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March 08, 2019

Instant observations: Rockets dismantle Sixers, who put up little fight

Sixers NBA
030819-BrettBrown-USAToday Erik Williams/USA Today

Philadelphia 76ers head coach Brett Brown protests a call against the Houston Rockets during the first quarter at Toyota Center.

The Sixers went to Houston with a slim chance of beating the Rockets, who are scorching hot with an MVP candidate leading the way. And it was a beatdown on every level imaginable, with the Sixers putting up very little fight in a 107-91 loss on the road. That score flatters the Sixers.

Philadelphia will head home after this one and prepare for an afternoon showcase against the Indiana Pacers on Sunday. They had all better pray for Joel Embiid's return.

Here's what I saw on Friday night.

The Good

• Here's the full list of good things the Sixers did: Tobias Harris had a nice offensive performance and T.J. McConnell fought hard on defense. That's about it for positives, as far as I'm concerned.

The Bad

• Is there an unwritten Sixers rule that any replacement big man starter has to get into foul trouble? It often feels like that's the case. Amir Johnson was the guy who got the starting nod on Friday night, and he promptly picked two fouls in the first 1:14 of the game on two separate charges.

Not sure why the Sixers are running that much early offense through Amir Johnson, by the way, but that's a story for another time.

• Speaking of big men, if you didn't appreciate the calming effect Joel Embiid has on this group before this stint without him, I imagine you do now. The Sixers are in complete scramble mode on defense without him, with each of the big men playing in his place offering some gigantic problem every minute they're on the floor.

Amir Johnson is too slow and can get torched in space. Jonah Bolden is too concerned with chasing blocks and can't stop from fouling. And Justin Patton just doesn't make quick enough reads yet, with guys sliding behind him at the rim without Patton ever even turning his head. It's an absolute mess back there before accounting for the domino effect this has, with perimeter players often abandoning their assignments because they don't trust the structure around them.

• The above is not an excuse for guys to completely ignore their defensive principles, by the way. Jimmy Butler has been the biggest culprit here — sometimes guys like Bolden or Patton made the correct reads against Houston, and Mr. Butler decided he was going to do... I'm not sure what, exactly. Let's call it, "casually meandering around the court." 

If Butler is going to take time to get into games offensively, he damn well better bring it on the other end. I would go so far as to say he's dramatically overrated as a defender. Is his peak impactful on defense? Absolutely. When he's engaged there, he's a difference maker, like he was down the stretch against the Magic on Tuesday. But he takes too many plays off to consider him a reliably good defender.

By the way, Butler's demand to be put in more pick-and-rolls is no secret by now. If he wants to be put in more, maybe he should actually use the screens that are sent his way more often. It's one thing to reject the screen as a change up, but Butler basically turns these possessions into isolations, and he hasn't been particularly effective on them.

• Let's add another defensive note here — I think personnel-wise, the Sixers are not in a place where they should expect to be very good on defense. With Embiid, that's a different story, and I don't like confusing a lack of top-to-bottom talent on defense with a lack of commitment on defense. But I thought both those things were problematic on Friday night.

If you see Simmons get beat backdoor while standing flat-footed, Butler loafing around, or Harden waltzing into the paint without much resistance, I don't see how you chalk it all up solely to a lack of familiarity or talent. The Sixers did keep fighting in the second half, but at that point they'd already allowed themselves to be played out of the game.

For a team within striking distance of the No. 3 seed, the Sixers have not played with the sort of intensity you'd expect. 

• I don't want to hear another word about JJ Redick's slump being connected to Joel Embiid's absence. Sure, maybe that had something to do with how he got to this point. But he is in a ridiculous funk that often has no connection to the sort of space he's getting on halfcourt looks.

A walk-up three in transition with nobody on him? Brick. A wide-open three kicked out to him after an offensive rebound? Clang. Everything is drawing iron right now. And it doesn't even feel like all his misses are the same — one shot hits back iron, one hits front, one hits side — so you can't really develop a working theory on the issue, like blaming it on his legs. He has just sucked, period.

That's pretty problematic for this team, especially without Embiid.

• We are officially past the point where the insane home-run passes from Ben Simmons are tolerable. You want to try to throw a tough bounce pass in a halfcourt set? Fine. But throwing a 3/4 court pass that has a low chance of succeeding in a game where you're already playing from behind? Who is that helping?

There's something to be said about not stifling the creativity of someone who gets the bulk of their offensive value from passing. But he is supposed to be the point guard and the maestro of the offense. He needs to learn how to play situational basketball, and failing that, at least needs to start taking care of the basketball.

Now that I think of it, you know how we judge a lot of players for their shot selection? Maybe we should judge Simmons (and other pass-heavy players) on their pass selection, just to be fair. He wasn't exactly blowing anybody away on Friday night as a scorer, and he gave away the basketball a ton, so let's just say it was not his best night at the office.

• Congratulations to James Ennis, who surged out in front of "the tournament" lead for all of 48 hours. After a nice outing in Chicago on Wednesday night, he was an absolute mess against his former team. There was one play in the first half where he threw the ball away on the perimeter to Clint Capela, and then compounded that mistake by fouling Capela weakly at the rim, allowing him to finish an and-one.

It was nice while it lasted.

• I've been beating the drum for Bolden as the backup center for a while now. He was a -20 in the 18 minutes he played that were not in garbage time on Friday night. That simply cannot happen.

The Ugly

• I mean, did you watch the game? I sort of hope not. Everything in the bad section was pretty ugly.

• This game sucked so hard that the commentators on ESPN were talking about LeBron James and the Lakers for the final six minutes of the game. That's the amount of respect the team deserved for that performance.

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