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June 01, 2021

Instant observations: Sixers squander sweep opportunity, lose Joel Embiid to injury in Game 4

The Sixers lost Joel Embiid to injury in the first half, and they lost their ability to sweep the Wizards in the process, dropping Game 4 on the road, 122-114. Though their inability to sweep is a big deal, all eyes now turn to the injury report, familiar territory for this group.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• The Sixers did not have a lot going for them in the first half of this game. Joel Embiid left the game after a hard fall, Ben Simmons was in foul trouble, and Tobias Harris spent a lot of the half missing shots or getting blocked at the rim. Somebody had to step up to keep them in the game, and George Hill ended up being the guy to steer them through troubled waters.

He may not have been the sexy move everyone was hoping for at the trade deadline, but it is abundantly clear Hill is their most important bench player after just four playoff games. The comfort he shows both on and off the ball is a major blessing for a team that still hasn't figured out the rotation, with Hill just as comfortable stepping into spot-up threes as he is attacking the basket off-the-dribble. Philadelphia needed him to do both against the Wizards.

That offensive flexibility (to say nothing of his defensive versatility) is going to be massive for the Sixers, assuming they don't fall apart following the injury to Embiid. 

• It's not going to go down as a highlight-reel performance, but Furkan Korkmaz was one of the only reasons the Sixers had a chance to win this game coming down the stretch. It wasn't just that he scored seven points in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter — though those points were critical — it was Korkmaz stepping up and deciding he was going to give Philadelphia a chance to win this game. The Turkish wing came up with a tough offensive rebound and subsequence and-one finish early in the quarter, capping off a solo run that brought the Sixers within three.

That sort of play is a testament to Korkmaz, but it's also a testament to the group, who have battled through adversity and found unorthodox ways to win all season. If only they had gotten the win part down. 

• On balance, this was a pretty bad night for Tyrese Maxey for most of the game. He was erratic early as a decisionmaker, uncommon for him lately, and it took him a while to get rolling as an attacker.

But man, you have to admire the fearlessness of this kid. The rookie was Philadelphia's best player for a stretch in the fourth quarter, going on a one-man run on both ends to pull the Sixers within a bucket of tying it up. After scoring a teardrop floater and knocking down a three, Maxey's encore was a block and forced turnover on Russell Westbrook barreling toward the rim, a sequence that made you forget for a moment that he's only 20 years old.

Even during the tougher stretches, I do give the rookie credit for (mostly) playing the same game as he has for a month-plus, while a team filled with veterans who are supposed to be steadier collapsed under the weight of increased expectations sans Embiid. This is the first adversity the rookie has had to face in a playoff setting, and it will ultimately be good for him in the long term. 

The stage doesn't look too big for him. That alone is a huge development for Philly right now, let alone in the long-term.

The Bad

• You can certainly put the blame for picking up three fouls in the first half on Ben Simmons. He is, after all, the guy who actually committed said fouls. But it was up to his head coach to decide how to use him in that spot, and Rivers deciding to turn the game over to bench and role players felt like a miscalculation when it happened, and looked worse as the half wore on.

"Foul trouble" is only as dangerous as you allow it to be. With Joel Embiid already back in the locker room getting evaluated for a potential injury, leaving Simmons out of the game for a bunch of non-Embiid minutes with Mike Scott of all people at center is borderline irresponsible. But that's what Doc Rivers opted to do, and Washington was able to get rolling a little bit in the minutes before halftime.

It's the way coaches always handle it, and it felt especially silly given the context of the game. By worrying about whether Simmons would be available later in the game, Rivers guaranteed a guy who typically avoids foul trouble would not be on the floor.

• I would have liked to see the Sixers try a small-ball look that did not have Mike Scott in it to open the second half. That being said, Scott was not the guy ultimately responsible for the Sixers' poor decision-making and transition defense to open the half. The normal starters owned plenty of that, as they have throughout the season.

(That said — of course Mike Scott isn't and wasn't good. He hasn't been good at any point this season, and there has to be a small look that works for Philly without him. Unfortunately, Rivers has refused to try it beyond some very small stretches in the regular season.)

• We'll have to wait and see whether this is a problem against slower teams, but Dwight Howard's commitment to attacking the offensive glass has gotten them burned in transition quite a few times in this series. With a maximum of four guys back after a miss, the Sixers are struggling to pick up bodies and prevent open layups or threes when the other team pushes the pace.

It's certainly not all Howard's fault — there are a lot of miscommunications and misfires between perimeter bench players happening — but it's one side effect of his style of play.

• This was not a good night for Tobias Harris to regress to the passive, sputtering player he was at times last season. Even before Embiid exited with what the Sixers called a knee issue, Harris was struggling to find his footing against a team he has brutalized all series. When Ish Smith is blocking you at the rim, you know you're having a difficult day at the races.

Daniel Gafford was on a mission to personally ruin Harris' night, turning him away or making him second guess a shot attempt time and time again. The impact it had on Harris was obvious, but it honestly felt more profound than that — it was as if his passiveness spread to the rest of the team, with players passing up open jumpers and decent shot opportunities without a leader to anchor them during a tough stretch.

Before piling on Harris too hard, though, it's worth noting that his teammates were basically asking him to bail them out of stagnant possessions over and over again. Harris didn't do all that much to exploit the advantages he did create, with Smith having a surprising amount of success against him in isolation, but there were far too many ball-watching possessions where Harris was being asked to create something out of nothing.

In any case, Philadelphia really needed the best version of Harris on Monday night. They didn't get anything close to that. 

• The worst thing you can do with a team (or a person) on the ropes is to let them build confidence and think they're still in a fight they can win. It's why Saturday's Game 3 seemed so important and so impressive for the Sixers — they came out and smoked the Wizards and made it clear they weren't going to play with their food, so to speak.

Unfortunately, Embiid going down has the potential to change this series if it's at all serious. Considering he played several minutes after he went down in the first place, I would lean toward that not being the case. 

• We talked about it after Game 1, when Simmons basically could not touch the ball in crunch time as a result of his free-throw woes. It has been spun into, "People who think Ben needs to score more are idiots!" in the week-plus following that game. But teams are going to prey on his free-throw shooting, and the Wizards opted to hack Simmons in the final minutes of Monday's game instead of playing defense.

Here's the good news — Simmons made half of his attempts, a considerably better mark than he'd managed up to that point in the series, and enough to (in theory) dissuade teams from going this route again. If the Sixers had been able to get stops on the other end of the floor, a point per possession could have been enough to get it done. Unfortunately, it was not. So you will likely see this again, which I know none of you are looking forward to.

There were reasons out of his control that Simmons did not pile up points in Embiid's absence, and those have been addressed above. It is, and I can't believe I have to say this, completely reasonable for people to be upset that he still did not do more to push them over the line. He is a max contract point guard and carries the expectations of one. His ability to impact the game all over the place does not excuse him for falling short when he does so, and we can credibly discuss both sides of this insufferable argument at the same time. 

The Ugly

• The only thing the Sixers needed to accomplish in this game aside from picking up the win was maintaining a clean bill of health. That's in at least some jeopardy after Joel Embiid took a hard fall midway through the first quarter, scaring the bejeezus out of everybody watching the game.

Embiid would remain in the game after the fall, and it did look like he fell more on his hip and butt than his back, which was initially a bit of good news. But he had to retreat to the locker room when he checked out of the game at the end of the quarter, inspiring questions about how much the fall actually hurt him. The Sixers would rule him out during the halftime intermission, using "right knee soreness" as the explanation despite the knee seemingly not being at risk during his fall.

If Embiid does have a serious issue, be that with the knee or otherwise, it will bring him back to the same place he has found himself during past playoff runs — not at 100 percent. This year was supposed to be different, and while it still could be, this is quite a downer and much bigger than the Game 4 loss. 

• As if we haven't had enough idiot fan incidents over the last week or two, some D.C. moron decided it was a good idea to run onto the floor in the middle of the third quarter on Monday night. Thankfully, he wasn't able to cause any damage outside of the hit he will take to his own public reputation for the rest of his life. Even still, it is getting tiresome seeing a new knucklehead show their ass night after night.

Social activities being limited for the last 14 months or so does not give anyone the excuse to act like a buffoon. If you can't handle the responsibility of being in a public setting, keep your ass on the couch before you screw it up for everybody.

• The officiating in this game was just terrible in every way. I probably should have been more prepared for that possibility coming into the playoffs, because there were a lot of rough games for the zebras all season. Hard contact was let go, ticky-tack fouls piled up at both ends. Not exactly what people think of when they think of, "playoff basketball." 

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