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November 17, 2021

Instant observations: Sixers smoked by Jazz as shorthanded struggles continue

The Sixers got blown out of the water by the Utah Jazz on Tuesday night, losing 120-85 in a game that was never all that close. That marks five straight losses for the Sixers, whose good start has faded quickly under the watch of a bench-heavy rotation. 

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• Starring in the sequel to Silver Linings Playbook, Tyrese Maxey is the only guy I think you could be unequivocally positive about over the last week and a half. Yeah, he has had defensive issues of his own as the team gets bulldozed by teams on that end of the floor, but that takes a backseat to the show he is putting on offensively, even with the Sixers showing reluctance to let him run the show.

Early in these games, the Sixers have often asked him to play more of a traditional point guard role, getting the ball to the featured player in a given set and getting out of the way. That feels like a shame, but it has not stopped Maxey from finding his groove or picking his spots effectively, and he has slowly taken control of the offense the deeper they get into games.

One thing I have liked seeing — Maxey initiating, meeting resistance from an opposing defense, finding an open teammate, and then finding a way to stay involved with the play anyway, either as a pure spacer or as a moving target for a teammate. With his three-point confidence and success rate higher than they've ever been, Maxey is turning that placement and engagement into points on the board, and while it feels like a deck chair on the Titanic at the moment, it bodes well for the future. 

• Bullish as I have been on Paul Reed lately, I didn't hate Doc Rivers attempting to go small against Utah to stretch them out when Andre Drummond hit the bench. The Jazz have had major issues in the playoffs when teams have played five-out lineups and made it harder for Rudy Gobert to solve all their problems at the rim, so it was worth a shot to try the same approach in a regular-season setting. That goes double for Hassan Whiteside, Gobert's backup who is much worse at trying to recover out of those tough positions.

Honestly, that look was probably Philadelphia's best of the night, at least before this game got out of reach and the fight to defend as a small group left this unit. The Jazz had trouble closing out on a group of five shooters, and the Sixers actually managed to get some stops by blitzing or hedging against a few pick-and-rolls, putting backup ballhandlers under pressure, and forcing some turnovers in the process.

• Charles Bassey and Paul Reed weren't that bad, but they also only really played in meaningless minutes, save for Bassey's brief burn early in the second quarter. That's about all I can muster in the good category. 

MORE: Rich Paul is creating the Ben Simmons noise he claims is hurting his client

The Bad

• The Sixers do not have, at a minimum, their three best and most important defensive players right now. Even in Danny Green's diminished state, I would make an argument that they're missing the top four as he deals with hamstring tightness. It would be hard for any team to drop that many important defenders from the lineup and still hold up on defense, but this group has been extraordinarily bad on defense the last two games, and they need reinforcements fast.

It's definitely not this simple, but I don't think there's one guy in the current rotation who you could reliably expect to stop dribble penetration. A lot of issues flow out of that basic, fundamental problem, leaving guys like Andre Drummond in constant two-on-ones with breakdowns to follow from there. Away from the ball, attentiveness and execution has been just as bad or worse, and Utah's shooters just bombed away all night. 

A lot of focus has come down on Philly's transition defense, partly because it has been horrible and partly because it is an extension of any offensive struggles they're having, so the two topics dovetail nicely. To take it a step further, opponents are finding ways to score on them early in the clock even after the Sixers score, punishing them with early offense by getting up the floor with pace and attacking the Sixers at the basket. With Utah already rolling early in Tuesday's game, they were able to cut momentum the Sixers started to build after made buckets by tearing up the floor the other way, getting cheap ones by way of guards like Donovan Mitchell. 

That just can't happen. I get that this group is shorthanded and outgunned right now, but defending after made baskets is basically your reward for playing good offense. Ceding the advantage with poor focus is not something this group of Sixers can afford.

Rivers may have had them holding on and battling last week, but they are drowning right now. Dan Burke's touch only goes so far without top-end defenders to hold things together. The reality of fatigue is setting in, with a lot of shrugs and stares at teammates going around the last couple of games. They are going to have to dig deep to pull out of this tailspin, especially if Embiid remains out for any more time.

• If it feels like I have been picking on Andre Drummond a lot lately, it's because I have been and he deserves it. He has been flat-out terrible for most of the stretch without Joel Embiid no matter what the numbers have said night-to-night. His awareness has been bad at both ends, his defensive decision-making has been awful, and Drummond's effort level has dropped in pretty noticeable fashion. Maybe he's just tired, but what he's offering is not good enough.

To be fair to Drummond, Gobert is a real problem to deal with in pick-and-rolls on offense, and the turnstile defenders Philadelphia has on the floor are not making matters any better. Expecting Drummond to simply be Joel Embiid is not reasonable whatsoever. But when you watch him slowly float into the picture on a transition possession, stand flat-footed as a cutter goes by him, or reach for a pass that gets through for a wide-open dunk from Gobert, you can't blame the rest of the guys for his errors.

No play summed up his night like one early in the third quarter, where Drummond was slow to recover after one of his better defensive possessions, made it up the floor to join the team in the halfcourt and immediately traveled with the ball as he tried to initiate offense for the perimeter. Some nights, you just don't have it, and this game qualifies for Drummond.

Doc Rivers didn't appear to be a big fan of Drummond's approach to the game either. On top of Charles Bassey getting first-half minutes on Tuesday night, Rivers opted to just sit Drummond on the bench for the final 10 minutes of the second quarter, evidently fed up with his approach to the game. Can't say I blame him, but given how shorthanded the Sixers are right now, it was pretty shocking to see Rivers pull the plug anyway. Perhaps Rivers is going to be a little more hostile with his approach to sitting guys if they underperform this year, at least when they're healthy enough to have options.

• You could probably give Tobias Harris a pass for not leaving much impact on this game given how recently he returned to the lineup, but that argument self-destructs when you consider the first half he had in Indiana over the weekend. Where does that leave us and Harris? Back in familiar territory, where we can acknowledge he looks like a valuable piece on a full-strength version of the Sixers but struggles to do the heavy lifting when they truly need him to be "the guy," which is part of why he got paid a ton of money prior to the 2019-20 season.

The best way to describe Harris' night in Utah is anonymous. He didn't shoot poorly, he had a tough job trying to guard Gobert in small-ball looks, he didn't play selfishly, and he wasn't the guy driving the team off of a cliff by himself. But he's ill-equipped to steer them away from said cliff when he lacks a more talented co-star to play off of. A night filled with Harris shooting over smaller Utah guards in the mid-post might have ended with better box score numbers for him, but it probably wouldn't have brought them that much closer to winning.

So it goes. No need to beat this dead horse for the 300th time.

• There are completely normal reasons behind Seth Curry falling back to Earth as a shooter, namely that Embiid makes his life a lot easier and that regression was inevitable following an insane start to the season. Being able to explain it doesn't make it any easier for Philly to absorb in the moment, and it won't bring any solace to Curry, who missed some clean looks against the Jazz that he typically makes with his eyes closed.

I'm not sure there's much more to analyze here. Curry is getting to the same spots in the midrange, is getting decent looks from three at least some of the time, and isn't being totally squeezed out of the offense as a result of Maxey ascending. Play and shoot better, would be my expert-level advice.

• Furkan Korkmaz tried to pull out of a slump by rocking a headband in Utah on Tuesday, and the results were the same as they've been lately — pretty gross. While I admire his bravery in the face of Jazz center Rudy Gobert, there were a bunch of possessions where Korkmaz's valor got the better of him, with Gobert either turning him away or forcing him to take an insane shot. There was an airballed three from the corner, a wild layup attempt in the first half, and not much good to speak of on the evening.

All role players are streaky, or else they wouldn't be role players in the first place, but it does feel like Korkmaz is a special level of hot and cold. The only problem is they have nobody to replace his minutes right now unless you think handing them to a 19-year-old rookie is the move. 

• There is too much Shake Milton happening right now. He was one of their most effective offensive players, and that feels like an indictment of the group rather than praise of anything Milton did. 

The Ugly

• If you weren't prepared for a blowout in this one, your expectations were inflated based on some admittedly competitive games with a shorthanded group last week. The Jazz are a team who can bury full-strength opponents with ease when they're on their game, and they are equipped with the personnel to absolutely dismantle this Sixers group specifically, picking on all the defensive targets at their leisure.

Even though they've sort of made it work using rubber bands, paper clips, and Elmer's glue, the Sixers simply do not have enough good players right now. Embiid is not there to clean it up on defense and carry them on offense, Simmons can't take away a perimeter player or switch credibly across the lineup, so they're let with a team of guys who are best-suited to run with the stars, not make up for their absence.

(On some level, that's an indictment of Tobias Harris specifically, who has produced since returning to the lineup but doesn't possess the sort of team-uniting game to be the centerpiece in Embiid's absence.)

This prompted Charles Barkley to assess the Simmons situation like so at halftime: "Yo man, the marriage is over, let it go." While I disagree that trading Simmons for a few role players is the way out of this mess, there will be more calls from the outside to simply move on and get reinforcements if the Sixers' tailspin continues. 

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