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November 04, 2019

Instant observations: Sixers suffer first loss of the season to Phoenix Suns

The Sixers nearly pulled out another win without the services of Joel Embiid, but in the end, Devin Booker's 40 points were too much to overcome. Philadelphia suffered their first loss of the season in a 114-109 defeat in Phoenix.

Here's what I saw on Monday night.

The Good

• There's one way to avoid Tobias Harris being anonymous during the early stages of the game: run things through him and let him get a head of steam going early. That's what the Sixers decided to do in Phoenix on Monday, and Harris was excellent from the opening tip, putting the offense on his back for most of the first half.

We've seen Harris do a lot of damage without the ball in his hands this season, but Monday night was his chance to lead the offense, and the pick-and-roll sets Philadelphia busted out using Ben Simmons as a screener gave him separation for pull-up jumpers or a window he could attack as a driver. Harris did both, and while the rest of the Sixers took a little bit of time to catch up, he kept putting in bucket after bucket.

• If the Sixers had a backup for Joel Embiid who could have done this last season, they would have won the title, full stop.

Philadelphia's ceiling is ultimately as high as Embiid allows it to be, but the major difference this year is how high their floor is regardless of whether their franchise center is available. Horford is not just a great player, he's a tremendous fit in their system on both ends. His passing talent is great for their ball-sharing offense while still minimizing turnovers, he can create in the post, he can protect the rim, he can hold up on switches, he does everything you'd want a big man to do.

He even did some things you don't always expect him to do, like carry the Sixers in crunch time and throw down hellacious put-back dunks in transition. Everyone knew he was a big acquisition for the Sixers, but Horford has been even better than advertised.

I don't expect Horford to shoot the lights out from deep every night, but he is a much better shooter than he had shown in the season up to this point, and the breakout performance arrived at the perfect time for Philly, with the offense grinding to a dead stop throughout the evening.

• It makes a difference when you have a veteran backup guard to stabilize things and understand time & situation on the second unit. I'm not sure why it took Saturday's breakout performance for Raul Neto to get a look in the rotation, but the Sixers are going to benefit from having him on the floor when he gets his chances.

Neto's plus-instincts were on display to end the second quarter when he sprinted up the floor off of an inbounds pass to make sure the Sixers got a two-for-one opportunity. Once they got the stop on the ensuing Phoenix possession, he tore up the floor and collapsed the Suns' transition defense, finding Al Horford in the corner with enough time to knock down a three. Those sorts of swings are huge, and those are scenarios the Sixers have botched over and over again in the past.

• Saturday's nailbiter against Portland was one of the worst defensive performances we have seen from Ben Simmons in quite some time. He responded to that effort with one of the best defensive games of his career, thriving in a free safety role where he could gamble and hunt turnovers as much as possible.

Even that description doesn't seem fair, because Simmons didn't just gamble his butt off to create his five first-half steals. He moved with purpose, he broke on plays with excellent timing, and he didn't allow his poor showing on the offensive side of the ball to put him on tilt. On nights where his physical gifts and his mind are in sync, he is a sight to behold on defense.

• When we spoke with Mike Scott late in the offseason, he told reporters a big point of emphasis for him was working on his intermediate game, an area where he excelled in college but has been phased out of his game as the league has evolved. I was a bit skeptical that was a good use of his time, to be frank, but I think it has been legitimately useful for Philly so far this season.

While his primary role is to be a good standstill shooter, Scott's ability to create just enough for himself has been useful on a second unit devoid of creators. The best part is he has done it without it feeling forced or overzealous, with the floaters and pull-up jumpers still just a small part of his arsenal.

The Bad

• If you need a perfect showcase of why Ben Simmons needs to develop a jumper, consider that the Phoenix Suns were able to guard him successfully with Aron Baynes for a lot of Monday night. Baynes is a solid, perhaps even underrated NBA center, combining smarts and strength at the center position, but there is absolutely no way he should be able to guard someone with Simmons' baseline of physical gifts.

The problem is those physical gifts don't matter as much when you only have so many ways to take advantage of them. Watching Simmons in a halfcourt setting is like watching a pitcher whose only pitch is a 100+ MPH fastball. When it works, it looks tremendous, but once the book is out and teams know what's coming, it's not an especially hard thing to counter. And so when Simmons was at the controls on Monday night, more often than not the Sixers offense would stagnate.

The only good news here — rather than just pound into the Baynes wall, the Sixers decided to use Simmons as a screener in pick-and-rolls with Harris as the handler, which set up Harris for the hot start he got on out of the gate. It's something you'd like to see the Sixers do more often, and without Embiid available, it's the sort of look they should toy with as much as possible.

Even that positive comes with baggage, though. If Simmons was confident in the work he has put in as a shooter, he would drift out to the three-point line after the screen and prove it, but he isn't and doesn't. It forces the ballhandler to make pull-up jumper after pull-up jumper, and while Harris was up to the task on Monday, the pick-and-roll is supposed to make your life easier, not create a different version of the same fundamental problem.

Yes, the Sixers still look good out of the gate. But this is going to be a major storyline until something changes, and to be frank, most major changes to a player's game come following the offseason. It's not hyperbole to suggest we could be in for another season's worth of the same Simmons debate that isn't fun for anyone to participate in. 

• Two major complaints regarding Matisse Thybulle at this point in his career — he looks like he's handling a hand grenade anytime he attempts to dribble the basketball, and my goodness does he need to just go up strong and try to dunk when he has a lane toward the hoop. He has the athleticism to go up strong and try to flush the ball, and instead of trying to avoid contact and throw up a circus shot, he should probably just do that.

(That, and he needs to learn to stop fouling, but that is a very typical rookie issue.)

• Not a night Josh Richardson is going to write home about by any stretch of the imagination. I couldn't figure out what he was seeing or thinking on the defensive end all night. It would have been one thing for him to struggle guarding Devin Booker, who was cooking for most of the evening, but he couldn't seem to find his footing against any of his matchups in Phoenix.

Case in point — in the final minute of the first half, Richardson was for some reason trying to play up into Ricky Rubio's chest at halfcourt and picked up a nonsense foul. I understand Richardson wants to play physical defense and get into his man's chest, but there are a time and place (and matchups) for that. You have plenty of time to pick up Rubio, his hot shooting in the second half notwithstanding.

Richardson didn't exactly make up for it on the other end, either, and it would be very helpful for Philly if his three-point stroke would reemerge at some point this season.

• He was the hero against the Blazers, but on Monday night you saw exactly why no one is lining up to hop on the Furkan Korkmaz bandwagon. His shooting was useful, but he gave most if not all of those points back on the other end of the floor.

The Ugly

• It feels like Aron Baynes shoots roughly a billion percent from three against the Sixers, and it is the strangest thing, even though I know he has actually been taking and making more of them, in general, this season. When his shots go up, you expect the ugly misses he had late in the game, not the makes from the rest of it.

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