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February 02, 2019

Instant observations: Shorthanded Sixers fall to Kings to close out road trip

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After notching their biggest win of the season two days prior, the Sixers lost the most predictable letdown game ever, falling in a 115-108 loss to the Kings to close out their trip to the West Coast.

Philadelphia played terribly all night, couldn't buy a three, and still had a chance to win the game as the clock ticked down in the fourth quarter, so I suppose you can't ask for a lot more than that.

Here's what I saw in Philadelphia's loss on Saturday evening.

The Good

• Nemanja Bjelica has been having a career year from deep in Sacramento after going back on an agreement he struck with the Sixers last summer. So it felt appropriate that Ben Simmons opened the game by putting him on a poster:

I'm not taking 100 percent credit for this happening, but I did tweet about this right before tip, so I'm taking at least partial credit. That's one way to open things up.

• Anecdotally, it feels like Simmons and Joel Embiid have started to figure out ways to best play off each other over the last month. Simmons is cutting at the right time, Embiid is giving his running mate a huge trailer on fast breaks, and they are flexing their influence whenever they're on the court together. It has been great to see.

(One look I've liked in particular: when Simmons and Embiid screen for one another in the lane, either on snug pick-and-rolls or DHOs in close. They end up drawing a lot of fouls on those looks.)

• Offensive rebounding has sort of taken a backseat in the modern NBA, with many teams choosing to cheat back in transition on shots in order to prevent leak-outs and open threes in transition. Watching Joel Embiid dominate there is a lot of fun.

• Jimmy Butler's off-ball defense was pretty sleepy throughout the game, but he offset that by looking like a much different player than he did against Golden State on Thursday. Butler was in attack mode against a Sacramento team ill-equipped to guard him, and the Sixers needed that with two of their starters out on Saturday night.

The Sixers want him to play unselfish basketball like they do everyone else, and he still passed up some looks that I was puzzled by, but they need more of the Butler we saw Saturday. He attacked the rim and used his physicality to overwhelm the Kings at the rim, and Butler was the guy they turned to when they needed buckets in the fourth quarter, with his pair of four-point plays probably the highlight of the game.

When he is decisive and dictates the matchup instead of the other way around, he's a completely different player. The only complaint you can make is that we don't get this Butler more often, because he's clearly capable of taking over games on offense. He was at his absolute apex in the fourth quarter, and he finished with a brilliant line — 29 points, four rebounds, seven assists, and a pair of steals.

Let that thing fly, man. 

• He missed a shot or two that really could have swung the game, but I thought Shake Milton handled himself well in a rare opportunity to play crunch-time minutes. He was composed on both ends, took what the defense gave him, and made (mostly) good reads on the defensive end, his weakest area when we saw him play real minutes earlier this year.

(Of course, he made some mistakes in the end, but that says more about the Sixers being in a spot where they have to play Milton in crunch time. Man does this team need a rotation upgrade.)

• After Butler struggled to keep his eye on Hield for a lot of the night, the team had Simmons matched up with Sacramento's marksman for stretches late in the game, and when they were able to keep that without switching, it dramatically altered the looks he was able to get. Good adjustment, though you wish Butler could have just handled that on his own.

The Bad

• Not really sure what to make of that game for Embiid. He put up some great numbers and willed himself to the line, but he never really got it going and struggled to deal with Willie Cauley-Stein's activity on the other end. Embiid tends to dominate guys who are "pure" centers, but athletic rim-runners like WCS have given him trouble at times, which is a trend to keep an eye on.

(Let's be clear though: Embiid wasn't the reason they lost this game.)

• Just one man's opinion, but you probably shouldn't attempt to throw long outlet passes over the head of the fastest (or at least one of the fastest) players in the NBA).

• I think there's probably a world in which T.J. McConnell can remain a part of this rotation, but it's not one where he's being put on the floor next to Simmons. I've written about this already, but it's just a terrible use of the resources the Sixers have available and it deadens the impact of their best players.

There was a possession late in the first half where McConnell dribbled the ball with nobody moving for the first 14 seconds of the shot clock. Keeping in mind that Butler and Simmons were both on the floor, why is he even bringing the ball up? What purpose is he serving there?

Shorthanded or not, that's not what the Sixers should look like on offense with the talent they have on the floor, and Brown knows that. This was a nightmare matchup for McConnell and the emergency options Brown turned to with a thin lineup didn't exactly drape themselves in glory.

• On a negative Butler note, he was absolutely atrocious off-the-ball on defense. Hield has been one of the NBA's best shooters all season, so you'd think keeping an eye on him while he's coming off screens would be a top priority. But he was wide open on a handful of his makes.

You live with a guy like Hield hitting tough shots. You absolutely can't live with giving him all the time and space he wants to let it rip.

• Not the best night at the office for Landry Shamet, who couldn't get shots to drop and had a few bad decisions on offense when he wasn't letting it fly. Pretty much the same story for Jonah Bolden. After both guys showed out against the Warriors, they get a pass.

Really, it was just a terrible shooting night for the entire team, and that probably should have been expected with JJ Redick on the shelf.

• As mentioned above, when Shamet and Shake have to play crunch time, it says everything you need to know about Philly's depth.

• On the fluke play Sacramento converted for a bucket with around a minute to play, I have absolutely no idea what Simmons was doing. Maybe he thought the play was over, but for a guy who has been as locked in as he has, standing flat-footed while the Kings played volleyball at the rim was disappointing, and those sort of plays made the difference in a close game.

It was the end of a road trip and the Sixers came off a huge win on Thursday, so it was pretty much guaranteed that a letdown was coming. Not the way the Sixers would have hoped to close out their western excursion.

The Ugly

• Furkan Korkmaz has been buried on the depth chart lately. I can't imagine this is going to help his case to jump back into the rotation:

That's a tough one. Guessing the Sixers aren't sweating his option too much anymore.

• Corey Brewer had more than one turnover on entry passes to Simmons that never even had a chance to reach their target. His 10-day is up following this road trip, and though the highs were pretty high, I imagine the Sixers might wait out the trade deadline to fill out their roster. If Brewer moves on, he certainly had one of the most memorable 20-day tenures of any Sixers player in recent memory.


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