December 09, 2021
The Sixers and Jazz were both on the second half of back-to-back games on Thursday, but only one had the look of a fatigued team, with Utah kicking major butt in a 118-96 victory over Philadelphia.
Here's what I saw.
• Joel Embiid has not exactly been the master of the back-to-back in his career, partially because he was never expected to play in them early in his Sixers tenure. As the training wheels have come off in the years since, Philadelphia has leaned on him a heck of a lot more, but it's not often you see the franchise player looking his best after playing the night before (and in fairness, most people don't).
True to form, Embiid faded some in this one after an electric start to the game. But the start was one of the few things to write home about in this one, and a matchup with Rudy Gobert and Hassaan Whiteside is as close as you're going to get to a personal bat-signal for the big guy.
Embiid's hot start against Utah was all about the jumper, and it looks like Embiid might finally be finding the range after a slow start to the year. Embiid hit a couple of tough midrange jumpers over Gobert, stepped out for a three, and even let a heat check go, unfortunately clanging that one even though he was feeling good.
Then it was time for Whiteside to guard him, and, well, that led to one of the transition highlights of his career:
Joel Hans Embiid working all 94 ft. 👀 pic.twitter.com/cwNJsWS2hM— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) December 10, 2021
The fun was basically over after that, so I hope you all were able to enjoy it while it lasted. Credit to Rudy Gobert for making Embiid work for his as the game wore on, basically bringing him to a standstill over time.
• Trying to bait Donovan Mitchell into taking a million shots is a defensive strategy I am genuinely on board with, even when he's in the midst of a hot stretch as he has been lately. If Utah is reliant on Mitchell and Mitchell alone making his jumpers, you might be fortunate enough to see him go cold at some point, and then his perimeter sidekicks have to find their form late in the game, which isn't always easy to do.
But if that was the game plan for the Sixers on Thursday night, there needed to be more to it than simply dropping the big and giving him walk-up three after walk-up three, which is how they chose to approach it for a lot of the game. Letting a player like Mitchell shoot pull-up threes with no real pressure on him is asking for trouble, and as expected, Mitchell canned a ton of open threes against Philadelphia, carrying the Utah offense even when they had nothing else going.
I would imagine some of the problem was fatigue on the second half of a back-to-back, because even if drop coverage was the plan, Embiid didn't even try to pretend he was going to come up to the level on some possessions. There was a first-half possession where Embiid was in the paint nowhere near the play when Mitchell ran one high pick-and-roll, and there were far too many plays where individual Sixers mailed it in and doomed their teammates.
It's not like there was a rest advantage to point to for the Jazz, who played the night before the same as the Sixers did. They're a better team than Philly right now, but they also had a more professional (and comprehensible) approach on several fronts.
• Andre Drummond has been in a pretty good run of form recently, but he absolutely got his ass kicked in this one. Rather than anchoring Rudy Gobert to Joel Embiid's minutes, the Jazz opted to use a Mike Conley/Gobert led lineup with bench guys to attack Philly's all-bench group, and it did not go well for Philadelphia.
Philadelphia's backup center just could not figure out what to do or where to be against Utah, and in fairness, the Jazz are very good at moving pieces where they want them to be to set up their offense, using a lot of high pick-and-roll to do one of two things — generate those open Mitchell threes we talked about, or create opportunities for their guards to get to the basket. But Drummond also didn't do well when the reads and asks were basic stuff, and the legs weren't there on the second half of a back-to-back. Several times there were lobs that went up to either Gobert or Whiteside and he never even left the floor. He lost the battle of the backup bigs handily.
Drummond's offense was an even bigger struggle, and you had to come into the night expecting that with Gobert's ability to lock down the paint. But Drummond's inability to score was compounded by his adventurous passing decisions, turning the ball over to put the cherry on top of a shit sundae.
It was this kind of night: Drummond tumbled out of bounds trying to save a play with hustle in the third quarter, and it went right to Whiteside near Philly's basket, forcing the Sixers to take a foul. Go get 'em on Saturday, big guy, and shake this one off.
• It has taken us a while to get to the offense, but you can't tell the story of this game without noting that Philly shot like absolute garbage from beyond the three-point line. They were 6/26 from deep heading into the fourth quarter of this game, and eventually finished 6/33, managing to make exactly zero threes in the fourth quarter of a game they trailed in.
Part of the problem, though, is where and who the shots were distributed to. Matisse Thybulle was tied for the team lead in three-point attempts with five through three quarters, which is an issue for a team whose success is heavily dependent on how well they shoot the three. The Jazz were happy to ignore Thybulle early and often Thursday night, and though he made one of his first-half attempts, most of the rest didn't even come close to going in.
(To be a little positive on Thybulle, he finally had some good moments against Utah after what seemed like an unending stretch of bad games. There were a couple of highlight plays at the rim in the first half, and for a moment, it felt like the friendly confines of the Wells Fargo Center would be enough to will him back to good form. Turned out not to be the case.)
Back to the matter at hand. There's just no way someone like Tobias Harris, who is making a ton of money ostensibly for his scoring ability, should go through long stretches of the game without an attempt from deep. He made a catch-and-shoot look on a first-half attempt with a nice find from Seth Curry, and it took him until the fourth quarter to even attempt another three. It would be one thing if he was constantly facing hard closeouts that incentivize him to dip in and stroke two (word to Marc Zumoff), but that's not how it usually goes for Harris.
Elsewhere in the role player division, Danny Green was just a complete mess on offense, overdribbling on numerous occasions while failing to get anything to fall from outside. When Green is going bad, he can look as bad or worse than anybody on the team, but they don't really have the luxury of benching him because the rest of their wing types are a complete mystery box night to night, and a collection of one-way players even on their better nights.
• Tobias Harris is not moving well in almost any way right now, and given some of the health issues he has dealt with (body parts and respiratory illnesses alike), you have to wonder whether he's going to be at 100 percent anytime soon. He's finding himself unable to use his pace to get past bigger players and not strong enough to bully past smaller guys, and that leaves Harris at the mercy of his touch from midrange, contested midrange looks at that.
To put it lightly, they don't have the talent or the depth to overcome Harris being a non-entity.
• There is just absolutely no reason to play Furkan Korkmaz over Isaiah Joe if the former is going to routinely miss wide-open threes. The highs for Korkmaz have been tremendous this year and throughout his career, but he is in the midst of an absolutely brutal slump from beyond the arc. November was bad enough for Korkmaz, and December has not been kinder to him.
I get that Doc Rivers likes the theoretical versatility Korkmaz can bring to the table, but if he isn't hitting shots, there's not much he can contribute on a regular basis to this team. At some point, you have to give another guy a chance to make an impression. If Joe had as long of a leash as Korkmaz clearly has, expecting him to play at least as well as Korkmaz is not even really an ask, and he could benefit from the developmental time in a way that will help Joe and the team down the road. No brainer for me, and Joe rightfully got a shot to prove himself in the second half against the Jazz.
• Oh yeah, I suppose we should mention somewhere that the Jazz absolutely obliterated the Sixers on the glass. It has been a problem for Philadelphia all season, and it's probably not going away. The Sixers start a small backcourt and have a defensively-challenged rotation who pull Embiid away from the glass to try to save them on a lot of plays. With Embiid dealing with contests and help defense, box-outs and effort elsewhere matter more, and the Sixers have been brutal most of this year at ending possessions after getting a stop.
• There's no telling how hurt Joel Embiid is or isn't at any given time, since he's constantly grimacing and grabbing at different body parts depending on the possession (and let's not get started on his falls to the floor). But you could tell his ribs were bothering him in the second half against Utah, and that led to a trip back to the locker room late in the third quarter, an ominous sign for this team.
Don't go slamming the panic button just yet, since Embiid would eventually return to the game but it goes without saying that this is a completely different team without the big guy. They already had to play the Warriors once without him, and it wasn't exactly a barnburner on Thanksgiving Eve.
• On the one hand, I admire Tyrese Maxey's perseverance and willingness to get back into the game quickly after taking an ugly fall on a made layup. If he was experiencing any side effects after his head snapped back and hit the floor — and I'll spare you from watching the video as well as his dazed look after the fall — he didn't show it on the court, with the kid getting after it and scoring shortly after checking back in.
Still, you're going to be hard-pressed to tell me Maxey cleared any sort of concussion protocol after missing only a few minutes of action to go back to the locker room. Potential head injuries need to be taken more seriously than just patting someone on the back and giving them an "Atta boy!" on their way back in, and that's true even if basketball isn't a violent collision sport like football.
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