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January 17, 2022

Instant observations: Sixers drop matinee to Wizards thanks to brutal defense

Joel Embiid's streak of scoring 30-plus points on the road was extended to 11 games, but it wasn't enough against Washington

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Bradley-Beal-Sixers-Wiz_011722_usat Scott Taetsch/USA TODAY Sports

Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal (3) celebrates during his team's win over the Philadelphia 76ers.

The Sixers followed one of their biggest feel-good wins of the year with a brutal loss on Monday afternoon, smoked 117-98 by the Wizards down in D.C.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• Joel Embiid understood exactly what sort of matchup was in front of him on Monday, spending less time on outside shots and face-up jumpers than he did on sealing guys in the post against Washington. Poor Daniel Gafford was taken for a ride in the first quarter, Embiid baiting him into three early fouls, and the hit parade didn't stop when Gafford hit the bench, with Embiid attacking Thomas Bryant the moment he hit the floor.

He needed every free-throw trip he could get, because Embiid's touch wasn't super reliable anywhere else but the charity stripe to start this game. That doesn't matter as much when you're absolutely burying anybody who tries to dance with you in the post, and this was a game all about Embiid simply moving people out of the way. Washington's frontline isn't especially big in the first place, but when he was able to get switches against guys like Kyle Kuzma, it got ugly for the Wizards, who tried to hold on for dear life as Embiid exploded toward the rim.

A "but...." to add here: this is one of the only times this season where it felt like the offense was almost too Embiid-centric at times. That might seem insane, given his run of dominance and the supporting cast, but his Ghengis Khan act in the post led to long stretches of the game where other Sixers players were basically just there to give him the ball and stand around. It took until the final minutes of the first half to get a guy as important as Seth Curry involved, for example. Embiid absolutely played the right way and did the right thing in the circumstances, but most players will tell you how hard it is to get into and stay in a rhythm if you're just a passenger for a lot of the game.

I think it says a lot about the level Embiid is at these days that he got another easy 30+ points on the board without it feeling like he played well. We'll get to complaints on him below.

• Isaiah Joe playing well enough to stay on the floor is a welcome sight, and he did more than just knock down deep threes on Monday afternoon. With the Sixers in need of a spark to remain in this game and make a push down the stretch, Joe poked away a steal and went solo in transition, punching one in a manner that I wasn't sure he was capable of:

Enjoy that moment, because it was one of few bright spots for Philly on Monday afternoon.

• We give Doc Rivers a lot of grief for his use (or lack thereof) of the coach's challenge, but I thought he pulled Philly's out in an interesting spot on Monday afternoon. Embiid picked up a questionable offensive foul in a spot where Gafford could have been blown for his second early foul of the game, and Rivers decided to get a second look at that. Turns out, he was justified for the decision, and that was doubly true when Gafford picked up a third foul less than six minutes into the game.

The Bad

• The Sixers are down all of their defense-minded perimeter players save for Charlie Brown Jr., and let me tell you, you don't want to be in a position where your best perimeter defensive option is a guy you only just pulled out of the G-League a couple of weeks ago. Try as he might to impact the game there, Brown couldn't do enough to make up for all the weak links in the chain and the poor rotations all over the floor.

This was a game where you could see the impact of the recent schedule catching up to Philadelphia. After playing back-to-back on Friday and Saturday, the Sixers got the least amount of time off they could have possibly gotten between this game and the Heat win thanks to the 2 p.m. start. It showed — the connected, energetic defense they showed throughout Saturday's win was absent early in this one, with Sixers players often standing flat-footed as the game happened around them. When that wasn't happening, their decision-making was frequently suspect, as guys flew past assignments and overcommitted rather than preserving the integrity of the defense.

Take this play for example, which will be noted for the poster dunk by Kyle Kuzma on Embiid first and foremost:

The problem here isn't Embiid getting dunked on, it's Tobias Harris acting like a headless chicken and losing his assignment for no real reason. Kuzma shouldn't have a driving lane in the first place, but Harris chases a player he's not supposed to be guarding and never gets back to his man, allowing Kuzma to load up and jam one on Embiid.

Behind it all, this was not one of Joel Embiid's better games on the defensive end. He shouldn't have to carry them all by himself every single game, but his ability to clean things up after initial penetration hides a lot of their flaws most nights, and he didn't have his usual impact in this one. I wouldn't necessarily chalk it up to effort, as he ran hard in transition both ways, but there were definitely some moments where he scaled it back either out of disinterest or frustration. There was a moment where Tobias Harris looked him off on an open opportunity in the post that seemed to fluster Embiid, and I can't say I blame him a ton for that. He still needs to actually try to remain engaged play-to-play, which was a struggle in Monday's game. There were too many possessions where he was a passenger, and that's far below the standard he has set.

For schedule-related reasons we discussed above, I don't think this is a game worth killing the defense too hard for. It was damn ugly, obviously, but they had good reason to be a little lethargic. So it goes.

• If that defensive lowlight above is not enough to drive the point home, we can just say it outright — Tobias Harris was borderline unplayable in this game, horrendous on both ends of the floor outside of a decent start on midrange jumpers. And even that sort of sums up the problem with Harris this season, because if he's not making tough two-point jumpers, he is not offering much of anything on either end of the floor.

With Ben Simmons out of sight this season, the Sixers have had to make up for a variety of skills and contributions that have come from different guys. Embiid has chipped in as a transition player, Maxey is playing and scoring more, and Thybulle is trying his hand at being the top-assignment defender for Philly. But rebounding has been a huge problem all year, and you would think the guy who basically has to play power forward would make a difference on that front. Instead, Harris is often an active part of the issue, standing around with no plan or purpose when a shot is coming off of the rim. That lack of focus is apparent in a number of other areas, including defense, where Harris has gone from engaged member of an elite defensive unit to a problem spot on a team with enough structural concerns to account for.

There's been an attempt to look for reasons and excuses for Harris this year, whether you chalk his struggles up to COVID recuperation, physical issues, or the lack of a true lead playmaker to ease his burden as a creator. The fact of the matter is he simply hasn't been good enough.

• Furkan Korkmaz the ballhandler has a lot more funk to his game than he's given credit for. Though you'd like to see Tyrese Maxey get the lion's share of touches when he's running the second unit, Korkmaz has some unique qualities as a lead ballhandler, mainly the size that he has started to leverage better this year and last. Korkmaz is able to see over the defense and make some cross-court reads that are relatively advanced for a guy who isn't a full-time point, and that vision generates quality looks for teammates fairly often.

The pass fake has become a big part of his arsenal this season, with Korkmaz weaponizing the threat of a pass as both a scorer and a playmaker. In the first half of Monday's game, Korkmaz's pass feints drew defenders out of his path or away from the player he wanted to get the ball to, creating open looks for Philly. Other teammates have started to incorporate more pass fakes of their own, including the aforementioned Maxey, a small-ish guard for whom that skill is critical.

Unfortunately, Korkmaz couldn't hit water from a boat when shooting the ball on Monday, and that ended up being a pretty big deal. It's an even bigger deal that Korkmaz has simply not shot the ball well all season, save for some brief hot stretches from outside. The creative abilities give him more utility for this team, but they can't override the fact that he's shooting under 30 percent from deep on the season. That has to change if he's going to remain in the rotation.

(While we're here, Isaiah Joe has to get to at least average from deep himself. He's the obvious young guy many fans want to be promoted to a bigger role, but even with a decent afternoon on Monday, Joe has been below average shooting the ball this season, which is a problem for a supposed shooting specialist. The form is pretty and effortless, but it needs to lead to consistent results.)

• You are starting to see the challenge of making Charlie Brown Jr. a rotation guy if he's not able to offer something concrete on offense. He ends up in the right places, I think his decision-making is mostly good, but his craft inside and outside just isn't there, with most of his shot attempts devolving into chaos on Monday.

Brown ended up occupying a lot of the spaces Thybulle normally does on offense, flashing into the paint on cuts that Joel Embiid was happy to hit for layup attempts. Unfortunately, Brown struggled to convert those looks when he got them, throwing up some wild shots that never really had a chance to drop.

• Related to the Brown subject — there's almost no universe where the Sixers should go through a game and Brown is as involved or more involved on offense than Seth Curry and/or Tyrese Maxey. Two of Philadelphia's most dangerous players were relegated to spectating duty for far too long against the Wizards, and that's something the coaching staff has to recognize at some point during the game.

• It is very tough to win games when you shoot as poorly as the Sixers did from outside.

The Ugly

• Did Andre Drummond try to do the dunk where you basically throw the ball into the net? I wasn't the only one who saw that in the second quarter, correct? Maybe it wasn't the easiest lob attempt to just throw down normally, but perhaps save the dunk contest stuff for the actual dunk contest instead of a real game.

• I said it before recently, but the Sixers' broadcast is devolving into a whiny homerfest and I do not like it whatsoever. It's all well and good to scrutinize calls and highlight the big turning point moments of any game, but when nearly every single call against the Sixers turns into a crusade against the officials, it's just annoying. 

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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