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November 13, 2021

Instant observations: Sixers drop fourth-straight due to poor defense vs. Pacers

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The Sixers played horrific defense for at least half of Saturday's game, and the hole they dug was too deep to climb out of in their 118-113 loss to the Pacers.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• The first half was an absolute disgrace on defense for the Sixers, but they were able to hang in this game thanks to one of the best halves Tobias Harris has probably ever had as a scorer. Harris scored 40 percent of Philadelphia's points in the first half, pouring in 24 with a multi-faceted attack that should assuage any fears about his well-being post-COVID.

Harris' very first bucket of the game is a shot we saw him take a lot with the Clippers but sparingly during his time with the Sixers — a walk-up three in transition, one that Harris pulled confidently and just so happened to nail. It was all downhill from there.

There was a beautiful backdoor play where a cutting Harris got a pass from Maxey, a lot of tough work in the mid-post area, a couple of spot-up threes, and six big free throws that allowed him to bring the game to a halt at a time when the Sixers desperately needed that.

By the time the half was all said and done, the Sixers were only down 10 points, and you can credit that almost solely to Harris. He may have his warts as a top option, but he can certainly score in bunches, and there are nights when he can carry you as you wait for everybody else to catch up.

(On the flipside, it would be nice to see him string together two high-level halves in one game. One big half is nice, but it clearly wasn't enough on Saturday.)

• Tyrese Maxey continues to show flashes of improvement on offense and I can understand any fan struggling to keep things in check right now. Fresh off of a pair of 30-point performances this week, Maxey showed quite a bit of diversity in Saturday night's game, attacking Indiana with pace and pizzaz.

Before this one got out of hand in the first half, it was Maxey who played an integral role in Harris getting going. Harris' second three of the night came on a kick out from Maxey after the younger guard sucked defenders toward the paint, and a cut several possessions later was one of the best needle-threading passes he has made in his career, a beautiful look through traffic to hit Harris in stride:

Maxey got his as a scorer mostly by getting downhill on Saturday, but there was a sidestep three in the first half that stands out from the pack. Those shots may eventually become commonplace and not worth highlighting, but seeing Maxey increase his aggressiveness beyond the arc is still an exciting concept right now, and it certainly can't hurt the cause that he's actually knocking them down. Confidence will flow from those results, and as teammates have reminded him, he puts in the work to justify pulling whenever he feels ready.

• The Sixers dominated the free-throw battle, which is probably the only reason this game remained close as long as it did.

That's about it on the positive front.

The Bad

• Transition defense was a major issue for the Sixers last season, with Philadelphia ranking at or near the bottom of the league in that category for most of the year. They kicked off one of their toughest road trips of this year by getting absolutely blitzed by the Pacers on the break, with Indiana blowing by them early and often on Saturday night.

A lot of this comes down to simple effort issues. You can point to the scheme, individual defenders, and breakdowns within the halfcourt, but when the other team is killing you down the floor, you just have to look in the mirror and question your effort. And getting killed by this particular team is an indictment of Philadelphia's first-half performance, given where the Pacers rank on the break this season:

The numerous head-scratching turnovers from the Sixers didn't help matters either. Veteran guys who are expected to know better, a la Danny Green, gave the ball up on dumb passes in the backcourt. Guards who are trusted to run the offense, a la Shake Milton, got caught in no man's land and then threw the ball directly to the other team. 

Frankly, the problems were not limited to fast breaks. You are finally starting to feel the consequences of the Sixers losing three All-Defense players at the same time (for different reasons). The Pacers were able to get free on the perimeter with pretty basic actions, and anytime they put Andre Drummond in a position where he had to straddle the line between guarding the roller and cutting off a driver, he struggled to find the balance, with the Pacers ripping off assist after assist in pick-and-rolls.

It certainly wasn't all Drummond's fault. Tyrese Maxey struggled on that end for the second consecutive game, making some poor reads and miscommunicating with teammates on switch breakdowns that led to open Pacers threes. Danny Green, usually one of their best and smartest off-ball defenders, cheated way too far off of some corner shooters and allowed buckets he'd like to have back. And Seth Curry, well, we'll get to him below.

The Sixers were not exactly locking all windows and doors to start the year with Embiid and Thybulle in the lineup, but they were much closer to an average, even above-average team after some early struggles. With who they have left, this group looks like they are absolutely drawing dead trying to get stops at times. Got to clean it up. When you let teams get going early, you end up paying for it late. 

• Maxey took two, maybe three absolutely inexcusable fouls on Saturday night. Late-clock plays where all he had to do was stay down and allow his man to force up a shot, and one backbreaker on a panicked pass out to the perimeter in crunch time. The youth shining through a bit.

Even aside from that, Maxey just could not seem to stay in front of T.J. McConnell when it mattered late. No offense to McConnell, who is a great backup guard, but it's tough to win he's killing you in crunch time.

• The downside to Harris being the hub of the offense is that it seems to completely change how the Sixers play as a group, which makes a lot of players less effective than they've been otherwise. Yes, Harris was the guy with the big box score numbers, but the Sixers became far too reliant on stagnant, iso-based offense, and not only did that fail in crunch time, it contributed to their transition defense issue, getting the Pacers off and running after a lot of ugly possessions throughout the night.

• Andre Drummond is perfectly suited to a backup role, one where he can play max effort for 15-20 minutes and not put enough on tape to show too many weaknesses. Manning the starting center spot is a different story, and you can see some of why Drummond fell from grace watching him fill in for Joel Embiid.

Often, the numbers are still there for Drummond, who is a rebound vacuum and a physical presence even on his worst day. But his mental lapses on the defensive end have been louder and more frequent lately, with Drummond struggling to do anything outside of blocking some shots around the rim. That's a valuable enough trait to have, but against a team with two good bigs like the Pacers, your decision-making and defense in space both have to be good. Too often, Drummond was just floating through the paint while a pass made its way to an open Myles Turner on the perimeter, and he cashed out multiple times before Drummond ever got close to him.

He had the best plus/minus of any Sixers player on Saturday, and that feels like a clear-cut example of why you shouldn't always trust that stat.

• Just an awful, awful Seth Curry game. Some of that isn't really on his shoulders, because he wasn't very involved on offense early and can't be faulted for not leaving a box score imprint when he's not getting touches. But when he isn't able to impact a game on offense, you really start to zero in on his defensive issues, of which there were many on Saturday.

Curry may be a small-ish defender that you're worried about holding up in a switch. But honestly, the bigger problems come for him in execution. where he has to pass off (or pick up) a guy in a designed set, and both guys end up looking lost because Curry doesn't know what he's supposed to do in the situation. There were several bad breakdowns in the second half that Curry was a part of, helping to continue the Pacers avalanche that got started in the first half.

This team has to keep him more involved offensively regardless.

• This is not a "Blame Danny Green" problem so much as it is a "What are you guys doing?" problem, but there were multiple possessions in Saturday's game where the Sixers' first designed set in a possession was a Green-Drummond DHO. If you get to that play out of necessity late in the clock, go nuts. Doing that on purpose and actively wanting to get to that look is a much different story.

• While we're on the subject of questionable decisions, I don't think Paul Reed was very good in the first half on Saturday, but what exactly was the justification for going to Charles Bassey to open up the fourth quarter? Reed has consistently played at a level befitting a rotation big, and Bassey showed you all the warts of a guy who hadn't earned that distinction yet, caught out of position on multiple occasions because of his own overzealousness. 

The Ugly

• Danny Green has not been at his best so far this season, but with the Sixers shorthanded and badly in need of healthy contributors, seeing him trudge back to the locker room holding his hamstring was a worrying sight. Given how recently he dealt with a hamstring problem, the sizable role he has had to play since returning, and the fear of a veteran player dealing with nagging soft-tissue injuries, this is one we may have to monitor long-term. Not great.

• I can't emphasize enough how miserable the broadcast quality has been for the local affiliate this year. They can't figure out the audio mix, and even worse, on Saturday night the feed wasn't synced with the action for most of the game, so you were watching plays happen completely divorced from what you were hearing. A shot would hit the rim, but the clang would not come for another second and a half after Tom McGinnis acknowledged it, which is the sort of thing you'd make fun of if it happened for a college or even high school level broadcast.

It took until, and this is not a misprint, the freaking fourth quarter for NBC to fix the problem. Seriously, is anyone paying attention over there? One person, even? Are Tom and Alaa the executive producers when it's a remote broadcast? What the hell is going on here?

Trying to hold things together with rubber bands and glue when we were living through the uncertainty of the early pandemic days was one thing. This is absolutely miserable and inexcusable at this point. The announcers are being put in a bad spot, the production side has been awful, everything about this screams amateur hour setup. For shame. At least the audio lined up for stupid promotional nonsense like the Buick Drive of The Game. 

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