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January 19, 2019

Instant observations: Sixers fall in heartbreaker to Thunder on insane Paul George game-winner

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011919-JoelEmbiid-USAToday Bill Streicher/USA Today

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid.

The Sixers rallied from an early hole against the Oklahoma City Thunder, and looked to have won it after a Jimmy Butler layup in the game's final moments. But Paul George broke the hearts of the Philadelphia faithful with an insane game-winning shot, and the Sixers fell to the Thunder 117-115.

There was a lot to take in during this one, so we'll revisit this game tomorrow, most likely. For now, here's what I saw during a wild afternoon at the Wells Fargo Center.

The Good

• Philadelphia's big three were ineffective early. Jimmy Butler was a passenger in the offense, Joel Embiid was losing the one-on-one battle with Steven Adams, and Ben Simmons got turned away at the rim on several different occasions.

It was the Sixers' shooters, JJ Redick and Landry Shamet specifically, that prevented them from being buried. Oklahoma City jumped out to a 16-point lead, only for the pair to basically singlehandedly bring the Sixers back into the game.

Hard as is it is to believe looking back, Shamet's place in the rotation was far from certain as recently as the preseason. But a Jerryd Bayless injury opened the door for his chance, and Shamet has not let it slip ever since. He hit three threes in a row in the first half, and that not only helps the team, it gives the crowd a lift during lulls in the game. It's always fun to watch a dude who's on fire.

It was Redick who had to sustain that early performance in crunch time with Butler and others struggling, and his two-man game with Embiid cut the Thunder to ribbons. I'm not sure we give him the respect he deserves, but the Sixers really have a big four, or at least a big 3.5.

• Ben Simmons had some downright special possessions on defense, where he was asked to take on a very difficult defensive assignment on Russell Westbrook.

If you didn't have the misfortune of watching Simmons play defense at LSU, it's mind-boggling watching him on that end now. He looked like a guy who had no interest in playing that end in college, and while it's easy to look back and say he was just saving himself then, that tends to be a major red flag.

Instead, Simmons has turned into the sort of player who can guard Westbrook, Paul George, and a number of the other top talents in the league on a given night. He's got size, quickness, and quick hands to match.

• Steven Adams absolutely manhandled Joel Embiid early in the game, to a point where I'd say he was outright winning the matchup at halftime. With a combination of Embiid finding his way and the Sixers sending more help on the glass, I thought he coped with the matchup much better as the game wore on.

For a guy who is dealing with a stiff back, Embiid has been doing a great job of finding ways to score that don't involve him being stationary and avoiding the pain. He did work as a cutter, bought himself space with Euro steps, and used the attention sent his way to hit guys with passes for layups. And as always, he did a hell of a job willing himself to the charity stripe, using a variety of rip-through moves and head fakes to get to the line.

In a tough matchup with his own issues holding him back, not much to nitpick. The Sixers probably would have lost this game by 20 without him, and it took everything he had just to stay within arm's reach. Gutsy performance.

• Wilson Chandler is not the guy I'd expect to do a good job of guarding Paul George, who has been one of the 5-10 best players in the league this season. But outside of a couple miscues, I thought he did a great job of making George work for his points and sending smart help when the Sixers needed it.

Chandler made a couple of great recoveries to tie up Steven Adams on what otherwise would have been uncontested dunks, and he has really started to find his place in Philadelphia's defensive scheme over the last couple weeks.

• Brett Brown called for a trap with Russell Westbrook out in the game's final moments, and what a decision that turned out to be. Butler picked up a steal and earned what should have been the game-winning layup, if not for that insane shot by George on the ensuing OKC possession.

File that away for the next time you want to yell about the coaching. The game was lost because of offensive execution, not the coaching.

The Bad

• As it turns out, the Sixers' lack of athleticism really stands out when they play against a team with a surplus of athletes. Oklahoma City has a lot of problems with floor spacing, but they are a tough, athletic team that will get in your face, and the Sixers don't cope well with that.

This is a lesson everyone should have learned after last season's defeat to the Boston Celtics, but the offseason was a mixed bag in terms of addressing the problem. They acquired Zhaire Smith and Jonah Bolden joined the team, but they've also turned to an aging Wilson Chandler and Mike Muscala to take bigger roles than they're probably suited for.

The way the Thunder are designed, they can come at you in waves. It adds insult to injury that one of their bench reinforcements and one of their starters (Nerlens Noel and Jerami Grant respectively) are part of that blueprint, and those two had a pair of hellacious blocks on Ben Simmons drives in the first quarter.

This problem isn't going away. T.J. McConnell belongs in this rotation, but there are matchups where he gets exposed on defense big time. This is one of them.

• At the same time, I'm a little puzzled why Brown continues to put McConnell on the floor in lineups that already feature both of Simmons and Butler. You're not getting any floor spacing out of that arrangement, and with two guys who already need the ball in their hands on the floor, I'm not sure what his utility is in that situation.

Didn't the Sixers just bring in a veteran on a 10-day contract who they believe can defend? That's a much more useful player to put on the floor in those lineups, unless you don't think he can play in a game like this. In which case, we can also question the decision to sign Brewer in the first place, rather than taking a look at someone else.

• Butler had about as bad of a night at the office as he could possibly have against Oklahoma City, and the crowd that just wants to clear things out and let him run the show will probably want to ignore this one.

There are limitations to scoring out of isolation sets, and they were all on display Saturday afternoon. Butler missed a series of tough stepback jumpers, and he even struggled to hit wide-open threes the offense was generating for him. You're not going to see many games like this from a multiple-time All-Star — he had a jumper in the third quarter that hit the side of the backboard!

With an average Butler performance, this is a totally different game. But it's not always going to be your night. He'll have a chance to bounce back against Houston on Monday, and this is on the heels of a great, efficient performance in Indiana on Thursday. So it goes.

(Credit to Butler for stepping up big in crunch time, by the way. Not the easiest thing in the world to shrug off a tough day like that.)

The Ugly

• That Butler shooting performance definitely qualifies.


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