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February 13, 2021

Instant observations: Sixers let Devin Booker get rolling in loss to Suns

The Sixers got off to a good start in Phoenix, but a bad bench, unforced tactical errors, and poor defense from Joel Embiid contributed to a 120-111 loss against the Suns.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• Ben Simmons continued his streak of aggressive play on offense, taking the initiative to drive Philadelphia forward when they had little else going during the first half. The early offense has been killer for Simmons the last couple of games, days after Sacramento killed the Sixers by pushing the pace after made baskets.

Nobody has ever had to tell Simmons to go up-tempo, but he has been hitting a different gear as of late. Whether it's because he finally has his legs under him after an injury-plagued year last year, or because he has flipped a mental switch after a tough start, Simmons is making it a point to get downhill and all the way to the rim, shedding big bodies in traffic and showing a willingness to go to the free-throw line. That has always been one of his big hang-ups, and when that fades from view, he's a considerably more dangerous player.

I am not a huge fan of designed Simmons post-ups because he basically has to get to the rim or die trying, but seeing him call his own number has been a welcome sight lately. The Suns found out the hard way that Simmons has been attacking (and punishing) teams when they put smaller defenders on his hip.

• Embiid and Simmons were not as aggressive in pick-and-roll coverage on Saturday as they were against Damian Lillard in Portland — few guys deserve that sort of attention – but they combined for some really good possessions against Devin Booker in the first half (mostly the first quarter), forcing other Suns players to try to beat them.

Embiid admitted on Thursday night that trapping ball handlers was entirely new to him, and I think you can already see how dangerous the two of them can be together when they are committed to aggressive pick-and-roll defense. Booker was obviously flustered at times even while playing in a set he excels at, forced to reset the offense and throw risky passes that Simmons or Embiid deflected with their length.

There were definitely some hiccups from playing out of that look, with Booker too good and skilled not to punish Embiid at some point during the game, but overall I've liked a lot of what we've seen so far. Unfortunately, there were other defensive issues we will get to below.

The Bad

• I have no idea what Doc Rivers thought he saw in the first half on Saturday, but Phoenix's starting unit was able to get going almost exactly when Philly decided to change their matchups. With Simmons on Booker and Danny Green on Chris Paul, things were going relatively smoothly. For seemingly no reason, Green ended up on Booker for a good chunk of the second quarter, and Booker repeatedly roasted him off-the-dribble.

In past games, Rivers has explained that he keeps Simmons off of top assignments early for multiple reasons, foul concerns and fatigue being near the top of the list. The former was out the window on Saturday — Simmons didn't pick up a single first-half foul despite spending a lot of time on Booker, so it didn't make much sense to change how things were set up based on how well the gameplan was working early.

Rivers' offensive M.O. is to keep running what works until the other team stops it, and they did the exact opposite on defense with the most important assignment of the game, which is a bit hard to figure out. Once Booker got rolling, it didn't really matter who was guarding him the rest of the night. If you can keep a really good player down, keep your foot on the gas because this is what can happen.

It's not like this is something out of the norm for Booker, who can got hot as quickly as any guy in the league. Felt like an unforced error that completely changed the course of the game.

• That wasn't the only tactical issue of the game. Philadelphia's bench has struggled even when they've been something close to full strength recently, but without Shake Milton around to give them a lift, they are completely out of their depth trying to run an offense. That's something that can be partially avoided with lineup choices, but Rivers continues to play five bench guys at a time whenever he has a chance, rarely staggering the minutes of Embiid and Simmons.

On the other hand, even with the coaching-related gripe there, this group is way underperforming and seems to me to need a boost from outside help. Tyrese Maxey has been plenty aggressive but has watched a barrage of midrange pull-ups clang off of the rim. Matisse Thybulle is basically a stationary player who needs the starters to lift him up. Furkan Korkmaz couldn't hit much on Saturday. And Dwight Howard is doing nothing to unstick the gears of this gruesome machine (though their guards could try 

There are stretches on offense where they don't even attempt to run anything, which is even more shocking when you see the first group come in and play with great movement and passing from a lot of different areas of the floor. I would say they look like they are out of ideas as a group, but that would imply they're attempting to use or execute new ideas, rather than just running the clogged toilet offense over and over again.

At a minimum, the Sixers are going to have to think about a reimagining of the rotation to spread their best players across different lineups. More than likely, they need at least one quality pickup between now and the trade deadline, because they can't rely on the starters to drag them to victory with heavy workloads every night. Maybe a few hot shooting games will put this to bed, but it looks and feels like more than just a cold spell 

• It's hard to criticize in-game strategy from a guy who is at or near the top of the MVP leaderboard, but Joel Embiid spent far too much of this game settling for midrange jumpers against DeAndre Ayton. Ayton is a big, athletic guy who you're not just going to bulldoze in the post all game, but Embiid made the assignment a relatively predictable one by shooting face-up jumper after face-up jumper and rarely trying to attack him or force him to take fouls.

Doc Rivers did something that seemed important to open the fourth quarter, bringing Embiid back early so that he could go to work against old colleague Dario Saric on the block. Embiid promptly started filling it up, brutalizing "The Homie" on the offensive end.

Unfortunately, Saric made him work just as hard on the other end to open the quarter, with the spread floor working to Phoenix's advantage. Chris Paul hit some midrange daggers, the Suns canned some threes on Sixers misses and turnovers, and the big fella had some downright maddening errors, including a turnover where he was called for an inbounds violation. The Sixers didn't gain ground with a lineup on the floor that badly needed to do so.

After starting the game well in that aggressive coverage we mentioned up top, Embiid ended up looking lost at times in the second half, struggling to find his footing away and around the basket. Booker's scorcher was a big part of that — a hot scorer who can playmake can leave you in no man's land as a big — but his footing was constantly off, opening windows for Booker to exploit. When he played up in the second half, Booker drove by him. When he got to him in the midrange area, Booker threw lobs over him. It was a surprisingly bad defensive performance out of Embiid. 

I can already hear some of the complaints about putting a guy with 30+ points in "The Bad" and that's not a fair description of his game overall, but watching that game it just didn't feel like Embiid had the level of control over it like he has so many other games this year.

The Ugly

• Rivers' choice to sub in Embiid to open the fourth quarter is a decision I think was justified given the game situation and the way his second unit has played recently. I do think it shows you, though, his lack of confidence in the second unit right now, which is to say he has none. That's not a good thing for a team that wants to contend this year, even if they're missing arguably their most important bench player in Milton.

Having to play Embiid 38 minutes while you're in the process of chasing a regular-season game in the fourth quarter against a non-conference opponent is brutal, doubly so when you consider Embiid's health history. There have been a lot of games recently where top players are racking up minutes. If that trend continues, they need a change (or perhaps changes, plural) sooner than later.

• Interesting decision from NBCSP to not show a replay of the foul call that Doc Rivers challenged in the fourth quarter. I was under the impression the whole point of broadcast television is to show people important moments from the game, but as long as they got a few more local advertisements in, who really cares about the game? 

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