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March 24, 2021

Instant observations: Sixers hang on against Warriors after squandering big lead

The Sixers opened their lengthy stay on the West Coast with a 108-98 win over the Golden State Warriors, pulling one out of the fire after squandering their huge first-half lead over the second and third quarters.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• If there's something I appreciate after watching the Sixers slog through games against bad and/or undermanned opponents in the past, it's this team having a professional approach from the opening whistle. They certainly brought it at the start if this one, though that changed in a big way in the middle portion of the game.

The strong open starts with Ben Simmons, who has done well against the Warriors historically and led by example Tuesday night. Using nothing but a right-handed hook shot — something Doc Rivers was actually asked about pre-game — Simmons put up a few quick buckets to get the Sixers rolling on offense.

That seemed to get him in a groove that he stayed in for most of the night. Simmons would pile up a whopping 14 free-throw attempts, and very few of those came cheap, with Simmons barreling into defenders on drives and forcing guys to foul him in the post. They have badly needed someone to make up for Embiid's absence at the charity stripe, and Simmons rose to the occasion Tuesday, underwhelming efficiency aside.

His passing felt more valuable than the numbers showed. The Warriors have played Simmons a little more straight-up than most teams over the years, and without aggressive drop coverage, he's able to suck more defenders into the paint to create open shots, which he did effectively in the halfcourt and transition. There were several passes made by Simmons where he drew attention with his eyes and then snapped the ball in another direction, punishing the Warriors for only following where his head was tilted.

And when the Sixers needed a final push to close this game out, Simmons was more involved than he has been in most crunch-time outings this season, taking matters into his own hands on both ends. 

• It's hard not to love how Tobias Harris has been playing basketball this season, especially after watching him stink it up for a lot of last year. You can feel his presence far more consistently, and though he has never been noted as a good passer, Harris has started rounding out what was already a strong set of skills.

Mostly, I just like the physicality Harris is playing with. He is punishing smaller defenders in the mid-post without sacrificing the finesse/touch from other areas of the floor, finding a balance of brutality that has made him more dangerous than ever. Harris didn't live at the line on Tuesday night, but for once, I thought that was a product of officiating and not necessarily his style of play. He went hard to the cup throughout the game, and he was unfortunate not to earn more trips to the line.

As teams load up more to stop him as a scorer, Harris is turning the attention against them, finding late cutters and shooters once teams drift in his direction. He doesn't have to be Ben Simmons to help the Sixers as a passer — secondary creation is an issue for the starters and a major problem for the second unit, and Harris can aid both if he just keeps his head up and continues making the same reads he has recently on a more consistent basis.

• It seems crazy to say this about a guy who was completely out of the rotation for most of this year, but I don't think Bradley should be considered a throw-in if the Sixers move him as part of a deal by Thursday's deadline. There's a lot to like about this kid — he's still fairly young, he's extremely sound as a team defender, and he has soft enough touch that you could convince me that he could eventually expand his range, though that's obviously a major projection at the moment.

Bradley was up against James Wiseman for a lot of Tuesday night's game, and he wildly outplayed the No. 2 overall pick. While you can chalk some of that up to simple time and experience, it was nonetheless great to see him punking a guy with a considerable size advantage against him, exploiting his newness to the league with smart cuts and rolls all night long. Bradley made every shot he attempted and got high-value looks with a single play being run for him, a testament to his activity and ability to find the gaps in Golden State's defense.

He wasn't half bad on the other end of the floor, either, snuffing out a bunch of Warriors possessions with good positioning, good use of his length on contests, and an understanding of who he was matched up with. If he could space the floor or was a bit more athletic, he'd basically be the ideal backup center.

The Sixers might need him at some point again later this year, and he's a decent candidate to be brought back next season if the price is right.

• I can't stress enough how vital Danny Green is to this team, and how good of a player they'd have to acquire with his contract for it to be worth trading him by Thursday. He takes and makes big shots, is (almost) always in the right place defensively, has active hands, and he is a steady voice in the locker room, the guy who has seen it all and commands respect whenever he speaks.

They would not replace him easily. Matisse Thybulle can help you absorb the defensive blow, but he is not in the same universe as an offensive threat, and that will matter much more in a couple of months.

• Shake Milton was not especially good early in this one, but he dug himself out of the hole and found a way, which has been true of quite a few of his performances lately. If it gets you a win in the end...

• Not sure whether to credit this group for rallying when it counted or pile on for creating the tough finish with their own ineptitude. Leaning toward the former. Wins are wins.  

The Bad

• Philadelphia's meeting with Golden State looked like it was all but over during a dominant first quarter by the starters. You're going to be shocked to learn this, but the bench coughed up a good chunk of that lead, and that opened the door for the slow erosion of their lead over time.

The biggest indictment of the second unit and the reason the Sixers should make a deal of some sort: even with most (and in some cases all) of their playing time coming together, these guys have no semblance of offensive chemistry or identity. It's five guys on the floor at the same time with little-to-no structure, hoping something emerges from thin air to save them.

Yeah, I think Shake Milton is a little out of his depth as the lead ballhandler for that group, but some of that is because he's spending so many possessions isolating and trying to carry the offense himself. There are times recently when the Sixers have ended possessions in the middle of the shot clock with a Dwight Howard mid-range jumper, something that should only happen as an absolute last resort when everything else has gone haywire.

They were bad to start the game, and they didn't get a whole lot better as time wore on. Mike Scott, Dwight Howard, and Matisse Thybulle combined to go 0/11 with five combined turnovers, which is extraordinarily hard to do in limited minutes.

There is no organizer for this group, something that would be easiest to fix by going out and finding one on the trade market before the deadline passes. That could be a bench-centric guy or a starter who helps you stagger your best players, whatever works, it just needs to happen to shake this up.

• All of that being said about the guys on the second unit, the starters did not exactly drape themselves in glory with their effort in the third quarter. You tip your hat to the Warriors on a few of the jumpers they canned, but the Sixers' defensive focus was just not there after halftime, and they allowed Golden State to just walk into some open threes in the third quarter. 

It's no different than letting guys get to the free-throw line or the defense in years past that conceded long twos to guards. You can't just let NBA-caliber players get going with no resistance.

Even when their effort was there, the attention to detail generally wasn't in the second half. Players missed rotations, picked up avoidable fouls, and didn't seem to understand matchups in front of them, closing hard on non-shooters and sagging off of guys who are reasonably competent from deep. They hurt themselves with avoidable mistakes, which is the most painful kind of error.

The worst thing you can do against a bad team is give them life, something Sixers fans know after watching the Process-era team for years. If you step on a bad team's neck, they do not have the means or the energy to fight back, but they will fight tooth and nail if you give them reason to believe. The Warriors qualify as one of those without Steph Curry, and the Sixers gifted them hope they didn't really deserve. 

It was on from there. Getting outscored by 19 points in a quarter in a game against this opponent is just brutal.

• Something to like: Ben Simmons getting to the free-throw line. That's usually an indication of Simmons being in a good place mentally, and it reflected an attack-centric approach on Tuesday.

Something to dislike: Ben Simmons' efficiency at the free-throw line, which has been pretty bad following the All-Star break and has dipped from the heights he'd hit earlier this season. Bummer.

• I like Tyrese Maxey well enough as a player and prospect, and I actually thought he played well when he got to control the offense for short stints. But there are details in the gameplan he just seems to whiff on, which makes it hard to trust him if you're Doc Rivers. 

One big one so far during his rookie year: he leaves his spot on the perimeter where interior players expect him to be for a kick-out, leading to turnovers where they are visibly upset at him for abandoning his post.

Rivers would end up playing Maxey over Shake Milton for a spell in the second half, a decision that was justified based on their play. Is that a route he's willing to go down the stretch, assuming Maxey isn't traded by Thursday, so that they can iron out moments like these before the playoffs? That's another matter entirely.

• How is Furkan Korkmaz such an erratic free-throw shooter? The guy is a credible outside threat at basically all times, but he seems to struggle with freebies, which should be a cakewalk by comparison. Weird one.

• I have talked a big game about living with Dwight Howard's flaws recently, and I still believe you take the bad fouls if it means you get his hard work and aggression. I do not have to accept that he appears to be hunting his jumper and popping more after setting screens, and neither do you. Those jumpers should be reserved for garbage time only.

The Ugly

• Without reading too much into a one-game sample for a teenager, it doesn't say a whole lot about James Wiseman that Tony Bradley wildly outplayed him during Tuesday night's game. 

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