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November 15, 2019

Instant observations: Sixers fall to Thunder in overtime despite big nights from Embiid and Richardson

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The Sixers had Joel Embiid back in the lineup on Friday night, but being at full strength did not stop them from looking disjointed on offense as they have all season, and they would eventually fall in overtime in Oklahoma City, 127-119.

Here's what I saw on Friday night.

The Good

• He didn't get to the free-throw line the way he's often capable of on Friday night, but that was basically a picture-perfect game for Joel Embiid on offense in this writer's eyes. Instead of asking him to attack Steven Adams in the post over and over and over again, the Sixers used Embiid all over the floor, allowing him to shoot off movement, attack as a face-up player, and yes, they sprinkled in some post-ups for the big fella.

When you have a big man with such a multi-faceted skillset, you have to actually be willing to use it as a team. It's why the Jimmy Butler partnership was helpful for him, and why he and Josh Richardson have started to grow into an interesting tandem in the pick-and-roll. Teams are put between a rock and a hard place when they have to choose between cutting off a driver and sending help toward Embiid around the rim.

Credit to Embiid as well for doing the early work to get down the floor and establish deep position on the block, too, because even when he wasn't scoring on those possessions, he was putting Oklahoma City on their heels. Nerlens Noel has absolutely no chance to deal with him on the low block, and he made sure to take full advantage of the meeting with his old buddy, fouling him out in less than 20 minutes of action.

Even as some of his teammates sleptwalk through the first half, Embiid was bringing it. He is the tone-setter now and always.

• Josh Richardson was back near the area where he grew up on Friday night, and he played like a guy who felt right at home in Oklahoma City. The Sixers are going to have to ride some highs and lows with him as a three-point shooter, as fans have learned the hard way early on, but he has just enough shimmy in his game to lead the Sixers as a creator for short bursts of time.

We haven't seen a whole lot of him teaming up with Al Horford in the pick-and-roll yet, but he is making the most out of Joel Embiid's big body on DHO's and pick-and-rolls, getting to his spots around the free-throw line and going downhill toward the rim when appropriate. He's not doing much, if any creating for others out of these looks, but they'll set aside that concern if he can keep creating for himself, and he looks more comfortable there by the day.

The only thing holding him back on Friday night was foul trouble, as he was forced to sit out long stretches of the second half thanks to a typical night from Tony Brothers some 50-50 calls that didn't go his way.

• Bill Simmons used to call Tony Allen "Trick or Treat Tony" when he played for the Boston Celtics because you never really knew what you were going to get out of him. It might be time to dust off that moniker for Tobias Harris, who was back on the positive side of the ledger with an excellent shooting performance in Oklahoma City.

Was it as simple as Harris hitting his first look and loosening up from there? Only he can tell you for sure, but snapping that cold streak from deep really seemed to turn him into a different guy on offense. He took a couple of shots from deep with hands in his face without even thinking about it, which was quite a contrast from his gunshy approach earlier in the week.

And though it has been hard to focus on it during his off nights on offense, Harris' defensive improvement stood out again on Friday night. He came up large on back-to-back possessions to end the fourth quarter, and his help defense helped save Embiid when Chris Paul got past the big man on a switch, giving the Sixers a chance to win it late.

The Bad

• It's hard to even know how to sum up Philadelphia's turnover problem. At this point, I'm open to blaming everything and everyone. A lack of discipline reflective of the coach? Sure. A roster with no guard talent doomed to fail? Yup. Lack of familiarity creating miscues? You bet. The bottom line is that it's unacceptable, and as the head coach and the players have both said, nothing else matters unless they figure it out.

I mean seriously, some of these passes they throw are just absolutely mystifying. Trying to hit their big men down the floor when they get down with pace is admirable. But this is just absolutely outrageous:

If this is the product of trying to play with pace for this group, they are going to have to find a new ethos, regardless of how difficult it makes life for Ben Simmons. Win games 80-78 if you have to.

• A lot of Philadelphia's problems end up turning into the basketball equivalent of the question, "What came first, the chicken or the egg?" For me, the answer is pretty easy to come up with — every Sixers problem flows from the fact that they don't have enough basketball players who can dribble and shoot.

Friday night's game in Oklahoma City was a good night for the Sixers shooting the ball, and yet it is telling that the Thunder basically did not notice or care if you simply looked at how they defended the Sixers. Like most teams this season, they just tried to wall off the paint and dared the Sixers to beat them through an alternative means, and stop me if you've heard this before, but the Sixers don't have enough perimeter scoring equity to punish that kind of gameplan.

What's worse is that the Sixers have stared down that strategy and can't even weaponize their strengths the way they're supposed to. They have been getting dominated in the free-throw battle in recent games, and that trend continued in Oklahoma City, even with the Thunder briefly committing to a Hack-a-Ben strategy. They aren't winning the physical battle, and they certainly aren't winning the mental battle. What happened to bully ball?

• You don't actually gain anything from playing a super-sized lineup if the guy who creates that advantage doesn't use it to his advantage. Simmons is getting the sort of matchups that he should be able to punish in theory, but when the Sixers are in their jumbo lineup, they either don't get him the ball on the block or they can't capitalize on the domino effect when help comes.

Look, we can get into how it reflects on Simmons individually, but some of this is related to how the parts all want to play. Outside of Richardson, the instinct for the other four guys in the starting lineup is to try to back down smaller players when they have the opportunity. That's an admirable approach for 1975, but back in those days, you also typically had guys at the other spots on the floor who were adept at reading where to go (and how) when somebody else was posting up. The Sixers, in some respects, have to rewrite their own instincts to make this offense work.

I figured the Sixers would reach the point where Horford was removed from the starting group eventually, and that's probably still the case, but it's the most obvious chess move to improve the team's offense. They have had some good stretches on offense in the halfcourt and transition when they don't have the starting five out there, and it's not because anyone on the bench is or was particularly good, it's because they put a more modern lineup on the floor.

• Simmons had a great run to close the third and open the fourth quarter, scoring a bunch of points through nothing more than pure effort on cuts and putbacks. I give him a lot of credit for playing a ton of minutes in the second half on top of that. But that doesn't erase the rest of the game.

When it got to winning time in the fourth quarter, it was the same old story for Simmons, who simply uninvolved in the game. That followed up a first half where he didn't do anything to attack Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who is giving up a preposterous amount of height and weight to Simmons. There's simply no excuse to let him disrespect you like that. Just look at what Embiid did to Nerlens Noel as an example of how to handle a smaller guy on the block — you don't even need to score, you can benefit your team by forcing those smaller guys to foul you before the ball gets there.

• Perhaps you could argue that Horford is a smart enough player that they figure this out eventually, but for all the positives he brings to the team, he certainly seems to complicate things for the guys in the starting lineup. I'm not convinced the Sixers can be all-time great on defense with this group, which is what they're going to have to be in order to overcome how stagnant and redundant they are on offense.

Look, we are still in the feeling out period for this team, so I suspect there are not going to be any major changes in the lineup unless things really start to go south in a hurry. But I just don't see how this works.

The Ugly

• It doesn't matter who plays it, it doesn't matter how well it works, the fact remains that zone is for cowards. And since the basketball gods are just, the Sixers were punished for busting out a 1-3-1 zone against Oklahoma City, for some reason, as the Thunder found open looks and canned them.

You get what your defense asks for.

• Not ugly: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander's game. I love how that kid disarms shotblockers with his footwork and body control, he's a heck of a player.

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