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November 11, 2022

Instant observations: Putrid Sixers offense sinks them vs. Hawks

Sixers NBA

The Sixers battled on defense and rallied with a bench unit late, but poor offense ultimately caused their 104-95 loss to the Atlanta Hawks.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• If this game had hinged on Philadelphia's offensive performance, the game would have been over at halftime, the Sixers managing just 42 points while barely clearing 38 percent shooting from the field. That would have been a recipe for a blowout the way their defense was playing early in the season, so it's a good thing they seem to be trending up in that department.

It all starts with effort. Joel Embiid was engaged early in this one, getting out to contest some midrange looks he often ignores while also offering resistance around the rim. Flanking Embiid was a capable, active group of defenders who look determined to shed the label of poor transition team. In spite of some absolutely brutal turnovers from their main guy, the Sixers managed to keep points off of the board by keeping their heads up and trying to pick the big man up. Danuel House Jr. and P.J. Tucker used little more than pure effort to erase two different transition possessions for Atlanta in the first half, Tucker coming up with a particularly nice strip of Trae Young on the break.

Though Embiid joked the other night that their season did not start until the Phillies ended and he suited up for the game against the Suns, you can absolutely see a difference in this group over the last few games, including the shorthanded loss they had against the Knicks. Guys are making the extra rotation, getting back when necessary, and battling on second and third chances to try to hold down the fort. That's progress, so long as it holds when they get their offense together.

(I get that this all didn't hold up late in the game, but I chalk that up to their offense continuing to suck more than anything else. The longer you go without getting something to drop, the tougher it becomes to continue to reach back and find the effort you need to get stops.)

• Embiid's performance in this one was one of very few positives, and even his night at the office came with warts we'll get to later. That said, this team looked like a borderline high school team without him on offense, so you have to pick your battles.

There was a lot of patience in the post shown by Embiid, whose turnovers were not a product of pressure defense for once. On many possessions in this one, Embiid did a good job of establishing early position, feeling out his man, and getting to the softest spot in the defense, which helps explain his efficiency on the evening.

Before this game came unraveled in the late third/early fourth quarter, the commitment was there on defense the way it should have been all season. That means more to me than their terrible offensive product, which you can mostly explain by staring at the Harden-sized hole in the lineup.

That's about all I can muster here. More on his night below.

• Not that it did much good, but I think this was Danuel House Jr.'s best game since joining the Sixers. The defensive activity was good, a made corner three helped out, and he even deposited a sweet layup in transition through contact, picking up the and-one and making it look easy.

Both of their guys who spent time on the shelf due to illness looked good in their return games, which is pretty unexpected. Small victory for the health squad, I guess.

• This game could be summed up by Montrezl Harrell playing some of Philadelphia's best minutes of the night in a game where it looked Doc Rivers had no interest in playing him until the game was over. A pretty classic example of the front-running team taking their foot off of the gas against a lineup filled with second-unit guys, but Harrell and Co. made them work hard for that victory, forcing turnovers and running hard to put pressure on the Hawks.

The Bad

• We don't have to mince words, Tyrese Maxey has been flat-out bad the last few games. It's the biggest reason they ended up losing to the Knicks last week, and it played a big part in this game dragging on despite how well the Sixers played defensively.

I don't think there's a whole lot to analyze beyond him being absolutely ice-cold from the field. When his confidence in his offense begins to fade a bit, Maxey either ends up deferring too much or psyching himself out of shots that he's more than capable of making. This is something Doc Rivers mentioned after their win over Phoenix, noting that he thought Maxey overreacted to a tough shooting night a game prior. Finding the middle ground (or not caring about that middle ground) while also trying to run the team without Harden is a lot for him to work through at once, so it's no wonder he's had it tough lately.

Could a big workload be catching up to him a little bit? A lot of Maxey's jumpers are coming up short, and he's the guy the head coach probably feels most comfortable in a big-minute role, his young legs carrying the team while they try to protect the vets.

The problem for the Sixers at the moment is that Maxey is not advanced enough at the other things to be as impactful as he needs to be when his scoring touch is off. You see strides as a playmaker, but that's a lot different than him being a genuinely impactful playmaker. When the Sixers are at their free-flowing best, it's often because Maxey has it going and does not allow the opponent a moment to breathe. There's no reason Maxey (and by extension, the Sixers) should ever look so slow and methodical when he's on the floor. He is not Chris Paul, or one of any number of guys who win playing that way.

Maxey will presumably bounce back, but they don't have much of a chance to win games sans Harden if he's this bad. 

• The biggest annoyance I had watching this game was watching the Sixers screw up basic spacing principles throughout the night. I can understand the desire to be active off-ball, and it's better to have guys wanting to engage in the offense rather than checking out, but you have to do so with an understanding of what helps your team. 

On multiple occasions, Embiid received a pass on the block, began to try to work his defender, and then had the defender of the entry passer double him. Unless that double comes instantly on the pass, all you need to do as the guy closest to Embiid is stay where you're at and wait to receive the pass — the offense has already succeeded at creating an open look, or a potential series of rotations for the defense at the least. Instead, the Sixers kept screwing those situations up. Danuel House Jr. cut into space as Embiid threw a pass where he should have been. On a Tobias Harris post-up in the first half, Shake Milton cut from two passes away out of a similar look, only bringing his guy into the paint while allowing the original doubler to get back to his guy.

For a team that is ostensibly built around Embiid, so many of these guys don't seem to understand what to do or where to be in order to help out the guy leading them. At least House has the excuse of this being a new group and his first game back from a layoff. Milton should know much better by now.

Once you get past that, you can start complaining about whether they're running any offense to start with. The Sixers started this game with actual designed plays, Embiid setting up Harris on the block and working with Maxey out of pick-and-rolls. It deteriorated as the game wore on, eventually ending with familiar-seeming turnovers and stalled-out possessions. A well-oiled machine, this is not. 

• So that we don't put all issues on the supporting cast, it should be noted Embiid's ball security in this game was just absolutely miserable. I don't care who is available to play, there's no reason he should be turning the ball over seven times, and there are at least a couple of those he could cut out by using the basketball smarts I know he has. 

It was bad enough that you could have convinced me something was wrong with one of his hands — there was a one-handed pass attempt that never went more than a foot or two, a wide-open dunk flubbed after he dropped the entry pass, and my least favorite of all, Embiid dribbling into DeAndre Hunter in transition instead of passing the ball to Tyrese Maxey.

An off-target pass or the occasional miscue rolling to the basket is something you can set aside, but watching Embiid try to do too much and paying for it has gotten pretty old at this point. When you have someone like Maxey flanking you on the break, there's absolutely no reason for your gigantic center to try to dribble through the opponent like he's Curly Neal.

Embiid has one of the most diverse skill sets in the league at his position, but that's not a reason for him to play recklessly and carelessly. Nobody should be more aware of his limitations than Embiid himself, but he still keeps stepping on the rakes that teams leave out and hope he'll waltz into. 

• Paul Reed's performance against the Phoenix Suns earlier this week showed exactly why Doc Rivers should give him more of an opportunity to play. Paul Reed's performance against the Atlanta Hawks on Thursday night showed exactly why a coach would be a little bit reluctant to trust him.

After an excellent start to the game for Embiid, Reed came in and was not prepared for the assignment. Picking up a foul here or there because Young is one of the best foul-drawers in the game is something you go in expecting, but Reed made his job way too easy, barreling into him for a worthless foul early during his run in the first half. If you're going to take one on him, at least let it be because you have to challenge him at the summit.

It's bad enough that Doc Rivers didn't stagger Embiid and Maxey early in the game, which was going to force you into some rough lineups by default. He compounded that mistake by playing lineups with multiple non-shooters at a time (e.g. Matisse Thybulle and Reed), and the offense looked about as well as you'd expect.

(Thybulle and Reed caused plenty of chaos late in the game, but can't say I want to see it again even with that nice run of play. Garbage time isn't real.)

Another fun lineup quirk on Thursday night: Rivers deciding to go small against an Atlanta team that lives on the Trae Young/Clint Capela pick-and-roll. Frankly, that lineup did a better job of hanging in the game than any lineup that featured Reed, but it still doesn't make much sense in this matchup. Allowing one of the best offensive rebounders in the league to essentially attack the glass unimpeded is certainly a strategy you could choose.

Rivers' final chess move of the night was subbing out the backups who actually made the late comeback happen in favor of the starters who had been sitting on the bench cold for the stretch run. The style of his loss isn't going to quiet any of his dissenters, put it that way.

The Ugly

• Any minutes without Embiid on the floor certainly qualify for this category. 

• Never seen a guy Tobias Harris' size smoke as many automatic layups as he does. 

• Watching Matisse Thybulle on offense defies belief. It's hard to believe someone who can read angles as he does on defense is so oblivious on the other end. 

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