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February 08, 2022

Instant observations: Sixers' rotation, late-game decisions cost them vs. Suns

The Sixers led the Phoenix Suns for long stretches but ultimately came up short when it mattered, losing 114-109 in their final game before the trade deadline.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• The Sixers are a completely different team when Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris play this well at the same time. Meeting the level of the moment hasn't been much of an issue for the big man this year, but Harris has taken time to find himself this season, whether you think that's because of normal shooting woes, the impact of a bout with COVID, or some other explanation.

There have been very few issues for Harris recently. Tuesday night's first half is one of the best, if not the best performance we've seen out of him all season, and he gets bonus points for looking as good as he did against a team as good as Phoenix. Harris was everything we showered him with praise for during his All-Star caliber start to last season — his touch was on from midrange, he used speed and strength to beat matchups of different types, and he was the capable running mate Embiid needed, a second scoring option who frankly was their top option for parts of this game.

Two plays in the first half showed the difference between Harris now and Harris a month or two ago. After he drew Chris Paul in the post early in the first half, Harris quickly sealed the smaller (but capable) defender and spun to the basket, dunking with ease for two points. And as the first half came to a close, Harris absolutely blew by Jae Crowder, maybe getting away with a push-off but ultimately dusting him off-the-dribble before the Suns knew it happened, throwing down an emphatic slam for one of his highlights of the season.

We simply weren't seeing moves like that much early in the season, nor did we see him pulling threes off the dribble in transition, which we got a small taste of against Phoenix. Confidence is king, and Harris has found a rich vein of form as they move deeper into 2022. If they get this Harris, they'll be a bit more dangerous even if they don't make a big move before the deadline.

(And look, I simply have to say it – if the Sixers can compete with good teams with Embiid and just one other guy playing at a high level, imagine how good they can be if they get a legitimate star to play next to him, relegating someone like Harris to third-option duty. I get the reasons people are a little bit skeptical about making a move for Harden, but the Sixers would have a greater margin for error with a motivated Harden, not to mention a higher overall ceiling. This team has had some clunkers this year, but they've now beaten a lot of good teams, enough to convince you they're not as far away as you might think.)

• DeAndre Ayton is not the most straightforward matchup in the world for Embiid. The younger center has a little bit of everything — size, strength, speed primarily — to pose problems for Embiid on the defensive end, in addition to the touch to keep him guessing and working on the other side of the ball. Early on, Ayton did a decent job of making Embiid work for his points, and it looked like this might be one of his slower nights.

So much for that. After he hit a tough baseline jumper in the first quarter, the lid came off of the basket for Embiid, and it was on from there. The Suns did their best to try to send double teams at the big man, and he rendered them pointless for a lot of the game, either shooting right over them or swinging the ball when it was necessary. 

Phoenix was able to slow Embiid down in the second half, junking up the game with occasional zone possessions and hitting him with pressure from different spots on the floor. There was a period in the third quarter where Embiid settled for a few too many jumpers, contributing to Phoenix's push to get back into (and eventually take the lead in) this game. They simply needed more from him in the second half to beat the league's current best team. 

• He was not always rewarded for what I thought was a heroic effort, but Matisse Thybulle put in a hell of a shift on defense. Devin Booker is one of the toughest guys to guard in the league, a human flamethrower who can basically ignore your best attempts at defense, but Thybulle did an excellent job of making him work for everything he got, keeping the Suns star from completely blowing them apart.

This is a matchup where you'd normally worry about Thybulle getting into foul trouble, between Booker's arsenal of moves and Chris Paul's tendency to exploit every possible opportunity you put in front of him to draw a whistle. For most of the night, Thybulle slid around screens and closed out on guys at a maniacal pace and did so without putting himself (or the team) in jeopardy. 

• When you're up against a team with Ayton and JaVale McGee and pick-and-roll threats like Paul and Booker, you have to defend that action with constant vigilance. It's not enough to have Embiid on the back end, even if Thybulle defending one of the guards, and requires a team effort to make sure the big isn't having lobs thrown over his head all night.

I thought the Sixers did a consistently excellent job here, starting with their two big men. For Drummond, that was an especially big deal, because Phoenix's ability to stagger their guards to put a high-level initiator on the floor at all times stresses teams when their best units aren't on the floor. More often than not, Drummond is answering the bell on the defensive end, where he has a lot of responsibility to prop up lineups with porous perimeter D.

In fact, I would go so far to say Drummond's defensive effort, offensive rebounding, and commitment to his role have more than justified his occasional brain cramps while on the floor. He's done more than enough for them this year. 

The Bad

• Seth Curry might not have been thinking about trade rumors whatsoever on Tuesday night, but he sure played as if he's aware that has name has been through the rumor mill over the last week or two. Philadelphia's best shooter had a start to this game that made it look like somebody else was in possession of his body, tossing up bricks and even an airball from deep despite getting quality looks.

He's not always going to shoot like this, obviously, but you could see why he might be viewed as expendable if they need one of their good players to get moved in order to make a trade for a big-name guy. When Harris has it going, and with Maxey assuming a larger role on-ball as time wears on, his value as an offensive connector and partner for Embiid is going to diminish over time. Couple that with his poor defense, and there may not be incentive to protect him too much in trade talks, even though he brings plenty to the table for this group.

While we're on Curry, I'm stuck between who I think deserves the blame for the turnover that ultimately ended Philadelphia's chances to win this game, Embiid or Curry. It's probably a mix of both — Embiid is the guy who ultimately delivered the pass, so it falls on his shoulders, but I have no idea where Curry was going or why he was running away from the ball in that spot.

You aren't going to beat a team like the Suns, who are as elite as it gets in crunch time and employ one of the best crunch-time players in the league, by barfing all over yourselves with a chance to tie or take the lead late. As Chris Paul showed, they will bury you when it counts, and Philadelphia's final time-wasting possession of the game shows the gap between these two teams.

• Seriously, there's really no excuse to have a bench lineup on the floor that has Furkan Korkmaz as the only real "ballhandler" when Maxey and Curry are both healthy. If you're going to have Korkmaz initiate some offense, that's fine, but it seems like an insane ask for him to be the guy who has to set up the offense every time down. It doesn't put him in a good position, and it doesn't help the rest of the group by extension.

A lineup of Drummond/Niang/Thybulle/Green/Korkmaz, which saw real minutes in the second half with one of Paul or Devin Booker running the show for Phoenix at different times, should not see the floor together unless you're playing a game against a horrible team you're stomping with ease. It sort of illustrates the hole(s) in Philadelphia's roster, though it's also a reflection of Rivers' insistence on not staggering, because it's a group that Maxey is very capable of leading during the stretches where Embiid is on the bench.

We really shouldn't have to have this conversation game after game, week after week. Korkmaz as a point guard in an emergency pinch is one thing, and using that option with Embiid on the floor is one thing. Under no circumstances should Korkmaz be the only guy on the floor who can dribble. That's just asking for your team to get crushed.

(And by the way, Rivers should know better than anyone how equipped Phoenix is to ravage those lineups. He had a front-row seat for the Paul experience in Los Angeles and knows that he will slaughter second units with the best of them. You have to set your rotation in a way that prepares for that so you can at least return fire.)

• Speaking of lineup choices, Rivers did make an attempt to stagger Tobias Harris, a wise move overall and an even smarter move when you consider how Harris was playing against Phoenix. But Niang is a big-time liability in the wrong matchup, and this qualifies as one of those, with the Suns able to relentlessly hunt him on defense for long periods of the second half.

It's not that Niang doesn't make the effort on defense, and as an off-ball helper, I think he has had some wonderful moments this season. But when teams to make a real effort to get him involved in different actions, that leads to trouble for the Sixers. Unfortunately, that's a style of basketball we see a lot more in the playoffs, which makes you worry about Niang's place in the rotation when they reach the games that really matter.

(When Elfrid Payton is trying to get you on crossmatches with the blessing of everybody else on your team, you know there's a problem.)

• There's no way around this — the Sixers probably win this game with ease if Tyrese Maxey simply has a "normal" shooting night. But he was awful everywhere except for around the rim, and the Sixers left a lot of points on the board as a result.

On the plus side, he battled Paul hard on the other end, and helped keep Phoenix's vet leader in check until the second half. Tough nights with the jumper happen, no shame in that.

• Harris getting stripped on the free-throw rebound that led to an immediate Chris Paul three in the fourth will go under the radar, but it was one of the nails that sealed the coffin even if the game had ups and downs after that.

The Ugly

• Would now be a bad time to bring up the fact that the Sixers had Mikal Bridges in their hands and decided to trade him for Zhaire Smith and another draft pick? Is there ever a good time to bring that up?

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