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March 26, 2023

Instant observations: Sixers blown out by Suns in bogus team effort

Embiid scored 28 points in Philadelphia's second straight loss of their road trip.

The Sixers hung around for 2.5 quarters but ultimately got blasted by the Phoenix Suns, falling apart in the second half for a 122-105 defeat.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• For most of the first half on Saturday night, the Sixers and Suns sputtered through the game with weary legs, looking like a pair of teams who had played games in different cities a night prior. The two exceptions to that rule were Tyrese Maxey and Devin Booker, and the Sixers were fortunate that they had one of those guys to keep up with a Booker explosion early on.

That held up for the rest of the night. As the Sixers slogged through a rough spot in the schedule, Maxey just keep shooting them back into the game. It was a beautiful shotmaking display from No. 0, featuring all sorts of off-balance shots from around the floor, spanning from the corner to out near the logo. Maxey's ability to get his hips and shoulders square on all manner of shot attempts is impressive, particularly when you think about how gunshy he was from deep when he first arrived in Philadelphia.

Imagine what this game would have looked like if Maxey hadn't lost his mind from three — he was 7/10 from deep at the point where this game crossed the threshold of "winnable" to "not going to happen," capitalizing on any degree of space the Suns offered him. Even as it looked like they were fading out of this game, Maxey was a ray of light, still competing and digging for what little they could pull together.

If we're looking for what more they could have gotten from him, it probably would have started with using him in more pick-and-rolls with Embiid, as Maxey was turned into an entry passer and off-ball guy for too much of the game while in the midst of a heater. That shooting run should have given them a launch pad for more success inside the arc, and Maxey has shown the ability to hit Embiid with pocket passes on the move.

One thing I think we probably need to make note of on the negative side of things — Maxey is going to have to figure out what to do when he's required to attack going left. You can trace a lot of stalled-out possessions to his lack of moves going toward his left hand, with Maxey opting to reset possessions and waste time on the shot clock because he can't generate any leverage going that direction. No one is asking him to be a truly ambidextrous player, but if a team can overplay one hand and effectively junk up the offense, that's a pretty big problem when he has to run the offense.

Anyway, that's about it for the good.

The Bad

• The Sixers "needed" Embiid to play in this one with Harden already ruled out, and people tend to give him credit for simply appearing in these games because that has never been a given for him. We don't need to hand out any participation trophies around here — if this is the best Embiid had to offer, there wasn't a good reason to have him out there at all.  If he needed a night off, give it to him. Watching him try to turn it on and off while struggling to manage that balance is hardly benefitting the team, and certainly not benefitting the man himself.

I'm less interested in blaming missed shots on tired legs and think we should zero in on the defensive impact. There were some real highlight-reel moments for him on that end, including a pair of blocks in the second quarter where he challenged drivers to beat him at the summit. But there were far more plays where he disengaged, saving energy for another possession and another fight, and that fight never came. 

When you see what he is capable of as a defender and rebounder, you can easily pick out the games where he doesn't bring it. Throughout the first half, Embiid opted to let other people pick up the slack for him, hardly moving on rebounding opportunities and often ignoring shooters in favor of hanging near the paint. If you want to challenge a few questionable shooters to let it rip, that's fine, but that requires you to be engaged on the subsequent rebounding opportunity to end the possession. He was as guilty of rebounding crimes as the rest of them, standing around as more engaged players flew over and around him for second-chance points. Even if we throw out the possessions where he was sucked out of position because of poor perimeter defense at the point of attack, Embiid made his counterpart Bismack Biyombo look far better than he is.

The moment this all seemed to change came early in the third quarter, with Doc Rivers calling a timeout as the Sixers walked the ball up the floor. I can't tell you what was said in that huddle, but it appears the message got across to Embiid. He had a spurt of aggressiveness in the middle of the third period, starting with a made three that led to some more purposeful drives to the hoop, and most notably, more free throws. With his touch off as a jumpshooter, Embiid willed his way to the charity stripe, making up for what he could not get done in live play. 

But the live play was problematic, with Embiid losing sight of the full floor as bodies surrounded him in the middle of the floor. Sharp reads early in the game turned into tunnel vision as the night wore on, the big man trying to pound his way through Phoenix's interior instead of sharing the ball and finding open cutters and shooters. Trusting his teammates has been a recipe for success in games without Harden, and he didn't live up to his end of the bargain in this game, the team left to live and die on his touch. That's normally not a bad plan, but they needed something different in this game.

Plain and simple, that was a garbage effort from Embiid even if he saved the line from total futility with some second-half scoring. 

• Building off of that problem, the offense was generally a mess in this game, and you can see what Harden brings to the table because of what they lack without an organizer. The Sixers essentially didn't run any offense for long stretches of this game, unless you consider "throw the ball to Embiid or Harris at the free-throw line extended" to be a play call of some sort. 

If the instinct is to blame that on tired legs, I would argue you need to lean on execution, design, and structure more when you're fatigued. It may be harder to pull that off, but the teamwide buy-in is how you work around the effects of fatigue, scheming open looks into the game no matter how fatigued the group is. 

• Even with the caveat that the Sixers were in a bad spot from a fatigue perspective, there is simply no way you should get carved up by Phoenix's bench like this. The Suns traded away their best depth in order to bring in Kevin Durant, who as you might know wasn't available for this game. DeAndre Ayton missed the game. There is no way the remaining players (save for Booker) should have been able to punish you so badly.

And yet, we spent the first half watching a bunch of guys whose best years are behind them killing Philly. Terrence Ross has been bad for about three seasons now and he lit the Sixers up in the first half. T.J. Warren built off of a good outing in Sacramento on Friday with some scoring punch off of the bench. Seemingly everyone on Phoenix's bench other than former Sixers guard Landry Shamet had a good time on Saturday night.

Philly's second unit didn't help itself in that respect. Georges Niang has had far too many games lately where he has actively deterred the Sixers from winning his time on the floor. As always, it's one thing to miss shots and go through cold spells and the Sixers should be willing to live through things like that. Niang's issue is that he is not making up for any slump with effort or impact on the other end, actively holding the Sixers back with atrocious defense. Warren picked on him personally throughout the game, with Niang drifting away from his man for no real reason, dooming his team in the process.

(Hell, if Niang had an interest in trying to rebound the ball, that would be an upgrade. Just give them something. As is, he looks like a guy doomed to be blamed for struggles in the playoffs, because Rivers keeps going to him.)

I have been a frequent Shake Milton booster in this space and think he has been an underrated contributor all year, but he was pretty putrid in this one, throwing up a ton of junk toward the rim and failing to get most of it to go down. Jalen McDaniels was arguably even worse in his return game, trying to make an impact but mostly just running around like a headless chicken.

They looked like a group without a plan or a clue.

• I think you could see why Dewayne Dedmon was available as a buyout signing during his brief run of play in this game. Devin Booker went by him fast enough to make Dedmon look like he was running in quicksand, providing him a runway for the easiest two points Booker scored all night.

I don't have a clue why Rivers decided to go with him in that spot, anyway, as this is the sort of team/matchup I think Dedmon has no chance against. Asking him to defend in space is just asking to bleed points with him on the floor. I suppose the optimist's thought is that maybe this horrific showing by Dedmon will be enough to staple his butt to the bench for the rest of the season, because there is absolutely no reason he should play a meaningful minute for this team unless they're having a tallest lineup contest. He really put the cherry on top with an air-balled three in garbage time.

That said, it's not like Paul Reed draped himself in glory during his limited action on Saturday. They have been searching for answers on the bench without Harden to lead the Embiid-less units. Anyone in that spot is going to have trouble without a leader to carry them, and while Maxey's scoring was awesome, he didn't do much to organize the group.

The Ugly

• The officiating was absolutely horrendous in this game, in the way that infuriates me more than any other — they were not consistent in any way with what they were calling. Not on physical play, not on screens, not on kick outs by three-point shooters, not on reach-ins, absolutely nothing. It's hard for teams to figure out how the hell to play if you can't get a read on what's allowed and what isn't.

• Terrence Ross and T.J. Warren lighting the Sixers up from deep felt like a real blast from the past, both because it has happened before and because both have had years of nothing against the Sixers before popping up at the wrong time. 

• This game looked like a meeting between two teams who had played on the road the night prior. There is a lot of consternation about the NBA product and how to fix things and the simple answer continues to sit right in front of these guys. 

But hey, got to get that gate revenue.

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