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December 20, 2019

Instant observations: Sixers continue sputtering in loss to Mavericks

The Sixers are firmly in a funk right now, and they lost their third straight game in fairly harmless fashion, dropping a home game to the Dallas Mavericks, 117-98. The Mavericks are still a good team without Luka Doncic – they beat Milwaukee this week, after all — but the Sixers are certainly a hell of a lot better than they looked against Dallas.

Here's what I saw on Friday night, and here's hoping the second Philly-Dallas matchup of the weekend goes a little bit better on Sunday.

The Good

• Jim Gardner, a Philadelphia institution, came out before the game and rang the ceremonial bell. I am not exaggerating when I say he hit that sucker harder than anyone has since the Sixers started the tradition. Just absolutely nailed it. A true GOAT.

• Joel Embiid was not happy with the Sixers at times on Friday night, though in the first half he didn't necessarily have a great platform to stand on with his own dips in effort defensively. Philly let the Mavericks come up with some extra possessions a great offensive team doesn't need, and Embiid could have, ya know, boxed somebody out.

But if it wasn't for the man in the middle, the Sixers would have been getting absolutely smoked at halftime. He was on a mission on the offensive end, taking it to the middle of Dallas' matchup zone and adding on some made threes for good measure, finishing the first half with 20 points and 10 rebounds. His efforts to get into the teeth of Dallas' defense were rewarded, and perhaps at some point, it will register for Embiid and this entire team that they have to goad him into getting there as often as humanly possible.

He is Philadelphia's best player, and they need him to carry himself like that. The demand has to be for him to play like he did Friday every single night. They should all be willing to deal with some missed jumpers on face-ups, some no-calls on plays where he's seeking contact, and even the odd turnover or two.

• Friday night was one of the first nights it felt like Josh Richardson was truly back and ready to contribute the way they need him to be great. From the opening minute, he was harassing Dallas' perimeter players and sparking Philadelphia run-outs, which unfortunately were beset by turnovers early on. Richardson has played a more passive brand of defense since returning to the lineup, which hasn't helped in the team's struggle to find their focus moment-to-moment.

He hasn't assumed the bigger ballhandling/creation role the Sixers are going to need him to play quite yet, but hopefully, that comes quickly.

• Trey Burke's effort on defense often got the best of him, with Dallas beating him backdoor, but it can't hurt to give him minutes moving forward. He can at least create a little bit in the halfcourt, which is more than you can say about...well, basically the entire roster right now.

The Bad

• The Mavericks' zone is not a unique problem in the way that Miami's is, as Dallas plays more of a matchup-style zone defense. Philly can still run a lot of their normal sets against that sort of setup, and they did, finding some success posting Joel Embiid up against a pretty light frontline.

It was all of the other minutes in the first half where you wondered exactly what the Sixers were doing on offense. The bench units built around Ben Simmons and Al Horford have been a huge success for Philly this season, but they were a tire fire in the first half against Dallas. Horford had a great shooting half in the first 24 minutes, but he absolutely lost his mind with some of the passes he was throwing.

• Let's stay on Horford for a moment. He has a track record that suggests he is going to turn things around, and some of his mistakes are clearly a function of lack of familiarity with his teammates. Can't blame him there. But he is a step slow on pretty much everything right now, and that is a worrying sign for a team that is paying him a lot of money over the next four seasons.

He has had these swoons in the past, and I have stressed all week that if he needs some time off to get his lower body right, the Sixers should let him have it. But how do you not feel worried about the big picture anyway? You'd be justified to be a little worried about his ability to play the four at a high-level moving forward, or in his ability to solo anchor the defense on second units as the backup center.

Brett Brown gave him a much bigger chunk of the second quarter off than usual, perhaps as just a preventative measure on the front end of a back-to-back, and they might need to start exploring options like that with regularity if this keeps up.

• A true clunker from Tobias Harris, who has come back down to Earth after people started firing up the potential All-Star campaign for him. As he has gone, so have the Sixers. 

• James Ennis is a guy who desperately needs a change of pace, whether that's giving him a night off to play a young guy or just splashing some cold water on his face to wake him up. Their struggles against the zone the last couple of games are in part a product of his poor shooting, and he doesn't have the ballhandling juice to make up for it if things go south.

I continue to believe creation ability should be the biggest priority for the Sixers heading into the trade deadline. Their bench looks fine when all their guys are hitting shots, which is true of most benches, but they are uniquely unprepared to adapt when they aren't. There are some who clamor for Trey Burke, and at this point, I would agree it couldn't hurt to get him some minutes, but come playoff time they ultimately need someone better than Burke to give them a lift from the bench.

• Brown's insistence on playing Furkan Korkmaz against all better judgment is definitely one of the most puzzling trends of the year. When he was shooting the lights out, it was an easy call, but those days are long behind us, and Korkmaz's terrible defensive instincts are exposed against bad offensive teams, let alone a league-leading offense like the Mavericks.

I have the patience for guys who get outmatched physically, which is a problem Korkmaz runs into sometimes, but there were at least a couple of plays on Friday (and a bunch of plays this week) where he just had no clue where he was supposed to be and when. There's no familiarity excuse for him to lean on, he has been here his whole career to date.

• Ben Simmons would probably have a better case to make to officials if he didn't spend so much of his time complaining to them about borderline calls. There are ways to express your displeasure without showing up the officials, but he parades around with his hands waving in the air and a look of indignation on his face every time the whistle goes against him.

(That being said, there were a few fouls Dallas got away with against Simmons, and he mostly kept quiet on those, so maybe it all evens out.)

On a basketball note, Simmons' wayward finishing ability is almost as infuriating as his missing jumper. There are far too many occasions where he pulls out a great dribble move, has an open lane to the basket and flubs the look at the rim with no pressure on him. There's no explanation for it. If he is insistent on not shooting threes, which is a ridiculous stance for a modern player to take, the least he could do is murder teams at the rim. 

• I reserve the right to pivot out of this stance, but the Sixers badly need a legitimate sixth man on this roster to help run the second unit. They don't need to play Simmons 40-plus minutes in December games; they don't need more of point Richardson than they've experienced this year; they don't need more Trey Burke; they need a guy who can score points and create looks for others at a reasonably high level.

Someone who can lead the Embiid-led minutes on the bench and play alongside Ben Simmons is the ideal setup, but the subtext there is that Brown would have to actually be willing to play said guy next to Simmons. And, you know, these sort of players don't grow on trees or come cheap at the deadline. Good luck.

(By the way, Dallas is a hard-team to guard because they can play true five-out lineups. Shooting — a helpful skill for basketball players to have!)

• If I had to predict how the Sixers' month was going to finish:

They will have played 16 games in 29 days when they finish out their December schedule. They have been at fault for some (I would say most) of their own effort issues, but they are also a team badly in need of a break and a reset. It ain't coming for another 12 days.

The Ugly

• On some nights, I would tell you the Sixers let Tim Hardaway Jr. get going early by conceding easy looks closer to the basket. Nah, that dude was just letting it rip with hands in his face from deep in the first quarter. Not much you can do about that.

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