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December 28, 2019

Instant observations: Sixers lose in mind-boggling fashion to Miami Heat

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Butler-Jimmy_122819_usat Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY Sports

Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler shoots over Philadelphia 76ers guard Ben Simmons during the first half.

The Sixers lost in spectacular fashion to the Miami Heat, with Joel Embiid ending a tremendous individual performance with one of his worst errors as a professional. Philadelphia would fall 117-116 in overtime after a crazy ending to the fourth quarter, and there will not be many people happy after watching this one.

Here's what I saw on Saturday night.

The Good

• Joel Embiid has made it clear he wants to play in as many games as possible, but his performances in back-to-backs have left a lot to be desired. Saturday, he came out with a different level of energy and set the tone for the Sixers, who otherwise arrived in Miami a little weary after playing the night before.

It started for Embiid with some energy plays around the basket, shedding smaller Miami players to get to some offensive rebounds early on. And after the Sixers went away from a Ben Simmons-centric offense, it was time for Embiid to run the team through the post, where the Heat had no answers for him. They tried to send doubles at him to make up for the size gap, but as in their first meeting together this season, Embiid picked apart Miami with passes that led to open shots for Philly's shooters.

The problem for Embiid, of course, is that those players have to actually make the shots that come when he makes the right reads out of double teams. When teams commit bodies to slowing him down in the post, he can't just sledgehammer his way through them. But he willed himself to the line anyway, he was selective with his jumpers, and he made great reads out of doubles. And when the game was on the line in the final minutes, there was no doubt who the ball was going to for Philadelphia, and he kept scoring against Miami anyway. This is just ridiculous stuff for a seven-footer:

We will get to his late-game issues below, but I thought he played hard and did the dirty work he needs to in order to best position the Sixers for wins.

• Ben Simmons looked every bit like a player dragging in a back-to-back to start the game. He missed some easy looks around the basket and looked to be on his way to one of those nights where he just wanders through the contest without a purpose in the world.

But if he struggled out of the gate on offense, you never would have known it on defense, where he straight up tortured Jimmy Butler most of the night. The Heat were dead set on trying to force switches on the Sixers, especially when Furkan Korkmaz was on the floor, but on many occasions, Simmons just refused to allow Miami to dictate where he would go. When Butler tried to attack him on an island, Simmons' speed and strength proved to be too much for Butler to handle, and Miami often found themselves needing to reset or settle for bad looks.

He is going to get real consideration for All-Defense, and he will deserve it, regardless of what you think about the rest of his game. Simmons' effort combined with his tools has made him devastating there this season.

• One player who made a difference vs. the zone, even though his minutes were limited: Trey Burke. Teams respect him enough as a shooter that they won't leave him alone out there, and on several occasions he used his handle to beat the initial pressure and probe through traffic, eventually getting the Sixers a decent look even if those didn't fall.

He's not going to get a ton of chances to run pick-and-roll with Embiid in those backup minutes, as the Sixers are trying to force-feed their big guy in the post when he's anchoring bench units. But having someone with a functional handle in those lineups is pretty critical, and Burke has been useful in that regard since rejoining the rotation. When the Sixers needed a spark at the beginning of the fourth quarter, Burke supplied it, and I thought Brown made the right decision to give him extra minutes alongside Simmons in the middle portion of the fourth.

(One unfortunate side effect — Burke is a prime candidate to get hunted on mismatches, and the Heat got a huge open three from Goran Dragic when they had to send a bunch of help his way to stop Jimmy Butler from backing him into the rim.) 

• I would just like to congratulate Josh Richardson and Ben Simmons for being the only two guys in the history of modern basketball to execute an intentional missed free throw in an end-game situation. 

The Bad

• I say this completely seriously — nothing bothered me more in that game than watching Ben Simmons choose a pass to Furkan Korkmaz in transition rather than one to Joel Embiid, who was sprinting down the floor and dead even with Korkmaz on the opposite side. You always, always, always, always reward the big man for running and to ensure that keeps happening throughout the game, I don't care if it's Joel Embiid or Joel Anthony.

Anyway, the play got the result it deserved when Korkmaz's layup attempt got blocked into the stands. 

• Okay, just kidding, one thing bothered me more than that play from Simmons — Embiid's turnovers in the final 30 seconds of regulation. The play where they tried to get it to him in the post to tie it is one thing, but getting it poked away as you're trying to run the clock down and just wait for the opponent to foul is inexcusable. 

There were some people who were mad Brown didn't call a timeout, but you had already accomplished what the offense wants in a late-game situation. The ball was in the hands of your best player and a good free-throw shooter with the clock winding down. He has to protect the basketball, period, or pass the ball to the two wide-open players who could have received passes once he got doubled.

If he can't be trusted to simply hold onto a ball in that spot, they're not going to win many games that matter.

• You can trace a lot of Philadelphia's problems back to their weird team construction, and as in the game against Orlando, I fail to see the utility of Al Horford in a lot of matchups the Sixers will have in the playoffs. He's a below-average shooter, he's the second (or perhaps third) best post player in the starting lineup who isn't going to get many touches there, the second-best passer who won't be played through enough to benefit from that skill. 

Think about this for a second: the Sixers had to go with Trey Burke down the stretch instead of Horford, and they were absolutely justified in doing so. I'm not sure they would have gotten a comparable player in free agency if they prioritized a different need, but this funky team shows all the time that they might be better served by having, I don't know, any players who could dribble and shoot basketballs at an above-average level.

Against the Milwaukee Bucks, the Sixers have a lot of use for Horford. But remember when the Celtics were the big, looming threat for the Sixers last season, only for the Raptors and Bucks to pose much more immediate threats to Philly? On the outside, it seems like the motivations have been centered around very specific circumstances while losing sight of the variety of problems you have to solve as a team in order to even get to those specific matchups. Al Horford didn't suddenly get bad at basketball because he signed a big deal. The context he has been put in, and that the rest of the team is in as a result, is the direct cause of these swings from game to game.

• While we're on the Burke subject, the reason a player like him makes a difference when thrown into a late-game situation is that the Sixers don't ever have normal offensive guard play in those minutes. Ben Simmons just has no plan or purpose out there when defenses (and games) tighten up.

And yet, he scored a couple of times in overtime because, surprise, the Sixers took the ball out of his hands and utilized him away from the ball. You would think this might ring some alarm bells as it pertains to the roster construction, or even just to get more guards on the floor with him throughout the game. Unfortunately, they spent the bulk of their cap space on a center who is masquerading as a power forward and immediately committed a foul when he checked into the game for defensive purposes in overtime.

• I'm not going to sit here and yell about Philadelphia's failures against zone defense, because they executed just fine and got the looks you want against that sort of defense — wide-open threes in the corner. They didn't settle for nonsense, they didn't trip all over themselves and turn the ball over, but they did struggle to make open shots. It doesn't matter what style of defense an opponent plays if you can't make open looks, you're not going to fare well on the scoreboard.

It's not like this is a mysterious problem no one saw coming. Outlier game against the Bucks on Christmas aside, there were question marks about the shooting of the top of the roster as soon as they put this group together. I wrote about it extensively in September. In the NBA, five nickels do not add up to a quarter. You need guys that teams fear as shooters, not a bunch of okay ones that opponents will leave open when games get tight.

• I feel like I have been picking on him a lot lately, but man, the Sixers badly need to upgrade the Mike Scott minutes. When Miami went to a zone at times during the game, Scott was getting gifted open or wide-open threes from a couple of different spots on the perimeter, and none of them were really very close to going in. And since he's basically a unitasker, you're basically getting nothing out of those minutes as a result.

Even peak Scott is a defensive liability who takes cheap fouls and blows rotations, so do not be surprised if you see people throw him into a million fake trades over the next couple of months. He's a one-position defender (who barely guards that one position) and has one useful offensive skill, which unfortunately has gone missing.

• Tobias Harris won't be at the top of most complaint lists for that game, but boy was he brutal in Miami — 4/15 for the game and 0/4 from three, including a miss on the potential game-winner, and outside of some good individual defensive possessions, he was basically a non-factor for most of the game. 

By the way, his attempt to dunk the basketball that failed in the final moments was an underrated part of their fourth-quarter collapse. There's no reason to do anything except to run the clock down unless you have a no-doubt opportunity to score. That was not what was in front of Harris, and the whole team ended up paying for it.

• There has never been a more mystifying player than Josh Richardson since I've been watching Sixers basketball. On one possession, he can come up with a huge stop of a guy like Jimmy Butler and send you running the other way. On the next, he might throw a pass that ends up in the fifth row because he shouldn't be a team's primary threat in the pick-and-roll.

It would probably be exciting to watch from afar as a novelty act. I'm sure most Sixers fans would rather he stabilized a little. 

• The Sixers feel like the team who needs more than a minor upgrade on the bench. Matisse Thybulle's absence hasn't helped matters much, but they have far too many guys who are one-trick ponies they rely on for bench production. I don't know if there's a guy out there they can get who will fix their problems unless they make another franchise-altering trade, which I don't suspect is coming.

The Ugly

• The foul Ben Simmons was called for that Brett Brown used his challenge on was pretty atrocious. Brown was correct, in my view, to use the challenge to avoid a third foul on Simmons before halftime. But it's a bit absurd that he had to use it for that reason, and then isn't able to challenge any other bogus calls the rest of the game.

Not sure what the fix is, because I also hate replay stoppages as it is.

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