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December 05, 2019

Instant observations: Sixers turn in embarrassing effort in loss to Wizards

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Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid thought they could sleepwalk through a game against the Wizards and still win. They found out the hard way that isn't the case in a 119-113 loss.

Here's what I saw on Thursday night.

The Good

• Matisse Thybulle is firmly back in the rotation and has likely earned himself a bigger role with how well he has played recently. He did not get the start over Furkan Korkmaz on Thursday, much to the chagrin of a lot of fans, but he is thriving in his bench role in ways that didn't even seem possible at the start of the year.

His defensive playmaking was expected. Offensively, though, Thybulle's playmaking and handle stood out as areas in need of improvement dating back to Summer League, with the rookie constantly playing in fast forward. He has made tremendous strides in that department recently, and Thybulle was in control enough to dish out four first-half assists, with several of those coming with Thybulle on the move.

Thybulle is playing with a lot more restraint, and that is the difference between him being an occasionally effective player and a full-time rotation piece. Brown also had to go back to him as a "Bertans stopper" to close out the first half when the coach figured out no one else on the Sixers was going to properly navigate around screens and get a hand in his face. Instead of flying at him out of control, Thybulle came up with his blocks and steals by weaponizing timing and quick hands.

It was a good showing for the rookie, who must be back in a bigger role moving forward.

• Tobias Harris has made a concerted effort to hunt for his shot more recently, and that's the sort of player the Sixers need him to be in order to contend for a title. He has offensive skills that make him dangerous all over the floor, but his biggest hurdle is often his own conscience.

That was not a problem on Thursday night, with Harris hunting for his shot at all three levels, even attempting a few stepback threes for good measure. On a night where a couple of his running mates in the starting lineup floated through the game, Harris' mindset never wavered on either end, and he kept punishing Washington's poor defenders for all 48 minutes. It is a shame other starters didn't answer the bell in the same fashion, because he was as good as we have seen him on offense.

They can't afford him to take a backseat as he did for long periods of the playoffs last season. It may have been in a losing effort, but the process was good, and Harris' change in approach has been a breath of fresh air recently. If only it had been enough to inspire the rest of his teammates.

The Bad

• The Sixers are not as intent on playing uptempo as they have been in the past, which is the right decision with their personnel. You don't want the game to turn into a track meet with Joel Embiid on the floor, and they are much better in a grind-it-out style than a team like the Wizards.

But please, for the love of god, when you decide to push the pace, look to make sure your teammate is paying attention before throwing a pass up court after a rebound. The Sixers throw away two or three possessions per game on mind-numbing errors like these, which aren't in the "acceptable" turnover category. Clean it up.

• Look, sometimes elite players like Davis Bertans go off against you and there's not a whole lot you can do. Wait, what?

Credit to Bertans for coming out on fire, but the Sixers didn't exactly make his life all that difficult. Once Washington got him going, they just kept running him through a parade of screens and demanding the Sixers keep up with him. On some occasions, they didn't have guys on him who were equipped to do the job — James Ennis and Furkan Korkmaz both died on screens set to free him up — and in other cases, they weren't all that interested in chasing him. 

Ben Simmons started the game with a lot of defensive energy, but it dropped precipitously in the second quarter, with Bertans and Bradley Beal walking into open three-point attempts because Simmons didn't make the effort. If you're guarding someone like Beal, you have be committed to fighting over screens and force him to beat you off-the-dribble, and there wasn't even an attempt from Simmons on a lot of possessions to make that happen.

You tip your hat when it just comes down to elite shotmaking, and there was a bit of that, but there were far too many self-inflicted wounds. The Wizards are not a good team, but they do have a good offense, and they will force you to compete on that end if nothing else. The Sixers were not up to the task.

• I am never going to have beef with Ben Simmons when he plays aggressive, even if that means his field goal percentage drops or we have to watch a bunch of misses at the free-throw line. You have to play in a way that makes defenses respect you one way or another.

Unfortunately, Thursday night we saw a lot of passive Simmons on offense. He's the complete opposite of a black-hole scorer, with teams feeling like they can cheat to defend the pass on the majority of possessions where he has the ball in his hands. That's a big reason Philadelphia's efficiency on his post-ups have been so terrible this year — it's an offensive style that has gone the way of the dinosaur as it is, and Simmons makes it even easier for teams to create chaos around that play.

Being responsible for getting the offense means identifying when it's on you to attack and exploit mismatches. The Wizards have plenty of offensive talent, but they roll out a parade of wispy guys with shooting touch who Simmons should be able to bulldoze. 

• Joel Embiid had great box score numbers throughout the game. I don't really care what the box score says, he was not good, and he made a ton of lazy and/or unforced errors.

Turning the ball over dribbling in transition, getting caught flat-footed and having to take fouls on defense, not putting in the work to set up in the low post, it was a big pile of bad for Embiid in D.C. And unlike some of his recent bad performances, there was absolutely no opponent-based excuse for him to lean on. The Wizards are tailormade for him to dominate, and he spent periods of the game wandering aimlessly instead of putting his imprint on it.

Let me say this as clear as possible — the Wizards are an absolute dumpster fire on defense, and yet somehow Embiid and Simmons combined for 15 turnovers between the two of them. That is absolutely unacceptable. Embiid came up with a 20/20 game, and it was basically irrelevant because of how many points they straight up gave to Washington.

The Sixers had two possessions back-to-back in the final minute where they took the ball down nine points. Each time, they took over half of the shot clock to even pretend they were about to initiate offense. It would have been an embarrassing display from a high-level team in the ACC, let alone one that thinks it's "built for the playoffs." 

When your two main stars try to sleepwalk through portions of the game, it doesn't especially matter what everyone else does. If you want to point to a reason the Sixers find themselves in all these close games, it's because Simmons and Embiid carry themselves as if they're just going to walk to victories against bad teams. Sometimes their talent is enough to make that the case. On nights like these, they have no chance, because the Wizards have many problems but do not lack fight.

By the way, I am open to the idea that the Sixers could eventually need a new voice to get through to these guys. But I don't buy that the team's two best players fading in and out of the game is strictly a coaching issue. There were guys inside and outside of the starting lineup who played hard, but the two most important players decided that wasn't for them. They have the franchise in their hands, and it's on them to show they take that responsibility seriously.

• I would say it's not Furkan Korkmaz's fault that he can't find a sweet spot in this defense, but it's hard to ask for more protection around his flaws as a defender than he has when he starts. His compete level is good, and I think he has definitely made some strides this season, but he is just drawing dead a lot of the time. Either he's not laterally quick enough to stick with guards, or he's too frail to deal with bulkier guys inside.

Once Josh Richardson is back, it should be time for Korkmaz to have a seat on the bench.

• The Sixers desperately need Mike Scott to get going from beyond the arc, because when his shot isn't falling, boy does he offer very little else on either end of the floor. 

James Ennis wasn't exactly Kawhi Leonard out there on Thursday, either, but he has at least had a solid season up until this point.

The Ugly

• I mean come on, man, I like Davis Bertans, but seriously?


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