onyeka Okungwu just last June!

This offense is in bad shape right now, and unless they can get a serious piece in here in return for Ben Simmons, there's a long and ugly road ahead. Everybody has to own their piece of responsibility in the problem.

• You could argue the Sixers have more built-in excuses on defense, given what it means to lose a defensive talent like Simmons and the way the lineup has taken shape in his absence. You're going to be hard-pressed to get stops when you're starting an ultra-small backcourt like Maxey-Curry, a thin pairing like Curry-Korkmaz, and rely on a stopper in Matisse Thybulle who swings from absolute dominance to foul-plagued stretches. 

Still, there were just too many mailed-in possessions against the Hawks. Embiid was forced to play high fairly often (and he committed more to pressure the ballhandler than we typically see from him), and that warrants sharpness from the rest of the group, with the "low man" called into action and everybody else responsible for rotating and helping wherever it's necessary. The Sixers evidently decided they only needed to help some of the time, and it led to wide-open layups, dunks, or threes for the Hawks on possessions where they didn't necessarily do anything to warrant quality looks.

Frankly, the Sixers were probably fortunate they weren't punished harder for their lack of attentiveness. Bogdan Bogdanovic was horrific from deep and played far below his ability, and a make or two here or there might have been enough to swing the game into an easy win for Atlanta. As it was, they lost to a team they have no business losing to.

• For a moment in time, this looked like a game that was about to swing in Tobias Harris' direction. After a disastrous start to the game that included Harris tipping a shot in on Philadelphia's own basket, he was able to rip off eight straight points in the second quarter, and he followed that up with some good off-ball defense on the other end.

Unfortunately, success was hard to come by for Harris the rest of the night, and that is basically the story of his season to date. Even when he has played well, Harris has mostly just shot himself out of bad offensive possessions, living and dying on a lot of tough shots from midrange or around the basket. The ability to create separation just hasn't been there, and since Harris was never a nuclear athlete even when he has been at his best, the loss of a bit of pep in his step has hit him pretty hard.

Some of the problem is that Harris simply has to do much and play too big of a role for this team, which is not his fault and not really what he was signed to do. But nobody has much sympathy for the guy who is making as much money as he does to score the basketball, especially when his ability to score isn't there on a nightly basis. They needed more from him Thursday, and have needed more from him for a lot of this season.

• Isaiah Joe still looks like a shooter, and at least he hasn't gotten gunshy like the rest of his teammates, but he simply has to make more looks if he wants to get into the rotation. Being a theoretical shooter is great and will draw defenders toward you to create spacing, but you have to actually cash in from time to time in order to stay on an NBA floor. After killing it in the preseason, Joe has been brutal. 

The Ugly

• The Sixers have had some terrible starts to games against poor competition as of late, but I would put this up there with any of those bad performances, perhaps even at the very top of the list. They did absolutely nothing right for about the first 10 minutes of this game, starting with something as basic as the starting lineup (hold that thought for one moment).

The offense wasn't a problem in the sense that the Sixers created some decent looks early on, but creating and capitalizing on open looks isn't necessarily the same thing. Harris was ice cold out of the chute, and after showing some early aggression, he and the rest of the team got gunshy from deep and created several possessions where the ball swung around the floor for no reason.

It was much worse on defense, where a combination of ill-equipped personnel and poor effort allowed the Hawks to get rolling. Cam Reddish made an absolute mockery of Seth Curry for most of the opening quarter, and when Embiid was forced to help out teammates either by drifting to help or playing high in pick-and-rolls, he left an opening at the basket no one else could fill.

That's not to say Embiid was blameless in their bad start. After offering a reasonably good effort early, his interest in the game plummeted fairly quickly, with Embiid getting punished on the glass by Onyeka Okongwu several times in the first half. When your best player is visibly going through the motions, it sets an example the rest of the team is going to follow. 

That was a lesson it seemed like Embiid learned prior to last season, but there have been some listless efforts by him and this group lately. There was a lot of boasting about his growth as a leader early in the season when they started 8-2, from coaches, teammates, and even Embiid himself, but he has not lived up to his duties lately. 

Back to the lineup — Doc Rivers deciding to bring Maxey off of the bench might have been for several different reasons, but if it was supposed to be about bringing someone along slowly after a layoff, it doesn't explain why he'd choose Furkan Korkmaz to fill that spot in his first game back after returning after an illness. The Sixers need to be in the business of simply playing their best guys, and Maxey is absolutely one of those. With Thybulle and his inability to shoot on the floor, Korkmaz's reluctance to take decent looks from three only gummed the offense up more, and Rivers got Maxey in pretty quickly.

We have said this a lot lately, but this group is simply not talented enough to sleepwalk through games (or even stretches of games) if they want to actually earn a comfortable win every so often. That sentiment includes the coach's lineup choices, the team's defensive effort, and an overall approach that has not been good lately. Get it together already.

• Even if they would have won this game, this performance says a whole lot about where this group is. They're not fully healthy, but they had a lot more of their pieces in place than Atlanta, and they still made a mess of it. 


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