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March 25, 2023

Instant observations: Sixers waste huge Embiid effort in loss to Warriors

Despite 46 points from Joel Embiid, the Sixers came up short against the Golden State Warriors.

The Sixers got 46 points from Joel Embiid in a shorthanded outing on the road, but it was not enough to overcome a poor shooting night in a 120-112 loss to the Warriors.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• Even when the Warriors were at their high-flying best, Joel Embiid's Sixers put in plenty of good performances against the Golden State dynasty. While some of that can be credited to Ben Simmons — he always seemed to go up a level in that matchup — we have reached a point in the timeline where the Warriors just have nothing to throw at Embiid that can plausibly stop him.

Kevon Looney is their best option, and one of the most underrated parts of this long Warriors run, but Golden State frequently sent a second man along with Looney whenever Embiid caught the ball on the block. And at least he had a chance to stand Embiid up and force him to work. The other options are considerably worse, even though Draymond Green remains one of the smartest, most adaptable defenders in the league.

In a small-ball configuration early in the game, the Warriors asked Jonathan Kuminga to defend Embiid straight up, and boy, did he eat the young Warriors wing/forward alive. He shot over him, pump faked to go by him, hit him with drop steps, and put on an absolute clinic inside the arc. He shot seven free throws in the first quarter alone, with Golden State just flailing at him as he dipped and dove toward the rim.

Steve Kerr had seen enough at halftime, and he essentially asked Looney to go toe-to-toe with Embiid for as long as Philadelphia's MVP was on the floor in the second half. Give Looney credit for battling, with Embiid coming up empty on jumpers in the third with Looney holding him off from the paint. But like so many games this season, this was a war of attrition, and the bigger, better man was equipped to win it. 

This did not feel like a particularly dominant game for Embiid through 2.5 quarters or so, which underlines just how special of a year he is having. He played slow, milking the shot clock before hitting turnaround jumpers over Looney. He played fast, hitting the gas early in a possession to force the Warriors to make contact with him. And that pace of play has been a major theme we've touched on recently, with Embiid reading doubles and scoring openings at roughly the same speed. If somebody flashed into his space hoping to poke the ball away, the ball was already out of there.

But the best testament to his greatness on this evening was Embiid checking back into this game in the fourth quarter, everything hanging in the balance, and simply running the Warriors over. He entered with the lead having been cut to two and Jordan Poole on a bit of a roll, and scored on the first three possessions after checking in — he was fouled on the first, hit a face-up jumper over Draymond Green on the second, and then used a pump fake to beat a closeout on the third, euro-stepping his way into the paint for an and-one layup.

He gave the Sixers everything he had in this one, and it was unfortunately not enough. 

• Tobias Harris vs. Klay Thompson is one of the weirder matchups we could have seen in this game, one that I might have guessed would favor Thompson (who has been very good this year) that tilted in the complete opposite direction. Asking Harris to slither around screens and chase Thompson as an off-ball threat doesn't feel like a realistic ask. But it was a taller task for Thompson to try to defend Harris on the other end, where Philadelphia's veteran forward just kept taking him to the weight room and bullying him inside the arc.

Opportunities to play a starring role are few and far between for Harris these days, but a game like this reminds you how Harris put himself into a position to earn that enormous contract. Against like-for-like players, he tends to struggle, but give him a speed or strength advantage and he's a great bet to score. Thompson simply couldn't hold his ground against Harris for much of this game, unable to stop him in the mid-post area while struggling to contain him if Harris tried to drive or cut past him. This was a small sample of what the Warriors got:

Frankly, that was among the tougher shots Harris had to make in the first half. When James Harden is out of the lineup, the Sixers look to the Embiid/Harris connection much more than they would otherwise, using duck-ins and hi-lo plays to play above their opponents, who are often too small to deal with either end of the connection. It's somewhat reminiscent of the early days of the Embiid/Simmons partnership before the latter lost all willingness to score. 

The Sixers probably needed to lean on him a bit more in the fourth quarter, as they ended up asking Embiid to bail them out a few too many times in the final minutes of the game.

• All in all, this is a defensive performance I think you walk away satisfied from if you're the Sixers. They were the beneficiaries of some good shooting luck, with Curry and Thompson missing some shots they'd be expected to make on a normal evening, but Philadelphia's process was largely pretty good on that end. They executed switches in matchups and spots where they normally wouldn't switch, showing the proper level of respect for Curry and Thompson's ability to crush you with movement.

(Well, almost the proper level of respect. There were some moments when Embiid opted out and gave teammates a longer road to travel, and the Sixers had some early struggles with back cuts. Covering the Splash Bros. is still a big ask.)

• It is a credit to Furkan Korkmaz that he has been completely irrelevant for this team for months and then played perfectly competent basketball in a small role. I get that these guys make a lot of money and blah blah blah but it's tougher than it seems. 

After Danuel House Jr. effectively managed the same, I'm inclined to give a little credit to the staff and the team's current culture for that phenomenon. 

The Bad

• All options were bad options for Doc Rivers when Joel Embiid hit the bench in this game, so I am not going to sit here and write a screed about everything bad being his fault. I did think it was a curious decision to play ultra-small on Friday night of all nights — you can justify that style when Harden is on the floor and you're able to score at will by spreading it out around him. When your offense is more pedestrian, though, I would argue it's basically never worth it to basically auto-concede baskets every possession on the other end.

This is not a team that possessed enough defensive options on the bench to completely forgo rim protection. Paul Reed was nothing special during his brief time on the floor, but he at least provides the illusion of turning something away at the basket. Left without a real center, the Sixers constantly had to help off of the corners, providing the Warriors with clear passing lanes and easy opportunities to cycle the ball around the horn until they found the soft spot they needed.

But let's be clear, this problem was all about not having enough guys/good options in the minutes without Embiid. Reed got the nod in the early fourth-quarter minutes, and the Sixers were roughly as helpless as they were in the small-ball look. You could argue there was some good shotmaking that helped carry the day, with Jordan Poole hitting a crazy shot over an outstretched Reed's arm. In any case, they had no answers when the big guy hit the bench. Sound familiar? 

• The Sixers have not struggled with this problem in most Harden-less games, but there are definitely stretches of time without him where you're reminded of his impact on three-point shooting. Harden playing creator in the middle of the floor — and running pick-and-rolls in the middle of the floor — is a certain path to open shots on the perimeter. Embiid getting doubled still ended up creating a fair few of those, but without a ballhandler who could reliably help him out there, the Sixers ended up short on three-point attempts for much of this game.

It's a boring way to analyze basketball, but when you're at a deficit of threes attempted, you're going to run into a math problem while trying to win a basketball game. Golden State attempted 50 threes to Philadelphia's 29, and while you can explain some of that through Embiid's style, it's not all of it.

The Sixers had too many possessions that ended with step-in jumpers and the sort of midrange shots all NBA teams would prefer to give up, with Harris, De'Anthony Melton, and Tyrese Maxey settling for a few too many long twos between them.

At least those guys were making efforts to shoot the ball, though. This was a rough night for P.J. Tucker from the field, one that started with the best intentions and ended with a gunshy approach from deep, with Tucker psyching himself out and record-scratching the offense. On a play midway through the third quarter, Tucker had a decent look at a three in the corner against a zone setup for the Warriors, only to ignore it, try to reset the offense late in the clock, and commit a moving screen to end the threat entirely.

Not being able to generate threes is something that can be blamed on structural problems. I can live with that even if it's bothersome. Guys refusing to shoot open jumpers is a different story. Let it fly, or get off of the floor. Embiid seemed to be of that same mindset, repeatedly kicking him the ball in the corner in the fourth quarter until Tucker took (and predictably bricked) a series of open threes. Tucker compounded that with a rough defensive outing, often outmuscled and outrun by Draymond Green.

Unfortunately for the Sixers, the other option for that position was not much better. Georges Niang went just 1/4 from beyond the arc, offering very little on that end while being as bad (perhaps worse) than Tucker looked on the defensive end.

 This was not a game that looked like it would go in Tyrese Maxey's favor if we were judging strictly on how it started. He was one of the primary culprits in their struggles without Embiid in the first half, failing to get anything going on offense. And, well, it ended up being a mixed bag in the end.

Often the second-side recipient on plays started by a Harden/Embiid pick-and-roll, Maxey's value as a weakside attacker is simply undeniable at this point. Leave him open to double, as the Warriors did a few times on Friday night, and you are dead. And fortunately for the Sixers, that's not all he had to offer. Maxey dug the Sixers out of some difficult late-clock situations, side-stepping and jump-stopping his way to success.

Maxey also did a better job of running the offense in the second half, though I think shooting struggles from the guys around him limited the impact. Good on him either way.

All of that said...good lord, he had nothing to offer defending Jordan Poole in the second half. Maxey has made some strides defensively in recent months, playing full-court pressure to stop teams from getting into their offense early in the clock. But once that part of the possession is over, he has nowhere to hide, and other teams know it.

The Ugly

• Georges Niang saving a Warriors airball from going out of bounds for no real reason was one of the dumber plays I've seen him make all season. Golden State got an extra possession they scored on in the process. This was a tight game all night, so every little mistake mattered.

Like, dude, THAT is the time you decide you want to get a defensive rebound? Of all times? Rivers had to call a timeout midway through the fourth because Niang's idea of defensive rebounding is standing in place with his arms in the air, hoping that divine intervention will bring the ball to him.

(I'm being a little too harsh here, and am pro-Niang for his shooting, but yeesh.)

• Steph Curry got continuation on a play where he lost the ball while picking up his dribble, caught it again, jumped, and then (I think) landed before putting up the shot attempt that earned him continuation. Pretty impressive.

• It almost feels like Embiid is dribbling the ball up the floor and playmaking for others to make a point. He might need to chill out.

• Am I crazy or did the Warriors come up with a crazy amount of offensive rebounds on their airballed jumpers?

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