The Sixers (20-12) visited the Washington Wizards (13-21) on Tuesday. Philadelphia was looking for its ninth consecutive win. Washington wanted to build on Friday’s victory over the Sacramento Kings. The Sixers couldn’t clear a two-digit deficit this time and fell short against the Wizards, 116-111.
Before we get to the game, allow me to set the scene.
The Sixers were without Tyrese Maxey, who is on his way back from a minor fracture in his left foot.
According to Shams Charania van The athleticMaxey is expected to return to the Sixers’ lineup on Friday when the team visits the New Orleans Pelicans.
Jaden Springer is on a G-League assignment with the Delaware Blue Coats and was unavailable.
The Sixers announced the signing of forward Lous King on a two-way contract on Monday. King and Julian Champagnie have two-way assignments with the Blue Coats and were unavailable. To make way for King, Saben Lee was released from his two-way contract with Philadelphia.
Doc Rivers started James Harden, De’Anthony Melton, Tobias Harris, PJ Tucker and Joel Embiid.
The Wizards were without Vernon Carey Jr., Johnny Davis and Isaiah Todd, all of whom have G-League assignments at the Capital City Go-Go. Devon Dotson has a two-way command with the Go-Go and was unavailable.
Wes Unseld Jr. started Monte Morris, Bradley Beal, Kyle Kuzma, Kristaps Porzingis and Daniel Gafford.
The Sixers did exactly what they had to do against a weak inside defense in the opening minutes of the game, exhausting every possible method to set up Embiid. A feed for a face-up jumper at the baseline, high-low passes over the top when deep in the post, and post-entry passes when within single cover.
When Embiid didn’t get an authoritative bucket with his combination of touch and power, he wentaded an assortment of wizards who were given the unenviable task of defending him to transgressions. Whether attacking with brute force and giving Washington no choice but to commit a foul or feeling a reaching defender and sweep through to use their fouls against them, Embiid had no problem accumulating points at the free throw line when Washington made it harder to get them within game action. Embiid scored 16 points in the first quarter, setting the tone early on for what was to be a 48-point outing for the big man.
I suppose you can give credit to this team for working their way back in three straight games after trailing by 14 or more points in each game. 14 points is not exactly a big deficit in today’s game. But against the Clippers, they trailed by 20 points. They trailed the Knicks at Christmas 14. They were 16 down on this one. The winning streak ended at eight games because you just aren’t going to win every game where you see the opponent have a double-digit advantage. But it is a sign that they have the horses to overcome mounting adversity. Perhaps this team is tougher and more resilient than we previously thought.
Harden struggled with shooting consistency throughout the game. But stardom isn’t always about what you do in the first three quarters. The fourth quarter is where it matters most. And when it came to the final frame, Harden came out aggressive. He couldn’t find the target from deep, but he sensed a few substitutions and executed. He brought out a wizard to close and fouled with three shots. Then he went downhill a few buckets and fought his way to the rim to lead the Sixers back to a one-possession deficit after they started the quarter with nine points. We’ll see if Harden gets All-Star consideration (I think he should), but this was a highlight for the guard. He took over while Embiid rested to begin the fourth quarter.
The Sixers did a fantastic job disrupting Washington’s offense in the passing lanes by picking up a handful of first-frame foul throws. When the Wizards failed to flip the ball on the pass, the Sixers collected the deflections to create runouts. Well-timed assist rotations and quick hands forced Washington to come back and defend in the transition. But Philadelphia only scored 4 points on Washington’s 9 turnovers in the first quarter. That is unacceptable against anyone, and simply unthinkable against an eight-game team under .500. There were many missed shots on the Philadelphia side, but the Sixers didn’t exactly care for the ball or get the best looks on their trips in transition.
Rivers went with an all-bench lineup again in the closing minutes of the first quarter. For the third game in a row, that’s when the Philadelphia opponent took control and built its momentum. Not much to say about the bank. There is no consistent shot creator in the team’s reserve pool.
If you’re going to play all-bench, you need a big one that consistently takes on the task of protecting the rim and getting defensive rebounds so the Sixers can hold their opponents on most possessions with one shot. Philadelphia has Montrezl Harrell and Paul Reed manning the minutes behind Embiid. Neither has proven to be the clear winner of the reserve minutes. I would say that Reed has definitely been better than Harrell, even through his youthful mistakes. But you can understand why Reed doesn’t have Rivers’ full confidence when he’s in heavy drop coverage on a Beal pick-and-roll, leading the star guard to run into a naked three to give Washington an 11-point lead at halftime .
I don’t understand the decision to favor Harrell for the entire month of December. Reed was particularly horrific in a very short stint against the Lakers early this month. Harrell had a few good moments after that. But he was a little less than unplayable on offense, and that would be his only playable side of the field. The two greats behind Embiid combined for a minus-14 line in the seven minutes that Embiid rested in the first half. After 33 games into the season, I’m still not sure if there’s a fix for the franchise center, and that means this should be a discussion when assessing the trade market as this season progresses.
The hope must be that Rivers Embiid, Harden, Maxey and Harris falter once the young guard return later this week, so that two of the core are always on the pitch. There just can’t be a setup for all banks anymore. You won’t have many winning streaks if your starters have to fight back from double-digit deficits every time they come back into the game. As for the backup center problems currently plaguing Philadelphia, there is no clear cut solution. I think it has to start with going back to Reed, because Harrell just isn’t the answer.
Even when Embiid came back, it didn’t stabilize. Philadelphia spent much of the second quarter trading baskets after returning. They had so much trouble defending in hand-to-hand combat that the Sixers had to zone for most of the game, starting in the second frame.
Look no further than the defensive glass for a significant portion of those defensive issues. Embiid’s mobility gives him additional defense responsibilities. He can’t just tap-dance around the basket thwarting racers and greats. Embiid must defend in space away from the basket to cut driving corners when fouls invade the first line on the perimeter. But that means Embiid’s teammates have to be there to help him when he lifts. The Sixers fail to turn to secure the back when Embiid lifts way too many times, leaving offensive rebounders to crash into the glass or opposing bigs to slip by to clean up misses. Even when the Sixers weren’t penalized by the first shot, they didn’t finish the defensive bleachers. Throughout the game, the Wizards crashed into space behind Embiid to clean up their own misses.
Harden was often the one manning the rear. Still, he stood by, turning his head the other way as Washington took advantage of his slumber to land a put-back dunk or layup. At this point, it’s probably not worth writing about Harden’s defensive futility. He is a guard in his mid thirties who has never been a positive defender. But it would help the Sixers immensely if he didn’t check out the defense completely until the team needed desperate stops in the guts of the game.
As much as the Sixers have lived in zone defense in recent weeks, they have looked absolutely lost at times as they try to score against zones. Philadelphia looked utterly lost in their attempts to score in Washington’s zone for parts of the third quarter. Part of it, no doubt, was that the shots didn’t fall. When there are few threes (6-for-31 on Tuesday), that eliminates a basic weapon against a zone.
But there were times when the Sixers were too late to see open shooters, not even giving themselves a chance to look clean. They also made some short passes, which are ineffective for pulling zones out of position. You should occasionally hit a home run across the floor to break zones because that’s how you pull them out of position. That’s why the first step is to place a decent compass in the middle, so that one side of the floor is connected to the other. But the Sixers were far too content to make passes down the strong side of the field, which basically does nothing unless an earlier pass has already pulled the zone out of position.
Philadelphia made a beautiful pick-and-roll between Harden and Embiid from a timeout late in the fourth quarter to bring the Sixers within one possession. It was an incredibly easy bucket for Embiid. And yet the two-man game completely disappeared after that. Part of that is undoubtedly coaching. Rivers must tie the offense together and do what he can to dictate the plays. But how on earth can the two best players completely forget their chemistry as an attacking duo. Philadelphia did a great job coming to the two-man game during the homestand. And both the floor general and the focal point of the attack completely abandoned it in the time of crisis.
Even worse was where they went instead of the pick and roll. The Sixers are a very good isolation team. But both Harden and Embiid slipped way too much into one-on-one play. And with less than three minutes left in the game, the ball went isolated to Embiid. He was dominant all night, but he ran out of gas late. The big man lost possession three times in the last three minutes to take away any hope of another comeback victory.
My goodness, this crew on duty has missed a handful of travel calls. You may need a seminar to go through examples to make sure they see things correctly.
The Sixers (20-13) will visit the New Orleans Pelicans (21-12) on Friday. The tip is set for 8:30 p.m. Eastern Time. You can watch the game on NBC Sports Philadelphia.
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