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January 28, 2021

What we learned from Sixers' big win (and crunch-time collapse) vs. Lakers

In a miserable final stretch that saw them blow a 12-point lead, the Sixers nearly squandered the best win of their season to date against the best team they've played all season. Is all well that ends well? That seemed to be the vibe after Philly's big win over the Lakers, the first victory of the year that makes you start to believe a real run could be in the cards this season.

Within that 48 minute extravaganza, there was a blend of new lessons and reinforcement of what we knew coming in, and though it's just one game, one game on national TV against L.A. means more than a two-pack against the Charlotte Hornets. That being the case, let's dive into the particulars. 

The Sixers can hang with the champs

The head coach did his best to downplay the significance of this game to the media heading in. A veteran decision from the coach — it was going to be treated like one regardless, but no reason to add any more attention than you were already getting.

Tobias Harris didn't take long to confirm that yes, in fact, this one was a big deal. The win may not have changed their positioning atop the Eastern Conference standings, but it gave them a signature win (albeit a nervy one) to put on the mantle as proof they can play with anybody.

"We definitely came into this game, coming off the loss that we had, some people think we haven't played anybody, so that was another thing," Harris said Wednesday evening. "For us, we wanted to go against the champs, we wanted to see where we are at, and see how we matched up, and that was that."

"You got the best team with the best record in the league and the defending champs, and they’re also undefeated on the road," Joel Embiid added. "You got them coming into your building, you know you want to win those type of games. I just thought we did a great job and we had a few lapses especially in the fourth when we’re up big and we made a couple mistakes, but those wins are great and it’s going to give us a lot of confidence for the next couple games."

For most of Wednesday night, the Sixers not only looked like a team able to trade punches with the Lakers, they comfortably outpaced the Lakers for a lot of the evening. They managed to get contributions from each of their big names at different points throughout the game. Embiid and Ben Simmons had strong opening quarters on offense, Harris was the second-half scorer they needed to remain out in front, and Philadelphia just got enough from role players to make it over the line, even on a night where they got basically nothing from sharpshooter Seth Curry. 

For many teams, the Anthony Davis-LeBron James combination is just physically and athletically overwhelming, capable of sustained runs where they play above the rim and shut you down on the other side of the ball. The numbers suggest Embiid and Simmons did not do much to slow down their peers: James was 4-for-7 while guarded by Simmons, while Davis was 6-for-12 while guarded by Embiid, per NBA matchup data. 

But getting there required the Lakers' duo to knock down difficult, off-angle shots just to hang around most of the night, and Simmons was effective at keeping Davis completely uninvolved for most of crunch time, an important fact to keep in the back of your mind for a potential meeting down the road. LeBron vs. Embiid at the summit is always a captivating battle, and that continued on Wednesday night, with the Sixers' franchise big man forcing James to reconsider several shots at the rim.

It almost came unraveled in the final minutes, and that gives head coach Doc Rivers plenty of material to work with when they hit the film room and discuss this one. As they have so often this season, however, they were able to dig down deep and pull out a victory.

"They showed at the end of the game like champions it's hard to kill them. They just keep coming back. They keep believing. They kept making shots. We weathered it. But I don't know," Rivers added. "It says we are a good team, but for me, it says we are really good but we still have a lot of work to do."

It's a coach's favorite sort of win — a victory that can lead to more reflection and growth.

The "Doc Rivers effect" is real for Tobias Harris

His coach and his teammates believe he should be an All-Star. The highlight reel shows he's capable of delivering a winner in crunch time. And he says the product you're seeing now is the result of confidence that flows from hard work.

"Being able to want to be in those spots, I'm a person that I visualize myself in those spots," Harris said. "When the opportunity came, we came out of the timeout and me and Seth were talking and basically discussing how they are more likely to switch that pick and roll coming off if Joel isn't open, and let me iso up top and get to my spot. That's a shot I work on time and time again but in those moments just being confident enough to let it go and being OK with the result."

Being the third (and often fourth) option last season mostly meant Harris swinging wildly back and forth between two extremes, completely uninvolved with the offense or hijacking it for stretches at a time, meandering in the mid-post area and shooting contested jumper after contested jumper. Making tough shots inside the arc was a big part of his night on Wednesday, but it flowed out of the type of game we've now seen from Harris repeatedly this season, decisive and precise with his actions. 

Harris' success is a credit to new and old faces alike. Embiid has committed more to playing in the pick-and-roll to free his teammates, allowing a guy like Harris to turn the corner and get to the rim. Rivers' emphasis on quick decisionmaking has him taking (and making) shots that he routinely passed up last year, bringing Harris' shooting numbers back toward the lofty heights he hit in L.A. And assistant coach Dan Burke, who is responsible for the defense, certainly has him bought in on their new concepts and scheme this season.

It's certainly a credit to Harris on his own. There were possessions in the third quarter where he hung in gamely against Davis, forcing misses from a guy who should be able to shoot over him with ease. Harris has been one of the more vocal leaders in the locker room for some time now and was the man who tried to serve as the glue last year with everyone else pulling in different directions, but leading by example has sent a more powerful message this year, helping to establish accountability for the whole team.

Care for the craft has never been in doubt for Harris, and now it's all starting to come together in what he believes could be an All-Star season.

"I hope we all do make it together," Harris said Wednesday. "Obviously right now, this season we've been playing great basketball as a team, we have the MVP on our team, Joel has been playing lights out since Day One, Ben has been a great player and this year he's playing at a great pace, really dictating things defensively, offensively, doing his thing all around, so I hope we all make the game."

"I've always just been about winning and letting that handle itself, but I've been playing consistently at an All-Star level every night. I'm not one to always toot my own horn, but in the past, I've had a couple times where I should have been there and didn't make it, so that would be my little pitch for it right there."

If he shoots 46 percent from three and averages 20 points a game for the best team in the East all season, it'd be hard to keep him out.

Crunch time may not be solved yet

There was a moment on Wednesday night where the new Sixers looked much like the old Sixers, melting down during the stretch run and allowing the Lakers to take a lead with less than 15 seconds to play. Harris' game-winner sent them into a state of euphoria, but that moment was brief, and now the Sixers have to reckon with the game they nearly blew after leading most of the way.

"Tonight's win is a great win for us against a great team, but at the same time we know we could be better, especially in the fourth quarter," Harris said. "With where we're expecting to go and where we want to be, we have to be very near perfect in a lot of things. Games like this are the difference of playoff games that can end a series or can win you NBA championships. For us, we know that our details are key, and how sharp we need to be, so there's always growth in it."

Philadelphia's failures in crunch time, fall on the shoulders of their two biggest names for very different reasons. There was Embiid, the guy who couldn't get a shot to drop, and Simmons, the guy who wasn't all that interested in taking a shot at all.

Embiid was just 2-for-6 in the fourth quarter 4-for-10 in the second half overall, a downturn that could at least in part be attributed to the nasty spill he took onto his back in the third quarter. But that seems a little flimsy as an excuse for the misses — the big fella mostly got single-coverage looks throughout crunch time, missing face-up and fadeaway jumpers while guarded by Anthony Davis. Health may have been an issue, but he has often been reliant on midrange success this year, and that's a tough place to make your money.

For me, the more troublesome issue was the running down of possessions by Simmons without a plan or a purpose. Using up clock is a necessary part of seeing a game out, but the Sixers took that to the extreme, letting Simmons meander near halfcourt until he would initiate the offense deep into the clock.

Needless to say, he is not the best option to execute that style of offense in an endgame scenario. On two separate occasions, Simmons dumped off to teammates with about four seconds left on the shot clock, leaving them with few options and little time to make use of them. There is absolutely no stress being put on the defense on these plays, nor a look toward the rim to suggest scoring is an option.

These are the sort of plays that pop up with more frequency in the playoffs, when you're up against high-caliber opponents like the Lakers who will force you to do what you don't want to do. Most teams would fight hard to force you into a scenario where Danny Green is forced to create something with time running down on the shot clock. The Sixers (and more accurately Simmons) gifted it to L.A. for free.

There are kinks to work out with the bench

One of the only negatives for Philly on Wednesday night follows a trend we've seen carry through the last few weeks. Dwight Howard has the Sixers riding a roller coaster from night to night, and he has been at the bottom of the sloper for a while now with few jumps back to the peak. So what exactly is Philadelphia's backup plan?

Forced to respond to a small-ball look from L.A., Rivers chose to match the Lakers with a downsized look of their own, playing Ben Simmons at the five with Howard off the pace. I'm not a believer in Simmons as a small-ball five, mostly because he has struggled serving as the last line of defense at the rim, in spite of the considerable defensive gifts he has elsewhere. On the other hand, many of the issues come down to Philadelphia not having much in the way of perimeter defense to surround Simmons with in these looks, putting undue pressure on him to clean it up behind them.

For example, there is never a scenario where the Sixers want to find Furkan Korkmaz matched up with LeBron James, but in order to get shooting on the floor in those bench groups, that's part of the price the Sixers have to pay:

Nobody really knows what they're trying to accomplish here, and I don't blame Simmons for his happy feet on the paint. As a perimeter-oriented defender, he's programmed to help but not stray too far from his man, who could get an open corner three if he does. They don't practice or lean on this look, so indecisiveness is a natural consequence. But it does highlight the need to drill this more if the Sixers actually want to play out of these looks.  

If it were easy to pluck two-way players out of thin air who fit nicely around your best players, there would be far fewer bad teams in the NBA. "Simmons and shooters" is a concept that has been held up as the ideal environment for Simmons, but they still have not been able to strike a balance that works when it's Simmons anchoring units without Embiid by his side. Each decision comes with a potential consequence — Matisse Thybulle gives you more defense, but he cramps spacing, for example. The opposite is true with Furkan Korkmaz.

There has basically been no variety when it comes to the structure of Philadelphia's backup units. Between Howard and Tony Bradley, any big man the Sixers might play alongside Simmons is going to be a non-shooter. Mike Scott's return could give them an alternative option, but he doesn't solve the rim protection issue and contributes to the same leaky perimeter defense. A hybrid four/five who can space the floor and offer at least passable defense would give the Sixers a big lift, opening the floor for Simmons and the guards the Sixers have trusted to run the second unit.

It's fair to assume Daryl Morey won't be sitting on his hands all year, and with the Sixers proving they can run with the best in the league, there's plenty of incentive to go after upgrades over the next few months. Whether they can find the right one remains to be seen.

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