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April 09, 2021

Instant observations: Sixers play clunker in road loss to Pelicans

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The Sixers' starters were bad, the Sixers' bench was bad, and to paraphrase Jason Kelce while describing Philadelphia's 101-94 loss to the Pelicans on Friday night, that's the whole damn team. 

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• A quick word of appreciation for Danny Green, who offered a professional effort if nothing else.

• Matisse Thybulle's offensive contributions are going to loom large in Philadelphia's playoff run. If teams feel they can ignore him altogether, it's going to be tough to leave him in long enough to gain value from his chaos-creating defense.

That's what makes nights like these so encouraging. You look at the box score and can (correctly) say he didn't provide a ton on offense, but he showed a little flair off-the-dribble that we rarely see from the second-year wing. During a nice stretch to open the second quarter, Thybulle was able to hit a runner near the baseline and a reverse layup after darting past Zion Williamson, showing some new tricks in the bag during an up-and-down stretch for the second unit.

As long as he can provide these bursts from time to time, he's good money, because his defensive prowess is self-evident. Am I confident he can? Not especially. But here's hoping for his sake.

• Tobias Harris did a much better job guarding Brandon Ingram than I would have expected, and it would have deserved featured billing if the Sixers played a better overall game. Still another nice feather in his cap for the season, in any case.

The Bad

• First, a good thing — Joel Embiid smelled blood in the water when Steven Adams picked up an early foul on an inbounds play, immediately going at him again to draw Adams' second. Then there was an early seal from Embiid in transition, rewarded by a great entry pass from Ben Simmons, and Stan Van Gundy got nervous enough to pull Adams. It's the sort of thing we've seen Embiid do time and time again, and it's great to see every time.

Philadelphia's offense after Adams hit the bench, on the other hand, left a lot to be desired. Embiid had earned a favorable matchup with backup big Willy Hernangomez (who Embiid forced into a foul on the very first post-up he got against him), but the Sixers almost inexplicably ran most of their offense through Ben Simmons before the bench mob came in.

Those possessions were uninspired, to use language favorable to Mr. Simmons. There was a lot of time spent trying to get him established on the low block, leading to a couple of turnovers, some snug pick-and-roll attempts, and a lot of passes away from the basket. Embiid spent this time mostly hanging out on the perimeter so this could happen, and I have to tell you, it doesn't seem like the best use of resources. 

This continued throughout the night, with the Sixers sacrificing Embiid possessions in service of Simmons-centric sets, relegating the big guy to the corner or above-the-break. Simmons took a snug pick-and-roll out of a timeout in crunch time and missed the rim entirely.

Look, I get that you need to democratize the offense a bit and make sure everyone is involved. I don't want Embiid to be a black hole on that end of the floor. But ignoring the game situation to run a bunch of low-value actions that bailed the Pelicans out of an early hole. The guy who is supposed to be the point guard should recognize that, the head coach should recognize that, hell, the entire team should be able to see how the game should flow.

• All of that being said, Embiid wears plenty of responsibility for how the game pivoted after a strong start. He is the guy everything has run through this year, the man who has earned constant MVP-level praise from his running mates, and the player with the most powerful voice in the huddle. While he continued to compete on the defensive end of the floor, he let the game drift by him on offense, which is not something you could say on many (if any) nights this season.

You guys know me as the guy who constantly encourages Embiid to let it rip as a jump shooter — the man works on his shot constantly — but this was a case of going to a dry well far more often than was warranted. When you miss four straight jumpers on essentially the same look, you simply need to do something else, and that something else isn't standing at the three-point line while the Sixers run an iso for Tobias Harris. 

Games like these happened in previous seasons, where Embiid would get lulled to sleep either by the opponent or game-flow and the Sixers would end up in tighter battles than they should have been in against inferior opponents. If he's the guy who gets credit for lifting all ships, we can certainly point out when he doesn't live up to his responsibility as the team's leader. This was not his best.

• The Sixers ran a fair amount of their offense through Ben Simmons on Friday night, and it still felt like he was a passenger in this game. There's just no good explanation for the way he is approaching the game right now, reverting to his worst habits and tendencies offensively during a stretch where the Sixers really need him to give them a lift.

This is what I feel like when I write about Simmons at this point:

abe simpson.jpg

It's the same story over and over again. His defense has been worse on top of that, with Simmons hanging on screens far more often over the past couple of weeks than we saw the rest of the season combined. Expecting more than who he has proven to be at this point feels like a waste of time.

• The strategic decision to go with a zone in the first half once Philly turned things over to their bench is one that makes sense on paper. With Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris both on the bench, there's nobody I trust to guard Zion Williamson one-on-one. Not even Thybulle, who is just giving up too much weight to try to stand toe-to-toe with an eighteen-wheeler.

Unfortunately, the strategy did not do anything to slow Williamson down, and it opened the Sixers up for major exploitation on the offensive glass. The Pelicans were already playing a sort of kooky, ultra-big lineup because of who they had available to suit up, and any time a Sixers player failed to box out, there was a New Orleans player darting through space and creating second and third chances on offense. Anytime you get tripled in offensive rebounds in a half, something is going wrong.

This shouldn't suggest the top unit did a much better job guarding Williamson. New Orleans employed him as an oversized point guard throughout the night, and the ease with which he drove past Ben Simmons created a lot of problems for the Sixers. Embiid was forced to contest often and picked up fouls as a result, shooters got clean looks, and there were times when nobody was in a position to do anything about Williamson getting to the rim, though you could argue that's the case against basically any team he plays.

• Here's the strategic decision you absolutely can't live with: playing an all-bench group against Zion Williamson, one of the brightest talents in the NBA and an absolute nightmare for anyone to guard. The Sixers mostly got away with it in the first half, so Rivers decided to stick with it in the second half. Play with fire long enough and you're bound to get burned.

With the game still in reach to open the fourth quarter, Williamson went on a personal rampage to start the final frame, bullying Matisse Thybulle on two straight possessions before scoring another bucket on a lob in transition, forcing Rivers to call a timeout and take stock of things. There are a lot of concerns about Rivers' inflexibility in a playoff setting, and we'll see if the all-bench look gets thrown in the trash before the games begin to matter.

• There have been games where Seth Curry didn't have it in one way or another this season, but few have been as actively bad as this one. Curry was pretty soundly outplayed by Pelicans guard Eric Bledsoe, who New Orleans fans have spent most of the season complaining about, which is not a great sign for what you contributed to the game on Friday night.

Hard to point out a single thing he did well. Didn't shoot worth a damn, didn't provide any burst off-the-dribble, was not part of the defensive solution (not that he ever really is), he was just out for a walk in the park on Friday.

• The bench straight-up sucked. I pin a lot of the blame on the aforementioned lineup choices, but they sucked all the same.

The Ugly

• The Sixers are supposed to be the veteran team in this matchup:


• Hey, the good news is the Sixers get to play a back-to-back in Oklahoma City tomorrow night and might not have Embiid available for that one. So if you thought this one was ugly, it could theoretically get even worse! 

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