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March 23, 2019

Instant observations: Sixers lose predictable letdown game to Hawks

Sixers NBA
032219-JimmyButler-USAToday Brett Davis/USA Today

Philadelphia 76ers guard Jimmy Butler (23) is fouled by Atlanta Hawks guard Justin Anderson (1) on a dunk attempt in the second quarter at State Farm Arena.

In a letdown game everyone in Philadelphia probably could have seen coming, the Sixers mailed in their game against the Hawks on Saturday night, and they got the result they deserved. Atlanta came away with a 129-127 victory thanks to a big performance from Trae Young, who straight up cared more about the game than most of the Sixers' roster.

Here's what I saw on Saturday night. An avoidable loss on a ton of levels, but not one I think anyone should lose sleep over.

The Good

• Boban Marjanovic took a three and absolutely drilled the first make of his career:

You're up, Ben Simmons.

• Joel Embiid lived at the line in Wednesday's triumphant win over the Boston Celtics. It was more of the same early, with Embiid setting up shop down low and absolutely bullying Atlanta's big men inside. The Hawks fouled him six different times in the first quarter, and while Embiid did not replicate his near-perfect night at the stripe against Boston, the foul trouble alone was a win for the Sixers.

If the big man had decided to apply this same effort level on the other side of the ball, the Sixers likely would have been able to run away with this game early. Unfortunately, that was not the case, but the fans who tire of seeing Embiid launch jumpers and prefer to see him set up shop inside have to be loving his approach the last couple games.

• The Sixers could honestly use two or three of James Ennis. He's just about the perfect role player — he doesn't need many touches, he doesn't force shots, he can knock down threes, and he plays consistent, solid defense. Unlike some of their other rotation players — thinking of one who may or may not share a name with a character from The Office — he also avoids dumb mistakes, which will matter a lot more in the slow-paced pressure of the playoffs.

He was basically the only guy who brought the right amount of effort the entire time he was on the floor against Atlanta. If the rest of the group had followed that example, they wouldn't have sputtered against a frisky but bad Hawks team.

The Bad

• If I was Philadelphia, I think I would be crossing my fingers and hoping for the Pistons in the first round. Their guard defense has been consistently bad enough that I think they would sweat a matchup with Brooklyn more than is necessary for a three vs. six matchup.

Trae Young was the latest guard to torch their defense on Saturday night, and while I'm a fan of Young's and thought he played well, it's not like the Hawks were doing anything especially advanced on offense. But the Sixers don't really have any competent guard defenders on the roster, and reinforcements aren't coming until next season at this point.

The Hawks have been on a roll on offense and are capable of beating good teams. That does not mean they should be able to drop 70+ points in a half against Philly. That's outrageous for a fully-healthy Sixers team.

• The other problem Philly has defending guards, as we have discussed a ton recently, is what they're dealing with behind Embiid. Boban is a great novelty act and what he can give you on offense is worth seeing if you can keep him on the floor. But the evidence is so stacked against that outcome — with the way teams spread the floor today, his lack of foot speed is an even bigger killer. Even when you can allow him to hang back, if he makes one false move he's basically taken out of the play, which leaves Philly susceptible to offensive rebounds/second-chance points.

When you can't dog teams at the point of attack, you need to execute to perfection behind the guards. Embiid certainly does that when he's engaged in a game, but the Sixers are a mess at center beyond that. It doesn't bode well for the playoffs when small rest periods for your stars can be exploited for game-changing runs.

• When Tobias Harris has it going, it's pretty obvious what he brings to the table as a player. When he isn't getting shots to drop, I don't know if he's even a neutral player.

Defensively, the idea of Harris is a lot better than his actual execution. He's a little too upright when he gets matched up on smaller players, and though he's big and athletic enough to make decent recoveries, that initial poor stance dooms a lot of his possessions in isolation.

Another weird trend recently — Harris is missing a ton of good looks around the basket. Ultimately not something I think is a big concern yet, but it's going to be an even tougher place to score as officials allow more contact in the playoffs, so you have to keep your eye on this.

• I don't know what Embiid did with his Friday night in Atlanta, or what his plans are for after the game on Saturday, but he looked like a guy with his mind on other things for most of that game. His defensive effort was not even in the same universe as it was in the other two games he appeared in this week, and that's disappointing.

We've seen Embiid mail in more performances against bad teams in recent weeks than we had the rest of the season combined, and while I expect we will get his absolute best when it matters, they need him to come out and set the tone on defense.

• The offseason wishlist, if I were constructing it for the Sixers, would start and perhaps end with finding a guard who teams have any respect for as a shooter. Lloyd Pierce knows T.J. McConnell as well as any opposing coach in the league, and he had Hawks players cheat all the way into the paint away from McConnell in the corner, a trend that has become all too common lately.

You can't have a situation where someone is not helping your guard defense problem and is exacerbating floor spacing issues.

• Everyone else gets mad when Embiid takes too many threes. I feel like I've said this a lot lately, but I'd rather he take even more threes if it meant he's not putting the ball on the floor and dribbling. His handle got him into trouble again on Saturday and he has to have better recognition of when and when not to use his handle.

• How do you reconcile performances from this group in general, when you saw how good they can be during peak execution and how bad they are when they're not trying? Do you give them credit for knowing how to flip the switch and when, or do you kill them for allowing another bad team to hang around for most of the game?

That's the question I have to ask with Ben Simmons and Jimmy Butler specifically, who probably have the most noticeable moments at either end of the spectrum. Simmons putzed around on defense for a decent stretch of the game, but he came up with a massive steal on Trae Young in transition after Embiid had an awful turnover in the final two minutes, stopping the Hawks from a sure layup. Butler's trends in this department are well known at this point — he may not be at full go early in the game, but he's there in crunch time.

I ultimately think the most important thing is this: they have the talent to make those high-end plays, and they win more often than not. I think they probably deserve the benefit of the doubt that they will turn it on when it's a high-pressure situation in a few weeks. Doesn't make it any less aggravating when they give a game away to a crappy team.

The Ugly

• This was a natural letdown game after huge wins over Milwaukee and Boston earlier in the week, not to mention the tight victory over Charlotte. I wasn't expecting the best Sixers performance of the year, to put it bluntly.

And boy, did they underwhelm even my own low expectations with their effort on the defensive end of the floor on Saturday night. Trae Young made a lot of Sixers defenders look like traffic cones, using the threat of his three-point shooting to dance into the paint and get easy buckets for *checks notes* noted NBA stiff Alex Len. When a guy like Len is getting consecutive wide-open dunks, you do not just have to tip your cap to the other team for execution.

Every night can't bring out a championship-caliber performance, but woof, that was rough.


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