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January 12, 2022

Instant observations: Sixers' win streak snapped by Hornets

Sixers NBA
Joel-Embiid-Sixers-Hornets_011221_USAT Bill Streicher/USA Today Sports

Joel Embiid still have 30+, but the Sixers' win streak ended against the Hornets Wednesday.

The Sixers got outrun and outgunned by a younger, hungrier Hornets team on Wednesday night, with Philadelphia's seven-game winning streak coming to an end in a 109-98 defeat.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• This was not one of Embiid's best games during this dominant stretch (not even close, honestly) partially because of what he didn't or couldn't offer on the defensive end of the floor. Embiid picked up some tough offensive fouls in both halves, putting him in danger for a lot of the game, and that always tends to lead to a more passive version of Embiid, who tries to preserve himself for when the team really needs him late.

Even with that being the case against Charlotte, he made up for that by being absolutely lights out on offense for spurts of this game, doing his best while operating out of a phone booth for a lot of the night. I'm not even sure that description does justice to the circumstances he dealt with — Embiid was constantly double and sometimes triple-teamed by the Hornets, and the officials weren't often giving him the benefit of the doubt in the post, so he had to play with more restraint than is often necessary.

When you can hit stepback fadeaway jumpers out to three-point range, even those problems can fade from view. And he would eventually win the war of attrition in the physicality battle by constantly putting Mason Plumlee (and eventually PJ Washington) in no-win scenarios. Plumlee's fourth foul ended up being a big moment in the third quarter, with Embiid going berserk against a small look for Charlotte once Plumlee hit the bench.

The turnovers he committed were an obvious dark mark, with Embiid dribbling far too much and losing the plot when the Hornets pressured him. The trust he has shown for other teammates wasn't there all that often, and even though they didn't exactly earn much on Wednesday, he has to find ways to keep others involved. But he was certainly not at the top of the problem list, and he had another 30 point game to add to the books.

• If not for the Furkan Korkmaz renaissance we've all been experiencing, the Sixers likely would have gotten their doors blown off on Wednesday night. But the Sixers used him in multiple roles against the Hornets to great effect, with Korkmaz switching back and forth between pseudo point guard and floor spacer. 

• The Sixers didn't especially miss Tyrese Maxey during his time spent in the health and safety protocols, but that was a function of a weak schedule rather than any sort of commentary on Maxey. Up against a more complete Hornets team on Wednesday night, Maxey showed some nice flashes during an up-and-down night.

His best moment came while he ran the second unit at the end of the first quarter, canning a pair of pull-up threes to pull the Sixers out in front by the slimmest of margins. Seeing him hit a pull-up three out of a pick-and-roll and a stepback jumper out of a crossover move is still rare enough to send a jolt through the arena when he can pull it off, though we appear to be getting closer to the day when those shots are part of the regular repertoire.

On the less impressive end of the spectrum, the Sixers' second-year guard made some questionable decisions in the in-between game, forcing up midrange looks and barely drawing iron on a couple of them. The Hornets also did a decent job of getting Maxey lined up with bigger players on the defensive end, a trend that they were able to exploit by hitting guys over the top or putting Philly's rim protectors in compromised positions.

The Bad

• For the second consecutive game, I didn't have a huge problem with Tobias Harris' approach as a shooter. He was quick on the trigger with open threes, which is half of what I would be asking for from him if I ran the team. But the Sixers need makers, not just takers, and Harris' season-long struggle to finish off plays continued into Wednesday night.

His approach from the outside might not be a huge issue the last couple of games, but watching Harris commandeer the offense only to steer it into the rocks has become commonplace this year. There are far too many possessions where the Sixers are just stalling, waiting, and not moving as if a good possession will just fall into their laps with no effort or energy exerted, and Harris is the face of that. He'll stare down Embiid in the post and refuse to attempt the entry, hang out with the ball in the post for far too long, and stall out a ballhandling opportunity by just looking at a screen that comes his way.

When the Sixers make quick decisions around Embiid, they tend to look pretty good, even when those players are merely okay role players rather than big-money stars. Harris is not cut from that cloth — everything he does tends to be slow and deliberate, which allows defenses to recover when they shouldn't have any right to. That works when he wears his shooting boots, but those have been missing from the wardrobe basically all season.

Prior to the game, multiple outlets reported that Harris is dealing with upper-body tendonitis, which would go some of the way toward explaining his struggles this year. But it certainly doesn't tell us everything about why he has taken such a huge step back this season, and offense should not look as hard as it has for a guy with his skill set. The mental approach has to change, or any physical gains he would get from rest or rehab would go to waste.

• The Sixers were back to the Maxey-Curry-Thybulle-Harris-Embiid starting lineup on Wednesday, and it didn't look a whole lot better than it has for most of the season. Thybulle has begun to find his place on offense lately, and Maxey looked good in individual spurts, but rolling that lineup out continues to lead to Sixers struggles, with teams aggressively selling out to double Embiid and junk it up.

That was certainly the case again on Wednesday, with the Hornets basically daring the Sixers to try to get Thybulle the ball. Whether it was LaMelo Ball or somebody else "guarding" Thybulle on a given possession, that guy was frequently crowding Embiid's airspace before he ever got the ball, psyching teammates out from getting it to him in the first place. It's an approach they should have been more prepared for, to say the least.

It took until early in the third quarter for Doc Rivers to change this up, going to both Danny Green and Furkan Korkmaz in Thybulle's spot in order to open up the floor for Embiid (or at least that's what I assumed watching in real-time). With Thybulle's recent chemistry flashes next to Embiid, I don't have a problem with Rivers trying to see if this group worked despite their damning statistical profile this season. But hanging with it for as long as they did was part of what allowed the Hornets to get out to a 20-point lead, and a quicker change might have led to a different result.

• Transition defense has not exactly been a strength of this club in recent years, and the Hornets are the sort of team who will punish you for every gap and mistake you make on the break. With LaMelo Ball's special passing talent and a group of guys around him who are willing to run at the mere chance of a change in possession, you have to be ready to get up and down.

To put it lightly, the Sixers were not. Part of the problem was due to their poor ball security in the first half, with the Hornets able to run all over them because the Sixers did not value the basketball enough. Joel Embiid and Seth Curry combined for seven turnovers in the first half, and though a couple of those were offensive fouls on Embiid that could have gone either way, most of them were inexcusable mental mistakes, with two of Philadelphia's leaders playing carelessly. Between Curry throwing passes that had little chance to reach their target and Embiid getting to flashy/forceful with his dribbling, the Hornets had ample opportunity to turn the Sixers over and run.

You are also quite familiar with Philadelphia's rebounding problem, which has been prevalent all year and connected to the season-long absence of Ben Simmons. But you can't really blame this one on their small-ish lineup against the Hornets — Charlotte plays fairly small with PJ Washington serving as their backup center, and despite that, the Hornets came up with three consecutive offensive rebounds on a first-half possession, Andre Drummond wandering helplessly around the floor as smaller players beat him and his teammates to the ball.

Those woes might have been easy to look past if the Sixers had done a better job exploiting Charlotte's lack of size on the other end, but Drummond was frequently a passenger in the offense and isn't exactly a reliable scorer even if they had tried to feature him more. The Sixers played most of this game on Charlotte's terms, which is both an indictment of the Sixers and a credit to the Hornets, who we finally got to see at close to full strength after Philly's two previous meetings with the walking wounded.

(All of the above was written, by the way, before we got to see the Sixers go ultra-big with Drummond and Embiid on the floor simultaneously. Philly did not exactly make that discrepancy in size matter, either, which you might expect when a team has two centers on the floor at the same time.)

• Having one of your centers get posterized while playing a two-center lineup is honestly kind of impressive. I was awestruck by the attempt to play bully ball again, though on a certain level I respect the audacity, especially with the Hornets playing a relatively "normal" sized lineup.

Frankly, Rivers could have accomplished what he needed to if he had simply pulled Drummond at the right time. Drummond was able to draw a foul on Mason Plumlee to push him to five with over six minutes to play, a situation that is ripe for Embiid to exploit. Both of Charlotte's primary bigs had five fouls for the stretch run of this game. But instead of immediately pulling Drummond during the stoppage to facilitate that type of offense, Rivers went ahead with the bully-ball look for about another three-and-a-half minutes, losing precious time they could have used to their advantage.

That's the sort of thing you would expect Rivers to recognize on the fly, and it's the sort of thing he has to be aware of if he's going to go outside the box with lineups like these in the first place.

• Underneath all of this was a lack of seriousness and effort from the Sixers in the first half of this game. Charlotte is not a team you can afford to go through the motions against, and the Sixers found that out the hard way.

The Ugly

• Let's put it this way — these officials did not exactly have their best night on the job. A lot of botched calls in both directions, and it was hard to get a handle on when they were going to let contact go or not. It's a tough gig, but my goodness were there some brutal misses in this one.  

• Rich Paul sitting courtside at a Sixers game on Wednesday night after having lunch with Philadelphia brass in the city was only a mild surprise, though it felt like a missed opportunity for game ops to play up the theater of the moment. Show the guy on the jumbotron, get some spirited booing in, enjoy the absurdity of the whole thing. I get that the team is trying to work with him, but he's an agent, he's smart enough to know his role in this circus. Have a little fun with it.

• Being able to jump like Miles Bridges feels like it would be pretty cool, man. 

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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