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March 31, 2021

Instant observations: Poor effort from starters dooms Sixers vs. Nuggets

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Doc-Rivers-Sixers_033021_usat Isaiah J. Downing/USA TODAY Sports

Philadelphia 76ers head coach Doc Rivers.

The Sixers were outclassed and outworked by the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday night, falling 104-95 in a game where the final scoreline feels generous to Philadelphia. A no-show effort from Ben Simmons with awful turnovers and defense from various starters was enough to ultimately doom the road team.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• I don't think anybody was outright "good" in this game — you guys saw the same game and the same stats I did — but at least the bench guys showed up ready to compete. Matisse Thybulle got after it defensively and knocked down a couple of threes, Mike Scott was game to compete (if not execute) after moving back to the second unit, and Paul Reed dug out a couple of plays with his length on defense, admittedly making up for some overaggressive play that veteran Nuggets players took advantage of.

Hell, on top of that, I thought Furkan Korkmaz played some of the best off-ball defense of his career on Tuesday night, breaking up several Nuggets possessions with his length and springing the Sixers for fast-break opportunities the other way. He continued to build on that effort with some offensive exploits in the fourth quarter, bringing the Sixers back within respectable distance with a bit of a run to open the final frame. If the entire team had just laid down once they got down big, I would have somewhat understood, and I think it reflects well on the second unit that they continued to scrap when the chips were down.

On the whole, I didn't think this was a teamwide mail-in game. Did they look a bit sluggish nearing the end of an extended road trip? Sure, but if you look at it from a man-to-man perspective, there were enough guys competing that this could have been a real game if the most important guys had shown up.

The Bad

• Tobias Harris has shown flashes as a playmaker lately, inspiring hope that he might be able to take his game to the next level with or without Joel Embiid in the mix. Unfortunately, the Nuggets appeared a bit more skeptical of that development, and they sought to challenge Harris to beat them that way.

Mission successful, it seems. In the opening quarter, the Nuggets showed fairly aggressively against Harris in pick-and-rolls, surrendering a couple of easy buckets to Dwight Howard at the rim but disrupting Philadelphia's offense far more often to make the trade-off palatable. Harris often found himself without a path or a plan, picking up his dribble in trouble spots and/or firing wild passes that Denver closed on quickly.

The Nuggets get credit for their gameplan, certainly, but the Sixers reacted poorly to it on multiple levels. Denver got out and ran on these turnovers and absolutely brutalized a Sixers team sputtering at the end of a long road trip, opening up a big lead that they were able to maintain for basically the entire game.

(For the record, Harris was one of the only decent guys they had on the offensive end of the floor, showing off the scoring touch that has earned him rave reviews most of this year. Tuesday night, that just felt like worrying about deck chairs on the Titanic.)

• Man oh man, was that a stinkbomb for Ben Simmons. Where do you even start? His defense for the night belongs in another category, so I suppose we can focus on the offensive end of the floor.

Expectations are not sky high when he shares the floor with Dwight Howard — we have been over how poor the fit is there many times over — but the aforementioned strategy vs. pick-and-roll ensured the paint wasn't as crowded as it often is for Simmons. He managed to have a stinker anyway, struggling to find creases and throwing up junk at the rim when he did manage to get within striking distance of the rim.

It's not like it was much better with Mike Scott on the floor as the nominal "big," and Doc Rivers certainly threw a bunch of stuff at the wall hoping it would stick in this game. The common denominator was the primary initiator of the offense, who could not get anything going whether he was handling the ball, rolling off of a screen, or haphazardly chasing offensive rebounds that he rarely had an actual chance at hauling in. There were transition opportunities where he could have attacked one-on-one matchups, only to slow down the play to kick to somebody else and wash his hands of responsibility.

Save for a burst in the middle of the third quarter, he was just straight-up bad. I'll spare you any long-term projections based on this performance, but he has not been his best self since returning from the All-Star break. There are only so many excuses you can make based on lineups for a max player.

• The Sixers can't get George Hill in this lineup soon enough. Not because he's some outstanding pick-and-roll player or creator, but because he will give them some form of stability at guard on the second unit. The Shake Milton rollercoaster is a hell of a ride this season, and it has mostly been downhill when Milton is attempting to do something other than score or throw lobs.

If Tyrese Maxey was a bit more in sync on the defensive end of the floor, perhaps they could turn the controls over to the rookie with that group, but he's still very much in feel-out mode and probably won't get the chance to surpass that stage of his development this season. The hope has to be that Milton and Maxey can learn a bit from Hill once they get on the floor and in the locker room with him.

(While we're on the subject — I would like to see more Maxey in "normal" games instead of as the change-of-pace when they play like crap. See if he can spice things up.) 

• The Sixers have played pretty inspired basketball out of the All-Star break, and tonight's loss nonetheless brings them to a tie with the Brooklyn Nets for the No. 1 seed in the East. Brooklyn plays the Houston Rockets — a group that recently snapped a 20-game streak of losses — tomorrow night for the right to sole possession of first. There might be some more looking up in the standings moving forward.

The Ugly

• A game toward the end of a long road trip in Denver is always a potential nightmare, especially for a team missing their best player. Even with those caveats, the first-quarter effort was an absolute nightmare, and the Sixers were basically dead by the time the horn sounded to end it. I don't accept, "The Nuggets were hot!" as an excuse because the Sixers played a big part in their opponent getting going. 

The two biggest culprits are guys I expect to set the tone every night: Ben Simmons and Danny Green. Philadelphia's DPOY candidate got absolutely bodied by Jamal Murray in the early stages of Tuesday's game, with the Denver point guard breezing to the rim to score himself or play setup man for one of his teammates. Green was arguably a worse offender, drawing the Michael Porter Jr. assignment and executing horrendously, allowing MPJ to dust him on several cuts to open the game. And once those guys saw shots go down, it was like an avalanche came crashing down on the Sixers, with Denver putting up 44 points in the first 12 minutes.

It did not get much prettier from there for Simmons, and I think this has a case for one of the worst games he has played in a Sixers uniform. His defense was what we'll call "selective" during his first couple of years in the league, but rarely did you see him basically no-show the game on that end. This was exactly that — when the Nuggets capitalized on Philadelphia's awful turnovers early in the game, it was often Simmons who remained out of frame on the ensuing shot attempt, or only popped into it when it was too late to do something to help. If there is a game he has played with worse wire-to-wire effort than this one since he left LSU, I can't remember it off the top of my head.

He does not have the luxury to play like this when Joel Embiid is out, and if he is earnest in his pursuit of the Defensive Player of the Year award, these sort of games just can't happen. Too much jogging, too much passivity, too little care from the start. It's the sort of performance he has mostly outgrown over the last two seasons, and it made it that much more disappointing.

• Speaking of ugly, this looked like it was lining up to be a monster screen in the backcourt for Simmons. It did not work out that way:

Whether it was a foul or not, getting bulldozed by a guy who comes up to about your chin is a pretty tough look.

• Simmons should not wear the entirety of this defensive performance. Harris was late and lazy to close on a few made Nuggets threes, their transition effort was unspeakably bad as a unit, and there were times when they couldn't seem to communicate exactly what they wanted to do on a given play. One guy thought switch, the other didn't get the memo, and one simple pass or dribble move later, the Sixers were basically just praying someone would miss a wide-open look.

For a lot of this run without Joel Embiid, we have been able to point at their defense as a point of pride for the group, with Philadelphia managing to put in some great performances against good teams despite the absence of their ace rim protector. That has fallen apart over their last two games, with leaky perimeter defense basically dooming them to conceding layups or open threes depending on how they reacted to dribble penetration.

Embiid may return as soon as Saturday's game against Minnesota, and it can't come soon enough. These guys need a security blanket at both ends.


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