The Sixers (46-29) visited the Detroit Pistons (20-56) on Thursday night. Philadelphia hoped to snap a 2-game losing streak. Detroit intended to break a 3-game losing streak of its own. The Sixers were outscored 29-15 in the fourth quarter en route to a putrid loss, 102-94.
Before we get to the game, some notes.
Philadelphia was without Charles Bassey, Jaden Springer, and Myles Powell (Two-Way). They were all on G-League assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats. Springer is also dealing with a sore left groin.
Doc Rivers started James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, Matisse Thybulle, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
Detroit was without the services of Jerami Grant, who is nursing a strained left calf.
Hamidou Diallo is recovering from an avulsion fracture of a left finger and was unavailable.
Luka Garza was out with a sprained left ankle. Chris Smith is recovering from surgery on his left knee and was unavailable.
Dwane Casey started Cade Cunningham, Cory Joseph, Saddiq Bey, Marvin Bagley III, and Isaiah Stewart.
Perhaps the most underrated aspect of Joel Embiid’s defensive prowess is his consistency in walking the line as a drop defender in the pick-and-roll. He was tasked with keeping Cade Cunningham at bay as a navigator of pick-and-rolls early. Embiid played up in the drop and moved in unison with the ball-handler so as to protect against the screener from leaking behind him to the basket while threatening Cunningham by staying within reach. Walking that line is so difficult because ball-handlers can score from 3 different levels and shift speeds to create advantages against bigs.
If that’s not taxing enough, you also have to keep your head on a swivel so that you don’t lose sight of the screener. Embiid doesn’t always register a box score event with his efforts on those defensive stanzas. But, his consistency in correctly walking that trapeze wire forces the offense into toggling through their secondary actions because they can’t get anything flowing from the initial pick-and-roll.
It’s also a testament to Embiid’s improved conditioning over the last few seasons. Part of why Brett Brown had to trot out deep drop coverages was because Embiid didn’t have the motor required to be effective in a scheme with constant dancing. In such deep drops, Philadelphia often got burned in space by ball-handlers capable of pulling up off the dribble out of screens. So, the big fella certainly deserves credit for doing what he needed to do to elevate his defensive prowess.
The Sixers also did a superb job of hunting switches in the first quarter. Detroit was switching high pick-and-rolls between James Harden and Embiid. They rotated Isaiah Stewart onto Harden and matched Saddiq Bey with Embiid. And from there, Harden astutely flicked the ball over to his enormous teammate to take advantage of his massive size advantage. That should be an automatic for really any pick-and-roll between Harden and Embiid. In fact, you can add Tyrese Maxey to that guard role in the two-man game, as well.
Although, defenses are maybe a bit more willing to switch those pick-and-rolls with Harden because of his seeming loss of a step. Perhaps they switch because they feel like their bigs are capable of staying in front of a slower version of Harden. The implication I’m going for is that maybe they don’t switch with Maxey as the orchestrator because doing so would create two mismatches instead of the one that they perceive to be the case in switching an Embiid-Harden pick-and-roll.
Speaking of Harden, he looked like his Houston self in the first half after a strong night against the Bucks on Tuesday. He smelled blood on every switch. Harden lulling Pistons to sleep with his machine-gun dribble before pulling back for threes or bursting into space for shots at the rim. He scored 14 points on 7 field goal attempts and got to the charity stripe 7 times in the first half.
None of the concerns are really all that major if Harden unleashes his prime self in the playoffs. The guy who preyed on switches is who the Sixers envisioned when they made the trade back in February. The version we’ve seen over the last game and a half has become appropriately selfish against switches. He assertively calls his own number when he feels he has an advantage. The Harden we saw against the Bucks used the pick-and-roll game a bit more. But, that is more a product of the defensive scheme you’re facing. Bottom line — after the silent second half against the Suns, Harden has responded quite well.
And while we’re talking about Harden, the man has this knack for floating these wildly high entry passes to Embiid when he’s posting up. He doesn’t throw it front of Embiid. Rather, he leads him to a spot and makes him go get the ball. His secret sauce is hanging the pass long enough for Embiid to get to the location in time. The Sixers went from needing a Post Entry Passes for Dummies book to having a guy who delivers them like a Hall-of-Fame quarterback.
Embiid made some incredible emergency plays as a helper on defense. He sensed his teammates were in vulnerable positions under the basket or in transition. Embiid sprinted back into the play to record a couple of last-second denials at the rim. His timing, touch, and instinct as a shot-blocker is, at times, absolutely breath-taking.
Matisse Thybulle has got to stop missing layups. Period.
Even when Embiid got the favorable switch against significantly smaller defenders closer to the basket, he still wasn’t getting great looks. That’s one of the weaknesses of his game that has persisted throughout his dominance over the last two seasons. Part of that is the closer he gets to the paint against switch mismatches, the more bigger helpers are going to gamble to trap him as he pivots. But still, Embiid shouldn’t be settling for fadeaway jumpers against 6-foot-7 guys.
Furkan Korkmaz got a couple minutes in the first half and was promptly played off the floor. Detroit attacked him endlessly. They ran out-of-bounds plays to get him involved in chasing behind darting Pistons on screens as they burned him to the basket.
Harden went too heavy with the isolations when he was with the all-bench units. Some of the heat-check shots were warranted after he started the game hot. But, he largely failed to get his teammates involved in those bench units. Everyone was essentially spacing out and ball-watching his isolations. The lack of ball movement disengaged the other 4 players on the court. Largely a result of the lethargic style of play in those lineups, Philadelphia’s bench was outscored 21-0 in the first half. For the night, they reserves lost the bench battle, 39-8.
As the game progressed, Harden let his early three-point success get to his head a bit. Most of his switches became step-back threes. That’s part of his game. Thus, that’s what you get with him. Gotta take the bad with the good sometimes. But when the other team is making a push to get back into the game, flinging shots of low expected value is risky. Harden didn’t do the Sixers any favors continuing to try his luck on step-backs when Detroit made its run after already having cooled down.
Embiid’s teammates did not help him identify blindside traps coming out of the post at all in the second half. There were a handful of occasions in which Embiid was stripped without warning because a Piston sold out to trap on the backside. He gets the credit for the turnovers. But, his teammates have to talk and make him aware of the help coming. That’s an effort failure on the other 4 Sixers on the court.
We can blame Doc Rivers up and down Broad Street. But, this loss was purely on the players not named Embiid. Harden didn’t turn the corner on anyone in the second half after getting to the rim rather easily in the first half. Tyrese Maxey committed uncharacteristic turnovers. More accurately, the entire team was a turnover machine in the fourth quarter on Thursday. And Detroit just took advantage of sloppy mistakes en route to a 23-4 run in the final quarter.
Philadelphia assumed they could coast to victory on the basis of talent. They took an inferior team playing extremely loosely for granted. The fans have been calling for Rivers’ head (sometimes rightfully so) since last season. But, at some point the players have to be accountable for themselves. Everyone in a Sixers jersey played terribly in crunch time. Now, the question is will all of the hideous losses to bad or undermanned teams throughout the season cost them a more favorable playoff matchup.
The Sixers (46-30) will host the Charlotte Hornets (40-37) on Saturday. Tip-off is scheduled for 12:30 PM, Eastern time. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.