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October 30, 2018

Instant observations: Raptors serve Sixers a dose of humble pie in big loss

Sixers NBA

For the second night in a row, the Sixers turned in a horrendous performance in the first half of a game. The difference this time is they had to deal with an Eastern Conference contender and not a basement-dwelling dumpster fire, and the Toronto Raptors punished Philadelphia for their lapses in confidence and judgment.

The Sixers have yet to beat a good team so far this season, and the teams they hope to compete with for a shot at the Eastern Conference title are comfortably better than they are at the moment. Toronto proved that fairly emphatically in a 129-112 win at home on Tuesday night.

Here's what I saw in the Sixers' loss on Tuesday, which was not really even as close as the 17-point gap showed at the finish line. We'll have more in-depth work to talk about in the morning.

The Good

• Markelle Fultz ended Monday's matchup with the Hawks in an aggressive mood after he saw a three-point shot go down. He carried over that same mentality to start the Raptors game, getting up a couple quick threes from the corner that he missed on.

That's okay. Half the battle here is establishing that he's going to let them fly. That matters within the context of his own team — nobody wants to pass to a guy who is just going to hold the ball and stall the offense — and for opponents, who will eventually have to pay him more respect if he hits shots.

Shortly after he got the pair of early threes up, Fultz was rewarded for the aggression, drawing a foul that probably should have gone the other way on Kyle Lowry. He converted the layup after the contact and sunk the free throw to get on the board.

When you play assertive, the game tends to reward you.

• Mike Muscala wasn't able to make a huge dent by himself, but for the second game in a row he offered the Sixers quality minutes off the bench. Having another reliable frontcourt player will make a difference over the course of an 82-game slate.

The backup big man did a little bit of everything in an encouraging first-half run: he knocked down a three in transition, made a nice fadeaway in the post, and even did some dirty work on the glass, keeping an offensive rebound alive that eventually turned into a Joel Embiid basket.

So far, Brown has used him differently depending on how matchups have shaken out, and has often played him at the four in first halves only to play him at the five in second halves. My prediction before the season was that he would play most of his minutes at PF, but with the way Amir Johnson has looked, I'm not sure the Sixers can afford that once Wilson Chandler returns. The more minutes he can give you and the less you can play Johnson, the better.

• Landry Shamet did some nice things. It was the rough equivalent of shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic, but still.

• Joel Embiid was pretty much the only reason the Sixers were able to hang around in this game for most of the night. It wasn't an overwhelming performance on both ends as we've come to expect from him, but he had several tone-setting plays in both halves, making sure Philadelphia stayed in range in spite of their horrific performance.

Where he really set the tone was on the glass, challenging Toronto for offensive rebounds in a manner we don't normally see from him. Embiid looked as though he was trying to spark the guys around him with effort alone, and it finally paid dividends in the fourth quarter. It didn't come without a cost, though, and contributed to the Sixers' struggles containing the Raptors in transition all night.

Still, Embiid's outside shot was working (3-for-4 from beyond) and without his 31 points, viewers at home would have been treated to a heck of a lot more Jonah Bolden on Tuesday evening.

The Bad

• Ben Simmons' habit to pick the ball up in inconvenient places really screwed up Philadelphia's flow early in the game. The Raptors, especially Kawhi Leonard, will punish you for all 48 minutes if you attempt the awkward mid-air passes Simmons sometimes resorts to. They will prey on you picking up your dribble in rough spots, too, and Simmons did that far too often early.

In the same vein as Fultz, Simmons would likely benefit from just being more decisive at times. If he forces the issue as an offensive player, chances are he can draw enough contact at his size to punish teams at the line, or at least cause defenses to collapse on him to create wider passing lanes. Turnovers are a big enough problem for this team as it is, Simmons doesn't need to add to that issue with avoidable plays.

• Even without the avoidable turnovers, Simmons was an absolute mess in the first half against the Raptors. He had seven turnovers at halftime, a figure that matched his career high for a game in 16 minutes of action. That is pitiful. 

Simmons' talent as a passer is undeniable, but he was trying to force passes into windows that didn't exist, and often at the expense of decent opportunities for himself. There was one pass he threw to Saric on Tuesday night that he tried to thread through three defenders, and he was already in the painted area with a clean-ish look at the rim. Why make that harder than it needs to be for yourself?

If you don't take care of the basketball, nothing else really matters. It's his number one job as the point guard of the team, and he failed miserably at it, to say nothing of the usual offensive limitations that impact floor spacing.

There were even times when Simmons avoided turnovers but still actively hurt the team. Robert Covington led him with a pass on the fast break late in the game, with the Sixers down nine and presumably about to make it seven. Simmons nearly kicked the ball out of play, had to desperately save it and reset the offense, and the ensuing turnover from Embiid led to a Danny Green three in transition, pushing the lead back to double digits.

Clear as I can say it: the loss was primarily on Simmons. That's one of his worst games as a professional basketball player and he brought the team down around him. 

• Dario Saric loves playing for the Croatian national team — he spent the majority of a nine-minute media session last week talking about what it means for him to represent his country. I don't suspect it would be easy to convince him to give that honor up.

The Sixers might have to broach the subject anyway. He has been awful out of the gate for Philadelphia, and has contributed to the floor-spacing problem they have around Joel Embiid.

By inserting Fultz into the starting lineup, the Sixers have effectively bet on Saric to be a shooting anchor for their team. That bet has looked misplaced so far. And with Saric's disadvantages athletically being what they are, that three-point shot is his entire margin for error, a skill that makes everything else he likes to do possible. The passing windows that are open when his shot is going do not exist right now, and he coughed up a few turnovers that never really had a chance to reach teammates.

The offensive struggles have been pronounced, but it's his complete ineffectiveness on defense that might be the bigger concern long-term. Even a fresh and feeling himself Saric has limitations on switches, and opponents have absolutely buried Saric even when they don't have excess talent matched up with him. It's one thing to get burned by Blake Griffin, but Saric made Pascal Siakam look like the second coming on Tuesday.

I don't know what Brown can do here outside of resting Saric. Dropping him from the lineup for a game or two to get a bit of rest would probably be for the best. I don't know that it'll fix the bigger concerns he has long-term, which I mentioned in last week's mailbag.

• This game was completely off the rails midway through the third quarter, and I thought it ended up becoming a complete missed opportunity for the Sixers to get developmental minutes in.

The Sixers are insistent that playing Fultz and Simmons together is the best way to expedite development. When you're getting your ass kicked up and down the floor and the game is devolving into a laugher, why would you give up then? The game being out of reach does not prevent you from getting experience and building a level of comfort. It's the most low-pressure development scenario you're going to find in the regular season.

(That said, the starting group from last season made it a real game down the stretch, so hard to argue this point too hard.)

The Ugly

• The Sixers are, for whatever reason, constantly subjected to backup centers making ridiculous threes against them. Welcome to the club, Jonas Valanciunas.

• There are nights when Amir Johnson looks like a valuable cog and the exact sort of person you want to play backup center behind Joel Embiid. Tuesday night he looked closer to a giraffe on ice skates than he did a competent NBA player.

In just six minutes in the first half, Johnson somehow managed to cough the ball up four different times, a few of which were of the completely baffling variety. Against the better teams in the East (and certainly across the NBA), he looks increasingly unplayable, and his ineffectiveness is really going to test Brown's apparent preference to use Mike Muscala in a hybrid role.

Wilson Chandler's return should allow Brown to experiment, and it can't come quickly enough.

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