The Sixers (23-14) hosted the Chicago Bulls (17-21) on Friday. Philadelphia looked to win its fourth game in a row. Chicago wanted to build on Wednesday’s win over the Nets. Zach LaVine hit 11 threes on his way to 41 points as the Bulls snapped the Sixers’ 11-game winning streak at home, 126-112.
Before we get to what I saw, some notes.
The Bulls were without the services of Lonzo Ball, who is perpetually recovering from surgery on his left knee.
Alex Caruso missed the game with a sprained right ankle.
Javonte Green was out with a sore right knee. Tony Bradley has a non-Covid illness and was unavailable.
Marko Simonovic is on a G-League assignment with the Windy City Bulls and was unavailable. Carlik Jones is on a Two-Way G-League assignment with the Windy City Bulls and was out.
Billy Donovan started Ayo Dosunmu, LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, Patrick Williams, and Nikola Vucevic.
The Sixers were without the services of Joel Embiid, who missed his second consecutive game with a sore left foot.
Jaden Springer is on a G-League assignment with the Delaware Blue Coats and was unavailable. Louis King and Julian Champagnie are on Two-Way G-League assignments with the Blue Coats and were out.
Doc Rivers started James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, De’Anthony Melton, Tobias Harris, and PJ Tucker.
The Sixers seized control of this one early, getting out on the run when Chicago missed shots. Philadelphia also took advantage of some sloppy ball-handling by the Bulls, coming up with poke-aways in the driving lanes to get Chicago back-pedaling as they scrambled back in transition. The Bulls were very flat on offense in the first quarter and change, and the Sixers took advantage to jump out to an early lead.
Montrezl Harrell didn’t make the defensive plays he made against the Pacers, but another really nice offensive game from him. In his first stint of the game, he picked up a loose ball around the rim and quickly got up for a dunk. He looked Andre Drummond right in the face before lacing a baseline jumper over his counterpart. Harrell then quickly beat Chicago to an offensive rebound on his own missed jumper and laid the ball in for a second-chance bucket. His second half saw some nice catches on rolls to the basket and a couple thunderous dunks. It was a very ugly start to the season for Harrell. But, just about halfway through the campaign, he’s starting to turn in some strong play.
The only other good to come out of this one was Maxey. He looked better and better in each of the last three games since returning. But, he broke out on Friday. He got his legs under him, knocking down jumpers from all over the floor. More promising than that, his burst appeared to be back. He attacked pockets of space, knifing his way to the cup all game long. Maxey even made a handful of swing passes to the weak side of the floor after drawing extra attention with his drives. He looked just like his pre-injury self, and that was a welcomed sign for the Sixers on a night that didn’t have much else good in it in South Philly.
Philadelphia consumed a heavy diet of transition offense in the opening quarter. But, there were a handful of possessions in which you watched Harden eat away the shot clock with over-dribbling. There were Sixers moving around him, too, with Harden toggling through screeners to draw the switch he wanted. Credit Chicago for doing a really nice job of denying his attempts to drive into the paint and get things going. But, by the time he made his move, there was less than 10 seconds on the shot clock. So, barely enough time to create anything good.
Those possessions ended with Harden trying to self-provision scores. Alas, an 0-for-7 first quarter for The Beard. He still had five rebounds and five assists (against only one turnover), so not an entirely detrimental first quarter. But, the Sixers could’ve capitalized on Chicago’s sputtering offense more if Harden just decided to get off the ball when it was clear he wasn’t getting the look he wanted. Philadelphia was successful on offense without Embiid against a surprising Pacers team when they dialed up the pace and moved the ball. The Sixers really got away from that in the opening minutes of this game.
Harden led the Sixers’ demise in his second stint of the game. Chicago began to take away catch-and-shoot threes, forcing the Sixers to drive more and attack closeouts. When they looked to the engine driving their offense, Harden was handcuffed to Williams, who refused to let him shake loose. Harden really struggled to find the driving edge against Williams, who has the size and muscle mass to slow him down in his post-prime state. Even when Harden got around him and tried to get to the rim, Chicago converged. He missed nine of his 10 shots in the first half, and Vucevic was there to retrieve the rebounds.
Simply put, the Sixers appeared headed for a blowout win in the first few minutes of the second quarter. Then, Chicago took catch-and-shoot threes away, making it difficult for Harden to see anything unfolding for his teammates on the perimeter. When he tried to get Chicago into rotation, Williams shut him down. And Philadelphia’s offense spiraled. A 13-point lead diminished to a four-point deficit by halftime.
If Tucker isn’t even going to look to shoot, you might as well give Matisse Thybulle a good bit of run in this game. If nothing else, he can theoretically stick onto one of the opposition’s elite offensive players on the wings. Chicago served as a perfect example of that, especially with Embiid not there to help with traps or play higher in pick-and-roll coverage. Rivers did eventually roll with Thybulle, but it didn’t happen until the second half. Chicago had already established a rhythm and changed the tenor of the game.
To the Tucker part of this, if you’re going to play five-out with him as your small-ball center, he can’t get away with not shooting the ball. It’s 4-on-5 otherwise, with the veteran junkyard dog catching the ball and immediately looking to DHO with the nearest teammate. Eventually, you’re running in circles on offense. The opposing defense doesn’t have to do much. I’m not saying he needs to take 10 shots. But, if they’re not playing up when teammates kick the ball his way, the shot has to go up.
Now, going back to Thybulle. I wouldn’t say he helped much even when he got his chance in the second half, although LaVine might’ve already been a ticking time bomb anyway. But, Thybulle gambled on a double-team on Vucevic in the post. Vucevic simply had to toss the ball back to LaVine if he fed his big man to get the star guard an open three. Sure enough, Vucevic used Thybulle’s gamble against him, creating an open triple for his teammate. Beyond that, LaVine had no problem dusting Thybulle off the dribble on a number of possessions in the second half. I will say he’s faster up close than he appears on television. But, Thybulle needs to consistently stay in front of offensive players if he’s going to be a non-factor when the Sixers have possession of the basketball.
It was one of many for LaVine in this game. He was simply ridiculous, but giving him a wide-open look in the middle of a heater was an especially disagreeable decisions that only added gasoline to the fire. From there, he saw an ocean every time he touched the ball. I thought Philadelphia was late to contest some of his threes off the catch, but he just went absolutely nuclear. Even the ones that were well-defended, didn’t matter. He detonated on Philadelphia to the tune of 11 triples.
The Sixers tried to respond by trapping LaVine when the ball was in his hands. But, he made the right play almost every time. He found the release-valve teammate in the middle of the floor or plugged his shooters. I thought the Sixers uninvolved in the traps did a pretty terrible job of finding mutual help position on the weak side of the floor.
The Bulls were one or two passes away from naked threes on the back side of the floor all second half. All Chicago had to do was make swing passes. Philadelphia shaded too far over towards the ball, and was far too late in recovering against North-South ball movement. Chicago shot 20-for-34 from deep. There’s some bad luck for Philadelphia in there, but the Sixers lost shooters all night long.
The Sixers (23-15) will visit the Detroit Pistons (11-30) on Sunday. Tip-off is set for 3 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.