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January 25, 2021

Instant observations: Sixers fall to Pistons in poor performance without Joel Embiid

The Sixers got punched in the mouth by the Pistons early and were never able to recover, with Detroit rolling to a wire-to-wire 119-104 victory over Philly. It sure seemed like the visitors missed Joel Embiid.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• There weren't many positives to speak of in the first half, but Matisse Thybulle turned in one of his most encouraging halves of the season defensively, with the second-year wing trending upward after a tough start to the season.

His breakout moment sort of happened on accident — with Ben Simmons in early foul trouble and out of consideration for the Blake Griffin assignment, it was Thybulle who was forced to cover the considerably bigger and stronger Griffin. Thybulle did not let the discrepancy get to him, and he won the matchup with the former Clippers star handily. 

Slithering around Griffin to front him over and over again, Thybulle came up with multiple steals that went the other way for scores, and he disrupted several other possessions with deflections, forcing Griffin to set up shop far farther from the hoop than he wanted. Griffin would end the first half 1/6 and was visibly frustrated by Thybulle's defense, getting away with multiple shoves to try to get free from his cover.

His offensive miscues aside (and there have been plenty lately), Thybulle appears to be settling back in on defense, giving the Sixers a nice weapon off of the bench when they need it.

• Probably the best Tony Bradley game of the year so far? Not saying much, obviously, but he was a fair bit better than Dwight Howard simply by playing composed, disciplined basketball on the back end. He didn't make any eye-popping plays, but he was in the right spots more often than not, helpful boxing out Pistons players, and he used his soft hands to come up with a few offensive rebounds in traffic, extending possessions on a night where the Sixers allowed Detroit to do the same quite often.

I don't think I would say he deserves to take Howard's role anytime soon, but he should get a look from time-to-time when everyone is available, especially when Howard is as bad as he was on Monday night. Bradley's upside isn't sky high, but he's got a lot more time left in the league then Howard does (at least in theory), so why not try to polish him up a bit?

• Tobias Harris was one of the few guys who came out ready to play in the opening quarter, buoying the Sixers' offense when nobody else could get it going. It wouldn't have been the first time Harris carried them to victory against his former team, and once he got a boost from the reserve players, it appeared Harris would have a chance to do it again.

It was not to be, as Harris' hot start faded over time, but he was one of the few guys who kept coming late as other members of the team melted down. There's no "The Okay" section for these articles, and grading on Monday night's curve, I suppose we'll drop him in here.

The Bad

• With Joel Embiid on the sideline, there are plenty of opponents the Sixers could run up against where they'd have an excuse to drop a game on the road. The Detroit Pistons are not one of those teams. Monday night's opening quarter telegraphed what this night was going to be like for Philly, and it simply isn't acceptable.

Philadelphia's lethargy was mostly felt on the defensive end, where several guys were just not ready to play when the game began. Danny Green, whose legs have come and gone depending on the night, looked like he was running in quicksand for a lot of Monday night, and some of that came down to effort alone. Green was relegated to irrelevance in the second half, and rightfully so.

The Sixers got crushed on the glass in the early going, an area where I'll point the finger directly at Dwight Howard, who either lacked the motivation on a given play or was too busy chasing a shot he was never going to block to box somebody out on the second-chance opportunity. Philly paid for that approach, as it was a big reason Detroit got out to an early lead.

Winning games without everyone available has been a talking point for Rivers recently, with the head coach pointing out that they simply have to find ways to win games and play well if they are missing one or more of their top players. It's the reality of this season and has been the reality of building around Joel Embiid for years, so they would do well to figure out a way to make it happen.

The poor start doomed the Sixers to a "can't get over the hump" game, where they would scratch and claw to cut into the lead but never really made it interesting, giving up an open three seemingly every time they were within striking distance. With the bench giving Doc Rivers decent minutes on Monday, the blame for this one falls on the shoulders of the starting group.

• We've been over this before, but you really start to see the cracks in Dwight Howard's game when he has to play real minutes instead of mop-up duty for Embiid. Foul trouble wasn't an issue for Howard on Monday, which is usually the big problem when he is thrust into a larger role, which made his poor performance even more glaring.

Howard is still a remarkably good athlete for a 35-year-old center, but the problem is he knows that, and it influences how he approaches the defensive end of the floor. He still has enough in the tank to get up and contest, but the second leap is not there anymore, and it leaves him drawing dead on the glass if he doesn't make the play on the first attempt. 

• On a night without their best player, and even in a normal road game, you need your stars to step up and carry you to victory. Whether Ben Simmons' fouls were "soft" or "questionable" or whatever you'd choose to label them, the Sixers simply could not afford for him to play recklessly on Monday night.

Picking up the first two in quick succession can happen, especially for a player who needs to win with physicality like Simmons. But after you pick up a pair in the first five minutes of the game, you have to have your antenna up the rest of the night, aware the refs are calling the game sort of tight. Instead, Simmons picked up a useless third foul on a low-leverage play in the post, and Philly was forced to play most of the first half without him.

We saw the opposite response from Embiid last Friday, with the big guy living to fight another day by playing passive defense at the rim for stretches of the game. I didn't like that approach either and criticized Embiid for it at the time, but there has to be some sort of change in approach that shows an understanding of the game situation.

Even beyond the foul trouble issues, at this point you almost expect the Sixers to perform like this with Simmons in charge and Embiid on the shelf. The ability to take it up a notch and make up for his absence doesn't appear to be there, and it's a bummer.

(It's probably a project left for next offseason at this point, but a trainer would do well to have Simmons drilling jump stops for most of next summer. He gets caught in a lot of awkward positions driving to the basket because of footwork on his way to the basket, and the full-speed-ahead approach clearly needs to be altered.)

• It's really striking how quickly secondary ballhandlers can go from looking like nice pieces on good teams to overextended due to the absence of just one person. That's especially true when the team's lead ballhandler spends most of the night in foul trouble on top of that, forcing a bunch of role players to step up and lead the offense or drown trying.

Shake Milton, Tyrese Maxey and Seth Curry all had some decent moments on Monday night, but they proved unable to help the team breakthrough, coming closest when the young guards sparked a run for the Sixers in the first half to bring them back within five. Outside of that, it was hit-or-miss basketball.

To be clear, I don't mean that as an indictment of that group, as those guys all have strengths that can help this team. But they are secondary players at the end of the day, and without high-level play from the top of the roster, you can see them for what they are. One of the reasons I am dubious of this team as a real contender when the playoffs begin is because of how reliant they are on secondary guys on offense. Times will only get tougher for them when it really matters.

• One major mark against Harris: he continued to make poor decisions with the ball after a bad game in that department on Saturday, coughing up a couple of ghastly turnovers that never had a chance to reach their target. If you're asking me, I would rather see him shoot the Sixers out of a game than try to thread passes through traffic out of pick-and-rolls. 

The Ugly

• Any game without Joel Embiid qualifies at this point. This team's talent level is far higher than what they are showing when the big guy isn't available.

• Did the officials call this game tight? I certainly think so, and it's not the style of game I tend to enjoy watching. But the Sixers never adjusted to the way the officials were calling it, which is a surefire way to allow your opponent to live at the line and punish you for silly gambles on defense all night.

• The dust-up between Josh Jackson and most of the Sixers' team felt like a lot of huffing and puffing over nothing in the fourth quarter, but I have to admit that I loved the image of Mike Scott, dressed in a nice dress shirt, stepping onto the floor and ready to settle a dispute the old-fashioned way. Business casual fights will never not be funny to me.

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