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December 19, 2017

Sixers' crunch-time loss to Bulls squarely on shoulders of their veterans

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With the Sixers down two points and time running down, control of the offense was surrendered to Ben Simmons. After letting a mysterious amount of time go by, he made his move toward the paint, and a twisting, turning attempt at the rim came nowhere close to going in. That was the ballgame right there.

In the moments following the 117-115 loss, there was a natural reflex to hone in on that final attempt. Yours truly was guilty of it too:

But Simmons was decidedly not the issue against the Bulls, and frankly, he was one of the only reasons the Sixers ever had a chance to win the game to begin with. He had another one of his customary gaudy lines (19-11-9 on 50 percent shooting) and played excellent defense for a lot of the second half, doing his best to get the Sixers over the line without Joel Embiid.

The final shot attempt left a lot to be desired, especially because he probably could have gotten one of his shooters an open look from the perimeter. But the reason the Sixers were locked in that tight battle, to begin with, is precisely because of those shooters, who could not get the job done when the game was there to be killed.

Jerryd Bayless is on the Sixers almost exclusively to shoot. It is the reason you put up with him being undersized for some of his defensive assignments and a lacking playmaker on the other end. Floor spacing is supposed to be what he does, and you trust him to knock down shots.

And the Sixers were creating them for him. The aforementioned Simmons got him a great look with some craftiness at the top of the perimeter with just over four minutes left, and Bayless could not take advantage of the opportunity.

Less than 20 seconds later, Bayless had an even better look presented to him in transition, when Redick found him with a cross-court pass. You would expect Bayless to make this shot maybe 80/100 times, and he ended up on the wrong side of the math on this one.

There will always be people who look at early-clock shots as a sign of bad offense, wedded to the suggestion that teams with late-game leads should just bleed the clock down and play not to lose. That is a sucker's game, and it's counter to the way most good teams in the league play. If you are creating high-percentage looks, you should be taking them, within reason, because the three-point line allows any team to get back into a game quickly. It's a loser's mentality to say players should pass up good looks because there's a chance they miss, particularly when they are players you pay to shoot the rock.

That mentality is also wildly ignorant of the collective skill set of the team. Simmons is just about the only guy you can trust to create for both himself and others off-the-dribble, and he's not a threat to shoot from any extended distance. Typically, you'll have four players who can't dribble themselves out of a tough spot late in the shot clock, and a fifth who teams will be happy to let shoot if they can stifle his off-the-bounce game. That's problematic, and it's a major reason the Sixers need to add another ballhandler into the lineup in Markelle Fultz.

With Fultz on the shelf, the ballhandling has to be spread out to other guys on the roster, and that ends up damaging the team in larger doses. It's especially apparent as a problem for Redick, who is out of his depth being asked to create in crunch time. It has cost the team in big moments in several games this season, and he had a massive turnover, his fifth of the game, with 2:26 to play against the Bulls.

The Sixers have actually been fairly successful running sets with Redick and Joel Embiid in crunch time, but let's be honest about who's shouldering the load in that partnership. You see what can happen when he's the guy responsible for making something happen.

Redick is currently turning the ball an average of 1.6 times per game, which doesn't seem like a terrible number on its face. But it's the highest mark he's had since the 2012-13 season, when he turned the ball over 1.8 times between two stops in Orlando and Milwaukee that season. That 2012-13 Magic team, for those who don't remember, was in its first season following the Dwight Howard trade, and the lack of perimeter playmaking you could live with when an elite center was on the court was a lot less palatable once he was gone. Sound familiar?

It also didn't help that the Sixers didn't get defensive impact from either veteran guard. Bayless got beaten easily by Kris Dunn on a crucial final-minute possession, and after the Sixers had to collapse in order to prevent a shot at the rim, a meek closeout by Redick did nothing to bother Nikola Mirotic.

Saric owns some of the blame here — he probably should have hugged Mirotic and trusted Simmons to help on the drive — but Redick tried to split the difference by inching toward Mirotic and waving his arms in the air, I guess to prevent a pass to the corner. In the end, he had no impact on the shot attempt, but hey, at least he was there to prevent a pass from a guy who has four total assists in six games played this year.

If I sound extra snarky about mistakes that other guys on the team make too, it's because it's a little tiring having the guys who are supposed to be the "dependable veterans" come up small when they're needed most. Having young guys fail as they work through adjustments is one thing. The reason you go out and spend tens of millions of dollars on veterans is to buy reliability; they are supposed to be the steadying force when your young guys have ups and downs, or when injuries shorten the rotation. Rarely have we seen that from the trio of Redick, Bayless, and Amir Johnson, and you're left wondering what that $43 million they're making is actually buying some nights.

There are long-term implications to consider here, sure. As I've repeated for months, the Sixers want to chase max free agents next summer, and so the money for Johnson and Redick specifically was inflated in order to make sure the contracts would come off the books. And those signings were made with the idea in mind that Fultz would be a massive part of the project, which we should not ignore.

I'm just tired of saying things like, "The young stars played well, and they didn't get enough help behind them." At least when Robert Covington has a down game, you know you're getting defensive effort and versatility out of him, and they got plenty of that (to the tune of four steals) despite RoCo shooting sparingly against Chicago. The two-way play of Simmons, Dario Saric's big night, Covington's defense, and a spark off the bench from Richaun Holmes should have been enough to get it done.

Instead, plays like this...

...and this...

...were ultimately Philadelphia's death sentence.

If you want to sell your fans on an overarching idea like, "Welcome to the moment!" they're inevitably going to start asking questions if you don't deliver. The Sixers have some tentpole players to build around, and once the big extensions start kicking in, they'll have less and less flexibility to find the right supporting cast to supplement them.

Odds and ends

• On a more positive note, I think Richaun Holmes has firmly made his case to take the backup minutes at center for the time being. If Johnson won over the coaching staff with his defensive play for a good few weeks in November, Holmes has to start being rewarded for what he's giving Philadelphia in a reserve role.

What has impressed me most is Holmes' slow improvement on the defensive end of the floor. I still think he has some awareness issues that make him a liability, but he has cut down on some of the unnecessary and overzealous gambling that got him into trouble in the past. Whether it's a point of emphasis from the coaching staff or Holmes just settling down on his own, he is trusting his length to deter opponents instead of trying to swat everything into the fifth row.

Learning to play in control won't fix everything for Holmes, but it could absolutely be the difference between being a bad defender and at least an average one. I would live with defense like this from Holmes every damn time, where he uses verticality to great effect to force a tough shot from Mirotic.

I think there has been a heck of a lot more of that lately than we used to see from Holmes. On a different sort of defensive sequence in the second half, Holmes stood firm on the block against Robin Lopez, and when Lopez took a sweeping hook shot, Holmes did not take the bait, and just stood tall in the face of a shot attempt.

Real progress is being made here, and Holmes is a significantly more impactful player on offense than Johnson is. I think he deserves a chance to get the bulk of those backup minutes, and perhaps Brown agrees, because Johnson did not see the floor after struggling in the first half against the Bulls.

• Behind Simmons' two-way performance, Saric had the best night of any Sixers player against Chicago. He obviously could not make up for Embiid's absence on the defensive end, but he did his damndest to stand in for the big fella on offense, pouring in 27 points to pace the Sixers.

If you noticed a resemblance in the plays Saric scored on in crunch time, it may be because you remember them being run with Embiid as the finisher. Simmons and Saric worked the two-man game when they needed buckets at the end of the game, and Chicago had no answers. One play you should recognize from the Philadelphia playbook is a simple one: the Sixers' shooters stretch you out, and the big man/roll man slips the screen in order to catch an entry from Simmons. It worked to perfection for Saric, who turned the pass into a bucket plus the foul.

When I say you should recognize it, it's because they've run that play out of the same exact configuration with Embiid on the floor. They really got it going for the first time this year against the Pistons, and it has been constantly featured ever since.

It's a little more difficult for Saric to finish at the rim, but it works all the same. And Saric did a lot more than just stand in for Embiid, knocking down 3/6 shots from three against Chicago in addition to his work in the paint. You sometimes forget what Saric is capable of on offense if you put him in a featured role, and he has validated Brown's trust in him following a rough start to the season.

I still believe that three-point shot will make or break Saric's career, at least to the extent he can be a high-level contributor on a good team. Still, he continues to look more comfortable in the offense given time to adjust, and it's a testament to both his craft and his game intelligence that he can jump between the four and five spots without looking out of place.

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