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February 05, 2021

Instant observations: Sixers get rolled by Blazers in second half of back-to-back

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The Sixers turned in one of their worst efforts of the season against a depleted Blazers team, wilting in a 121-105 loss on the second half of a back-to-back. Despite a 37-point outburst from Joel Embiid, the Sixers could only hold on until halftime before getting smoke in the final 24 minutes.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• Maybe we will reach a point in the season where Joel Embiid stops shooting at an insanely high level on midrange jumpers. What he's doing right now is basically unprecedented in NBA history — the big guy entered the game shooting 60 percent from 16 feet to the three-point line, the place where offense usually goes to die, and he absolutely slaughtered the Blazers on a series of pull-up and face-up jumpers.

(To give you some context for how insane that 60 percent number is, Kobe Bryant's most efficient season there barely scraped 46 percent, and that came during a lower volume season during his rookie year. We have less shot location data for Michael Jordan, but his best mark from that range that we have on record was 52.1 percent in 1996-97. Needless to say, the big guy is absolutely cooking right now.)

Early on against Enes Kanter, Embiid fell into the same trap he always seems to against the stationary Blazers big, trying to beat him by posting him up over and over. After a few sputtering possessions, an Embiid trip to the locker room, and a matchup with Harry Giles, the big fella learned his lesson. Embiid went on an absolute rampage in the second quarter using his face-up game and by forcing switches in the pick-and-roll, drawing fouls when the likes of Carmelo Anthony got switched onto him.

Embiid did not sit for a second of the second quarter, and it allowed him to go on one of the best scoring runs he has had all year. The Blazers threw body after body at him to help, and it didn't much matter because the Sixers got him the ball all over the floor. Embiid's improved ability to pull off his own dribble has eased some concerns I have about him as a playoff performer. When you can give him the ball as he crosses halfcourt and count on him to create his own look, it makes stopping him more difficult than ever.

That first half was just about the only positive for the team on the night, and even that came with a brief injury scare. Not exactly a banner night for Philly.

The Bad

• If it wasn't for Embiid's return early in the first quarter, the Sixers might have gone into halftime trying to pull out of a large deficit. They were absolutely brutal shooting the ball in the first half, 0/10 from deep and 11/27 overall, with at least of few of those makes coming from space Embiid cleared for teammates to let it rip.

Some of those misses were downright ugly. Embiid found rookie guard Tyrese Maxey out of a double team in the second quarter for a wide-open three at the elbow extended, and he missed the shot by several feet, clanging one off the white backboard square and sparking a Portland run out the other way. That was a good summation of the team's effort from beyond the arc, and the Blazers ran up the margins by shooting the lights out for most of the night.

Not all missed shots are created equal, and sometimes half the battle is getting shots up in the first place. I'm not trying to pick on the rookie exclusively for what happened Thursday, Maxey seems far too reluctant to pull the trigger on open looks from three. That can be especially destructive when he's the guy on Embiid's strong side in the post — the Blazers were a lot more aggressive doubling on Embiid with Maxey in that position on Thursday, and to my eye they have struggled when the rookie is in that position all season.

Shake Milton's ineffectiveness from deep this season is another important storyline that transcends this game. His impact on the team is not strictly tied to his outside shot, but it does play a huge part in determining the sort of role he can play. If he's only impactful as an on-ball player, that limits the lineups the Sixers can play with Milton on the floor.

So for me, there was a mix of "it's just not your night" and "trends that are worth tracking," and we'll see how much it skews in either direction over time. 

• Okay, so let's dwell on the rookie for a second even though I said I didn't want to pick on him. He was downright terrible on Thursday night, and he has found himself on the fringes of Doc Rivers' rotation when the Sixers have a fully-healthy lineup. Whether this downturn for him was coming anyway or is a product of him not adjusting well to the change in his role, it doesn't bode well for him. Rivers is not a guy who will give rookies lots of rope if they aren't positively impacting the team, and Maxey's flashes have been scarce recently.

Personally, I think they would be better off spending development time and minutes on him than, say, Matisse Thybulle, but Thybulle has been a positive contributor lately so it's hard to justify going that direction. Rivers' confidence in Furkam Korkmaz is pretty obvious judging by his starting nod Thursday, so he's not breaking through there either. 

One thing he definitely needs to do? Get on the same page with Embiid. Tonight was not the first time it happened, but the big guy was upset with his positioning when the double came to the low block, chewing out Maxey for not being where Embiid thought he should on the pass. Even if Maxey was in the correct spot, it doesn't even necessarily matter — you do what the franchise player says or risk getting buried.

• The offense may have been ugly, but with Embiid destroying everything in his path, the Sixers were able to survive well enough. They certainly missed Ben Simmons the most on defense, where a Blazers cast of backups and role players had it way too easy throughout the night.

Take your pick of the problems the Sixers had on Thursday night. Carmelo Anthony consistently took Sixers players down to the mid-post area and got his, whether it was a smaller defender or a more like-for-like matchup in Tobias Harris. Portland's backup guards made easy work of Milton and Maxey, though on first glance some of that could be attributed to coverage. The Sixers toggled between ICE and drop coverage at times Thursday, with mixed results in either style of defense.

Was there mental fatigue involved? It seemed like it to me. There were plays where guys cheated off of good shooters in the corner for no apparent reason and then were almost immediately punished for it, the sort of stuff you came into the season expecting for a team that is under a brand new coach and system. But the total abandonment of principles was a disappointing step back with how good they've looked most of the year.

There was also some nice shotmaking from Blazers players on possessions that were just straight-up terrible from Portland's perspective, but that's something this team should be expected to overcome and snuff out when they're up against what is basically the Portland C-Team. 

• The discrepancy on the offensive glass, along with the gap in shooting, largely told the story of the game. Philadelphia was on the second half of a back-to-back and without their second-best player, a good rebounder himself, and they looked every bit like a team that had nothing left in the tank. Or at least, nothing left in the tank that they were willing to use, and the Blazers took full advantage of it.

Some of the blame belongs on Embiid's shoulders, because he got outmuscled and outworked by Enes Kanter at times throughout the game. Offensive rebounding has always been a big part of Kanter's game, and Embiid has some bad habits as a rebounder despite consistently putting up great numbers on that end, meandering into box outs and allowing too many balls to fly over his head to opponents.

He was not the only guy who wasn't interested in competing on the glass. It's one thing when Kanter gets rolling there, but when a 6'6" wing like CJ Elleby comes up with several offensive rebounds by taking advantage of his man falling asleep, that suggests there was a teamwide failure to react to the play. The Sixers missed several opportunities of their own to extend possessions because they committed too early to getting back in transition, and when the ball floated out toward the space they vacated, they never made even a token effort to get back in the play.

Having less to offer than a team who had the night off on Wednesday isn't a huge deal, but it also highlights why you need to put teams away early on the front end of these sets. The Sixers' starters could have been on ice for most of the second half against Charlotte if they hadn't screwed around, and they ended up paying the price against Portland.

• One of the single worst games I have ever seen Tobias Harris play, for the Sixers or otherwise. He was the face of poor effort for a lot of the evening, an especially disappointing development for a guy who has made real strides on the defensive end this season. The commitment to closing out on defenders and making the extra rotation to an open shooter was simply not there.

The only offense he was able to create to offset that poor effort was basically all produced by Embiid, with the big guy either drawing attention on the block or separating Harris from his man with a well-timed screen. They are going to need a lot more from him on both ends against Brooklyn on Saturday, so hopefully the day off tomorrow is enough to get him right.

The Ugly

• Nothing takes the air out of the room during a Sixers game like Embiid landing awkwardly or limping after taking a hard fall. He has been through a heck of a lot over the years, from multiple surgeries on his foot to back issues to a torn meniscus, and there's always the feeling that it could come crashing down at any moment.

So when Embiid landed like this midway through the first quarter, you'd be forgiven if you were holding your breath at home:

In real-time, it was hard to see what happened, and replays were scarce at WFC. But before we could get so much as an update on his progress, Embiid had returned to his seat behind the basket on the baseline, and would eventually go through some stretching exercises with Sixers staffers before hopping back into the mix before the quarter had ended.

I'm not of the opinion they should just throw him in bubble wrap every time he picks up some sort of knock, but maybe a little more precaution is warranted when the health of your franchise player is a question mark.

• Seth Curry left the game on Thursday night and didn't return, and the team's official response, when questioned about it, was that Curry, "does not feel well." They declined to specify further, and with Curry saying recently that he is still dealing with some after-effects of contracting COVID-19, hopefully it's something completely unrelated that isn't going to linger with him long-term. It has been tough sledding since he came back to the lineup, and you can see how quickly their spacing falls apart when he's not making shots.

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