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October 26, 2021

Instant observations: Abysmal second quarter dooms Sixers in loss to Knicks

The Sixers got hit with an absolute haymaker in the second quarter on Tuesday night, and the Knicks were able to ride 12 minutes of pain to a 112-99 victory over Philadelphia. 

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• Honestly, this is going to be Process-era language that will trigger PTSD in some of you, but I think the scoreline exaggerates how bad this game was and how dire the situation may or may not be for the Sixers. The Knicks shot the hell out of the ball, with or without the Sixers playing defense, and that made the middle chunk of the game look a lot worse than it probably would have been in "normal" circumstances.

I think the fight the Sixers showed in the third and fourth quarters is more significant than anything that happened during an admittedly awful second quarter. The Sixers have not been a big rally team in years past, and if anything, they've been the team consistently building leads and giving them up for a variety of reasons. Even as the Knicks kept bombing away from deep early in the third quarter, the Sixers remained steady and made enough threes to keep it in relatively respectable territory, and when New York cooled off, it was time for Philadelphia to go on a run.

If we're going to try to spotlight any individual performances, I suppose you have to start with Tobias Harris, who was their best offensive player by a fair distance. That isn't exactly saying a whole lot, given the state of things, but his willingness to playmake was a big reason the Sixers finally started to get going from deep in the second half, using any pressure he drew in the middle of the floor to hit somebody else on the perimeter.

(On the other hand, it's still wild to me how a guy with Harris' touch and size seems so out of his depth attacking the basket sometimes. He has the tools of a guy who should be a pretty damn good player going toward the hoop, but ultimately gets stuck in no man's land too often.)

Harris' bigger contribution ended up getting buried in the flow of the game — he did an excellent job of defending Julius Randle when matched up with the Knicks' star forward on Tuesday, though the Knicks made so many threes that his early efforts were lost in the wash.

• Doc Rivers' first significant change to the rotation was one this writer endorses — Tyrese Maxey was subbed out of the game early so that Rivers could get him back in the game as the captain of the second unit once Joel Embiid sat down. It's not quite the transition to sixth man we've talked about, but it's an effort to put Maxey in the best possible position to succeed, and an extra bit of juice on a second unit that has already looked pretty good this season.

Just try to memory hole the fact that former Kentucky teammate Immanuel Quickley absolutely dropped him midway through the second quarter, and that the second quarter was a tire fire for everybody on the roster, Maxey included. The process was better than the results on this one.

• Rivers putting Niang on the floor more to space it out was an interesting move in the second half, one he mentioned in the preseason but hadn't rolled out in meaningful minutes. I'm a little skeptical Tobias Harris can defend the average small forward, but they did alright out of that look on Tuesday, so maybe we see more of it moving forward. 

The Bad

• With due respect to the final five minutes of the fourth quarter against Brooklyn, the second quarter in New York on Tuesday night is the worst stretch of basketball we have seen this group play so far. What the hell happened, and how did a competitive game turn into a laugher so quickly?

Setting aside New York shooting out of their minds, which can happen to anybody in any game, there's not a Sixers player you could point to (sans maybe Tobias Harris) who was at all positive in the second. Tyrese Maxey got absolutely worked by Immanuel Quickley and couldn't even get shots off at the rim. Andre Drummond rebounded the ball and then immediately gave it back to the Knicks. Furkan Korkmaz was getting pulled in three different directions on defense. As Madison Square Garden got louder and louder, the Sixers absolutely wilted, even as the second unit went back to the bench and made way for the starters.

Frankly, the biggest point of concern for Philadelphia right now is that Joel Embiid is simply not shooting or moving well right now. On the first point — Embiid flirted with one of the best midrange seasons of all-time last year, absolutely killing opposing bigs with his face-up game, and while regression from that level should have been expected, he has been a mess there to start the season. No team is going to thrive if their highest-usage player can't hit a jumper, and while Embiid was shooting well from deep coming into this game, his touch otherwise has been brutal, a shocking turn from a guy who has always made his money inside the arc.

The physical aspect is the more important one, though, if we assume Embiid is eventually going to start making shots again. Stan Van Gundy suggested on the broadcast that Embiid is out of shape, but I reject that premise, because Embiid was getting up and down the floor and is more involved in their transition attack than ever. But he's not moving much on offense, and he's not generating the force we're accustomed to seeing from him in the post, even shying away from trying to plant and put his shoulder into guys at times. That is concerning, and the side effects are radiating through the offense. There was even a possession in the fourth quarter where Embiid had Mitchell Robinson basically under the rim and ended up stepping out of the painted area instead of just going up and through his man. 

The Sixers aren't a team with a huge margin for error even with Ben Simmons, but without him, they are more reliant than ever on Embiid being the all-encompassing star he has shown himself to be at times. He has not been that guy so far. The real concern is whether he can be that guy if the knee issue is more serious than he or the team are letting on. Time will tell.

(Honestly, the real shame is that the first quarter was one of the best defensive efforts they've had as a team this season, and they let it go to waste. Furkan Korkmaz was a human deflection machine in the first 12 minutes.)

• Everything about this team absolutely screams they simply do not have high-level talent on the perimeter. The offseason hope that Tyrese Maxey was going to take this opportunity and become a three-level-scorer and point guard of the future looks more unrealistic by the day. Tobias Harris is a good player on an enormous contract who is miscast as a guy who needs to be able to carry your offense for long stretches of games. And the guy on the max extension who is absent from all these games, as we've seen in the playoffs, doesn't have the skill set to simply wave his hands and make all of their problems go away.

The Sixers aren't really being helped by their concepts and scheme, which are relatively basic and limited in scope. You can count on one hand the plays you could expect them to run on any given possession — Embiid gets the ball in the mid-post, a bench guard runs a pick-and-roll with Andre Drummond, or a DHO that starts either with the primary initiator or after an off-ball player has made an "Iverson cut." There's very little variation from there. Keeping things simple has (I suppose) helped the Sixers master spacing around Embiid, and simply making more open shots would have made this look better, but there has to be an attempt to get more out of this group.

(Some of this, a good chunk even, is also on Embiid. He has to be a more willing pick-and-roll partner even if this collection of talent doesn't have a high-level ballhandler to initiate it. There were a couple of sequences on Tuesday where Tobias Harris asked for Embiid to come over and set a pick and Embiid, wanting the ball near the elbow, just sort of waved back and forth at Harris until they had effectively wasted most of the time they had left on the shot clock. It's part of his job as the starting center. Help your guards out.)

• Maxey is just 20 years old, so he deserves plenty of time to grow and become whatever he might be down the road, but he has too far to go to be a starter-level player for a team that actually wants to win right now. His effective spurts this season have masked how out of sorts he has looked overall, too gun-shy from deep to help their spacing and too little to consistently score around the basket when he drives immediately after catching a pass.

It's not Maxey's fault that he's on a team without an out-and-out point guard running the show, and he will ultimately probably be better having had this experience. But as soon as Shake Milton is ready (or Ben Simmons, for that matter) it looks more certain every day that he will ultimately get bumped to the bench.

• I feel like I'm sort of beating a dead horse with Matisse Thybulle at this point, but his inability to do absolutely anything on offense is such a killer. There were several times where he tried to put the ball on the floor and make a play in the first half on Tuesday, and every single one of them resulted in absolute chaos, not in a good way. Turnovers, wild passes, broken possessions, they went wrong in every which way.

And without Simmons to take top assignments, you can see the cracks in Thybulle's defensive profile starting to show. He made some absolutely sensational plays away from the ball, flying in at the last minute for help blocks like we all know he can. But he was erratic as the play-in, play-out defender of a top perimeter threat.

Maybe he's just having a tough start to the year, having missed time due to an injury in the preseason. We've seen him shut down elite players in the past. But he is swiping at air and off-script on defense far more often than he has ever been, with players getting by him to their spots pretty frequently. 

The Ugly

• I think you can very easily make the case that there's nothing to really worry about coming out of this game, save for the Embiid health stuff. No one wants to hear it, but that's basically my take.

• It only took three games for Isaiah Joe to seemingly play himself right out of the rotation, and while I'd love to sit here and tell you he deserved more of an opportunity to stick, he did nothing to impact any of Philly's first three games. Don't count him out of the rotation yet — he made an appearance when the game was mostly out of reach in the second half — but it didn't take long for Rivers to boot a young guy from the action.

• Andre Drummond getting a tech during a timeout of a big Sixers run is the sort of thing that makes you question where his head is at. You scratch and claw to get back in the game, and then give a point back for no reason. Silly stuff.

• Speaking of silly stuff, playing Embiid while down 20 points with four minutes to play certainly qualifies. Wanting your team to fight is one thing, subjecting a guy who isn't 100 percent physically to unnecessary, uneventful minutes is another. 

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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