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December 17, 2021

Instant observations: Sixers' comeback bid falls short against undermanned Nets

Brooklyn was shorthanded, but Kevin Durant was enough to hold off Joel Embiid, Seth Curry and the Sixers down the stretch.

A two-man barrage from Seth Curry and Joel Embiid was almost enough to pull the Sixers out of a deep hole, but they ultimately lost 114-105 to a Brooklyn Nets team missing half of their roster. Not good, my friends.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• This is not an exaggeration — Joel Embiid was involved in Philadelphia's first 15 points of the game, either because he scored them himself, directly assisted the scorer, or provided the screen to free up the guy who scored. After a game against the Heat that desperately needed more Embiid involvement, the Sixers made sure to get the franchise guy touches in Brooklyn. For that, everyone should be thankful.

The Nets are not exactly a stiff, swarming defense even when they're fully healthy, and they're ripe for exploitation if you take an unselfish approach to double teams. That's exactly what the big guy did for most of the night, combining excellent passing from the post with absolute domination against single coverage, torturing guys like Blake Griffin and Nic Claxton when the Nets decided to leave them on their own. There were possessions where Brooklyn players had to take fouls before the Sixers even made attempts to get Embiid the ball, a reflection of Embiid's physical dominance on Thursday night.

On the other end, it was a tougher night for Embiid, but that's mostly because he was putting out fires other people created the entire game. The Nets felt like they were constantly scoring after Embiid had to step in and prevent an open look for one guy, only for his assignment to score as a result of him vacating his previous space. When the Sixers weren't busy putting him in impossible scenarios, Embiid made some spectacular plays around the rim, and his effort was noticeably better than the night before, with Embiid even making some mid-air breakups in transition by keeping up with smaller Brooklyn bigs down the court.

One positive to seeing the team without Ben Simmons this year has been watching Joel Embiid try new things and succeeding in unexpected areas. While I wouldn't advise using him to run your transition offense all of the time, he has proven to be a much more reliable fast-break guy this season, taking defensive rebounds and playing jumbo point guard on the move. He's been better at it than you'd think, and he had a terrific transition assist for a corner three on Thursday night.

I feel some sympathy for Embiid in spite of the fact that he is making generational money to play a sport. He is doing so much for this group, and it is simply not enough. It has to be frustrating. 

• I think this team goes through too many stretches where they fail to recognize that Seth Curry's importance to the team. You can definitely put some blame on him for that — call your own number more, Seth — but as soon as the Sixers make a concerted effort to use the Embiid/Curry combo on offense, good things happen. Imagine that.

When the Sixers ran high pick-and-roll involving these two, the Nets could not figure out what to do to stop it. Every time they shaded attention toward Embiid, Curry was able to walk into an open mid-range jumper or get to the paint for a clean look at a runner. Once the Nets started to respect him there, Embiid was freed up for a lot of catch-and-shoot looks around the free-throw line, a look he loved all of last season and one that helped him get going against Brooklyn.

Professional basketball can be complicated at the strategic level, but the Sixers have a boatload of evidence that offense run through the Embiid/Curry duo works and works in pressure environments, let alone in regular-season games against a Nets team down half of their roster. 

• The Sixers were an absolute disaster on defense to start this game, struggling to find an answer for Kevin Durant and suffering from a lot of downstream effects as a result of that. Forced to try to double him a decent amount, the Sixers left a lot of role players open for threes and layups in the first half, and the Nets absolutely punished them from deep, shooting the lights out in the first 24 minutes. 

On basically all fronts, they were better in the second half. Matisse Thybulle forced some tough Durant attempts and misses, the Sixers closed space and minimized cutter damage better, and the offensive exploits of Embiid and Curry allowed them to set their defense, which is always the most underrated part of any successful defense. When you're playing halfcourt defense more often, you have a much better chance to succeed than a team constantly in scramble mode on the break.

Early in the fourth, the Sixers had success in a very specific set of circumstances, with Thybulle and Andre Drummond absolutely eating Patty Mills alive as the Nets tried to run offense through the Aussie with Durant on the bench. A bench-heavy group brought the Sixers within a single point of Brooklyn, a concept that would have seemed impossible watching them for the first 24 minutes of the game.

It was ultimately not enough to erase another brutal start to the game.

The Bad

• The Nets are down seven guys plus Kyrie Irving as a result of COVID protocols, and they still don't ask Kevin Durant to do as much as the Sixers expect from Joel Embiid. If Embiid wasn't cleaning everything up on the back end for Philadelphia, Brooklyn was scoring the basketball. If Embiid wasn't scoring or setting somebody up to score, the Sixers were probably not going to score on the other end.

There have been nights recently where Embiid's lack of interest was at the center of the story, but that wasn't the case in Brooklyn. He came out ready to be the maestro of the offense, setting up on the block early in possessions and inviting doubles to come his way so he could spray the ball around the floor. For the opening minutes, that was a brilliant approach for the Sixers, who hit three early threes on direct passes from the big guy, passes of all kinds at that. There was a strong-side pass to Seth Curry and a cross-court, over-the-top pass to Shake Milton, both of which ended in made shots for the Sixers.

Possessions didn't look all that different from there, the Nets were just rewarded for leaving Philadelphia's perimeter players alone in order to double team the big guy. Embiid can't just abandon the team concept altogether, but what are you supposed to do when your guys are missing open jumper after open jumper that you create for them?

Philadelphia's defense was even worse than the offense, with the Sixers allowing the hospital Nets to absolutely brutalize them for most of the first half. Tip your cap to MVP candidate Kevin Durant for his role in the assault — he scored over guys, went around guys, or used doubles to hit the open guy as a passer — but the Sixers consistently did nothing to bother the guy in front of them. 

Allowing any team to score 66 points in a half would be cause for concern, doubly so when their rotation is filled with guys who are getting their first chances to play extended minutes all season. The Sixers are simply not good at anything as a group right now, and that's a surefire way to lose games and look bad doing it.

• There's no nuance, silver lining, or context we need to provide to discuss this Tobias Harris performance. He is making basic offense look like Ph.D. level math, missing layups and open threes by the same distance and gunking up the offense when possessions are run through him. 

Again, it is hard to get around the fact that the guy making a ton of money who has a lot of sway with this group just isn't very good a lot of the time. Teammates obviously defer to him in a lot of important spots, the team goes to great lengths to let him get rolling, and while there are games where you see that approach pay off, more often than not a Harris breakout feels like happenstance. His success from midrange doesn't feel correlated to early touches or Harris-run possessions in any way. Every possession that they spend trying to get him going feels like a waste of time, and that hasn't seemed to dawn on anybody in Philadelphia.

Because he's one of the few guys who can create his own shot, I get the favoritism, because asking Embiid to be the one-man band in the paint is a huge ask. But evidence is increasingly scant to support the idea that he is a high-usage player on offense. He can't beat smaller or slower players right now, and when he doesn't score, he simply doesn't offer anything else to make up for his dip in efficiency. 

Harris made matters much worse by trying and failing to impact the game in other ways to make up for his horrible night on offense. I can understand and respect a guy who wants to use effort to climb out of the hole, but "effort" is not running somebody over on an offensive rebound attempt to pick up a dumb foul, or fouling Kevin Durant on a three-point attempt on a critical possession in the final two minutes. 

• Curry was a major positive for most of Thursday's game, but his zero-effort play that allowed Kessler Edwards to come up with a loose ball midway through the third quarter was maybe the single most infuriating play of the game. He pretty clearly had the initial advantage and just got beaten to the ball by a younger and hungrier guy. I don't expect Curry to help them on defense, but giving a shit about something beyond scoring would be appreciated.

The Ugly

• This looks like a group badly in need of a shake-up. Monday's game against the Grizzlies came in weird circumstances and is as "forgivable" as any blowout loss is going to be, but the last two losses just simply cannot happen, even with one of those coming against a Durant-led team. They're not just letting undermanned teams beat them, they're letting them set the terms of engagement for entire halves, and they're getting run around and through by more motivated opponents.

While teams around the league are being decimated by COVID, the Sixers have an opportunity to string together some wins against good teams who happen to be down a bunch of players, and they hardly seem aware that they're supposed to be playing a lot of nights, going through the motions as if they expect to win by default. Whatever fuel the Ben Simmons situation gave them early has not been enough to sustain them and overcome their roster limitations, and it's fair to say the Sixers probably just are who they've shown themselves to be.

In a weird way, it does highlight why the Sixers haven't made a Ben Simmons trade. Do they feel like a middling trade return away from jumping up several levels? They're hardly even watchable on a nightly basis, and if anything, that justifies waiting until they can either strike a deal to fundamentally alter their fortunes or inexplicably convince Simmons to return to the floor to improve the short-term product and perhaps their trade chances. The inability to penetrate, their dip in pace, and their struggle to consistently get stops all point to the absence of No. 25, regardless of what you think of him as a leader on a contender. They are certainly better with him than with no one playing in his spot.

We don't have to dress it up — this product blows and they don't have enough good players. 

• Andre Drummond getting whistled for basket interference on a Shake Milton free throw just about sums up the current state of Sixers basketball. What a cursed run of games this has been.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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