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January 26, 2019

Instant observations: Sixers, without Joel Embiid and Jimmy Butler, fall to Nuggets as Nikola Jokic shines

Sixers NBA

Without Joel Embiid and Jimmy Butler, it was always going to be a struggle for the Sixers against a very good Denver Nuggets team. Behind a dominant night at the office for Nikola Jokic, the Nuggets eventually wore down Philadelphia and handed them a 126-110 loss to start their road trip out west.

Here's what I saw on Saturday night, in a game that ended up being competive much longer than I thought it would be.

The Good

• I've really been trying not to overreact to the performances from Corey Brewer so far, and granted, he still has warts. But at this point it feels like it would be negligent not to sign him for the rest of the season when his second 10-day contract is up a little over a week from now.

He's everything the Sixers have needed in a bench wing. He gets out in transition, he's a threat as a cutter, he'll take (and occasionally make) open threes, he competes on defense, and on top of all that he is accountable as a player and a figure in the locker room. When Nikola Jokic got an open dunk in the first quarter and players were searching for a target of their scorn, Brewer quickly put his hand up and pointed at himself to take responsibility.

The Sixers need guys like this, especially ones who can contribute down the stretch. Brewer has seen everything there is to see as an NBA player, and his skill set combined with that experience and leadership should be enough to keep him around.

One thing I've liked in particular — the Sixers tend to defer strictly to Simmons on transition plays, which is understandable because of his skill set but not necessarily always the best decision. Brewer has bucked that trend, pushing the ball by himself on a few occasions, and the team has ended up scoring on those possessions more often than not. Balance is nice.

• I don't know if it was because he was inspired by Jokic, but Amir Johnson did a particularly excellent job of setting up teammates out of the high post, picking up four assists in the first half.

He also had one of his best defensive plays of the year in the first half, narrowly avoiding being put on a poster with a block of Torrey Craig. I'm grasping at straws to find anything "good" the Sixers' frontcourt did on Saturday though because Denver just ate them alive up front.

• JJ Redick's shotmaking is truly absurd at times. I know everyone is cognizant of the fact that he's one of the league's best shooters ever, but I think he gets taken a little bit for granted in terms of his importance to this Sixers team. Even on the nights when his shot is off, Redick's activity and shooting gravity bend defenses, and it allows the Sixers to get open looks elsewhere no matter how he's faring.

I wrote this on Friday, but I think getting Redick to commit to Philadelphia for the next few years should be an essential piece of their offseason plan. As both a player and a person, he is indispensable to what they do.

• If there was any positive side effect of the missing stars, it was Brett Brown getting to go a little more experimental with some lineup choices. Landry Shamet got a chance to run a little point against the Nuggets, and the college floor general acquitted himself well.

Maybe this says as much about an evolving understanding of how to use Simmons as it does about Shamet. But Shamet was allowed to run some offense with Simmons on the floor, and it allowed the Sixers to diversify their offense a little bit, folding some basic pick-and-roll sets into their usual flow.

• Good minutes from Shake Milton on Saturday night. The Sixers are going to run into an interesting problem soon, as I'm not sure how many more days of NBA eligibility Milton has left on his two-way contract. 

The Bad

• If there's one thing that drives me nuts about Ben Simmons' game, it's the baffling misses he has at the rim. Relative to his size, Simmons is one of the best athletes in the league, and yet he still comes up short on attempts around the bucket that should be routine finishes.

I'm not really sure what the issue is. If I was playing armchair analyst, it looks like he's too indecisive when he goes up to attack, and ends up settling for a weak layup attempt instead of dunking the ball or at least going up with authority. That really hurt the Sixers in the first half against the Nuggets, with Simmons' misses at the rim constituting most of the gap between the two teams at halftime, and it didn't get any better in the final 24 minutes.

He's a pass-first player, but when he has nights like these, Simmons lets that bleed into his passing decision-making, and he had a few dishes in the second half that went to players who shouldn't have had passes forced to them. The turnovers that came would have been avoided if Simmons had simply taken the open lanes and shots that were there for him.

Simmons usually manages to be a very efficient player from the field without a jumper. But this is why I would be worried about his future if he can't get a shot together. You can't compound the issue of a bad jumper with a mediocre layup package when you're up against the sort of defenses you'll face and need to beat in the playoffs.

• This game should bring into focus just how reliant the Sixers are on Joel Embiid to anchor their defense. The Nuggets were able to get to the rim virtually untouched for a lot of the evening, and when that happens their overall defense suffers.

I actually thought the Sixers did a decent job, relative to the score, of helping when guys got beat on the perimeter. But those decisions and rotations have consequences, and the Nuggets often just made the extra pass to find the next open cutter or a guy wide open on the perimeter.

When Embiid is there to keep drivers and post players honest, it's easier for the Sixers to stay home on shooters and minimize damage. But they simply don't have the personnel to survive his absence, and they had to get into a shootout against a team that is much better equipped to win one of those.

• The Sixers need to cross their fingers that Wilson Chandler is healthy for the stretch run, because if they end up having to rely on Mike Muscala when they need to get stops in the playoffs, I have a feeling they're going to be in some trouble.

• We really were robbed of an Embiid vs. Jokic matchup. Watching him try to play perimeter defense actively offends me, but the return visit to Philly will be one I'm circling on my calendar.

• Up top, I gave the case for Brewer as a contributor for the rest of the season. The subtext to that conversation is that perhaps the Sixers shouldn't have left that 15th roster spot open for as long as they did. Brewer has been better than anyone could have reasonably expected so far, but even if they got 50 percent of what he has offered, a role player with that production would have helped them a great deal over the last couple months.

Do you praise Elton Brand for choosing the right guy for a 10-day, or criticize him and the front office for taking so long to bring in a player who could have helped them? Truth is probably somewhere in between. The fight for seeding is going to heat up over the next couple months, and the dropped games against bad teams like Atlanta could end up coming back to haunt them in April.

The Ugly

• The only thing ugly about this is the fact that Corey Brewer got assessed a technical foul for this play:

I highly doubt Brewer was attempting to kick Torrey Craig on this play.

• The NBC Sports Philadelphia broadcast was having some technical issues in the first half, and that resulted in the audience at home not being able to see a scoreboard for a decent chunk of the second quarter. If this is what watching sports was like in the distant past, I don't know how the older fans among you ever did this. It's kind of cool to know the score and time left, as it turns out.

That concludes this episode of Millennial Complaint Corner.

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