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 overcome a double-digit deficit this time, falling 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 ramping up for a return from a small fracture in his left foot.
According to Shams Charania of The Athletic, Maxey is expected to make his 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 to a Two-Way contract on Monday. King and Julian Champagnie are on Two-Way assignments with the Blue Coats and were unavailable. To make room for King, Saben Lee was waived 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, who are all on G-League assignments with the Capital City Go-Go. Devon Dotson is on a Two-Way assignment 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 were supposed to do against a flimsy interior defense in the game’s opening minutes, exhausting every possible method of establishing Embiid. A feed for a face-up jumper by the baseline, high-low passes over the top when he had deep positioning in the post, and post entry passes when he had single coverage inside.
If Embiid didn’t get an authoritative bucket with his combination of touch and strength, he goaded an assortment of Wizards given the unenviable task of defending him into fouls. Whether it was attacking with brute force and giving Washington no choice but to foul or sensing a reaching defender and swiping through to use their mistakes against them, Embiid had no problem accumulating points at the free throw line when Washington made it more difficult to get them within game action. Embiid scored 16 points in the first quarter, setting the tone early for what would be a 48-point outing for the big guy.
I suppose you can give this team credit for willing its way back into three consecutive games after trailing by 14-or-more points in each game. 14 points isn’t exactly a big deficit in today’s game. But, they had a 20-point deficit against the Clippers. They trailed the Knicks by 14 on Christmas. They were down 16 in this one. The winning streak ended at eight games because you’re just not going to win every game in which you spot the opposition a double-digit advantage. But, it’s a sign that they have the horses to overcome mounting adversity. Perhaps this team is tougher and more resilient than we had 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 the most. And when it came to the final frame, Harden came out aggressive. He couldn’t find the mark from deep, but he sensed a couple of switches and executed. He pulled out one Wizard to close, drawing a three-shot foul. Then, he got downhill for a couple of buckets, fighting his way to the rim to lead the Sixers back to a one-possession deficit after they opened the quarter down nine points. We’ll see if Harden gets All-Star consideration (I think he should), but this was a highlight game for the guard. He took over while Embiid rested to start the fourth quarter.
The Sixers did a fantastic job of disrupting Washington’s offense in the passing lanes, picking off a handful of errant throws in the first frame. When the Wizards didn’t turn the ball over on the pass, the Sixers gathered up the deflections to create run-outs. Well-timed help rotations and quick hands forced Washington to get back and defend in transition. But, Philadelphia only scored 4 points off Washington’s 9 first-quarter turnovers. That’s unacceptable against anyone, and simply inconceivable against a team eight games under .500. There were plenty of missed shots on Philadelphia’s end, but the Sixers didn’t exactly take care of the ball or get the best looks on their trips down in transition.
Rivers once again went with an all-bench lineup in the last few minutes of the first quarter. For the third game in a row, that was when Philadelphia’s opponent seized control and built its momentum. There’s not a lot to say about the bench. There’s no consistent shot-creator in the team’s pool of reserves.
If you’re going to go all-bench, you then need a big who is consistently up to the task of protecting the rim and getting defensive rebounds so that the Sixers can hold opponents to one shot on most possessions. Philadelphia has Montrezl Harrell and Paul Reed staffing the minutes behind Embiid. Neither has proven the clear winner of the reserve minutes. I would say Reed has been decidedly better than Harrell, even through his youthful mistakes. But, you see why Reed doesn’t have Rivers’ full trust when he’s in a heavy drop coverage on a Beal pick-and-roll, letting the star guard walk into a naked three to give Washington an 11-point advantage going into halftime.
I don’t understand the decision to favor Harrell for the entirety of December. Reed was particularly horrific in a very short stint against the Lakers early in the month. Harrell had a few good moments after that. But, he’s been slightly less than unplayable on offense, and that was supposed to be his only playable side of the court. The two bigs behind Embiid combined for a minus-14 line in the seven minutes Embiid rested in the first half. 33 games into the season, I still don’t know that there’s a solution backing up the franchise center, and that means that has to be a discussion when assessing the trade market as this season progresses.
The hope has to be that Rivers staggers Embiid, Harden, Maxey, and Harris once the young guard comes back later this week so that two of the core are on the court at all times. There just cannot be any more all-bench lineups. You’re not going to have many winning streaks if your starters have to battle back from double-digit deficits every time they come back into the game. As for the backup center issues plaguing Philadelphia at the moment, there’s no obvious remedy there. I think it has to start with going back to Reed, because Harrell just isn’t the answer.
Even when Embiid came back, things didn’t stabilize. Philadelphia spent much of the second quarter trading baskets after he returned. They struggled so much defending in man-to-man that the Sixers had to sit in a zone for the vast majority of the game, starting in the second frame.
Look no further than the defensive glass for a significant chunk of those defensive issues. Embiid’s mobility gives him additional responsibilities on defense. He can’t just tap dance around the basket as he thwarts drivers and bigs. Embiid has to defend in space, lifting away from the basket to cut off driving angles when offenses penetrate 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 rotate over to secure the backside when Embiid lifts far too often, leaving offensive rebounders runways to crash the glass or opposing bigs to slip by to clean up misses. Even when the Sixers weren’t punished by the first shot, they didn’t finish defensive stands. All game long, the Wizards crashed the space behind Embiid to clean up their own misses.
Harden was often the one manning the backside. Yet, he was standing and watching, his head turning the other way when Washington took advantage of his falling asleep to land a put-back dunk or layup. At this point, it’s probably not worth the time writing about Harden’s defensive futility. He’s a guard in his mid-30s who has never been a positive defender. But, it would be tremendously helpful to the Sixers if he didn’t completely check out on defense until the team desperately needed stops in the guts of the game.
As much as the Sixers have lived in zone on defense in recent weeks, they’ve looked absolutely lost at times trying to score against zones. Philadelphia looked utterly lost for portions of the third quarter in their efforts to score on Washington’s zone. Some of it undoubtedly was that shots weren’t falling. When threes are few and far between (6-for-31 on Tuesday), that eliminates a basic weapon against a zone.
But, there were times when the Sixers were too late seeing open shooters, not even giving themselves chances at clean looks. They also made a number of short passes, which is ineffective in pulling zones out of position. You need to make the occasional home run pass across the floor to break zones because that’s how you pull them out of position. That’s why the first step is putting a decent passer in the middle, so that one side of the floor is connected to the other. But, the Sixers were far too content with making passes along the strong side of the court, which effectively does nothing unless a prior pass already pulled the zone out of position.
Philadelphia ran one gorgeous pick-and-roll between Harden and Embiid out of a timeout late in the fourth quarter to bring the Sixers to within one possession. It was an incredibly easy bucket for Embiid. And yet, the two-man game completely vanished after that. Some of that is undoubtedly coaching. Rivers has to tie the offense together and do what he can to dictate the plays. But, how the hell do the two best players just completely forget about their chemistry as an offensive duo. Philadelphia did a great job of getting to the two-man game throughout the homestand. And both the floor general and focal point of the offense completely abandoned it in crunch time.
Even worse was what they went to instead of the pick-and-roll. The Sixers are a very good isolation team. But, both Harden and Embiid slipped into one-on-one play far too much down the stretch. And with the game hanging in the balance with less than three minutes to play, the ball went to Embiid in isolation. He was dominant all night, but he ran out of gas late. The big guy committed three turnovers in the final three minutes to take away any hope of yet another comeback victory.
Good grief, this officiating crew missed a handful of travel calls. Might need a seminar running through examples just to make sure they’re seeing things correctly.
The Sixers (20-13) will visit the New Orleans Pelicans (21-12) on Friday. Tip-off is set for 8:30 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the game on NBC Sports Philadelphia.