The Sixers (49-24) visited the Phoenix Suns (38-35) on Saturday night. Both teams wanted to salvage the second night of their respective back-to-backs after they both lost on Friday. Tyrese Maxey’s big night wasn’t enough as the Sixers drew dead in the second half, losing 125-105.
Before we get to the action, some context.
The Sixers were without the services of James Harden, who missed his third game in a row with a sore left achilles.
Danuel House Jr. has a sore right shoulder and was out.
Louis King and Mac McClung are on Two-Way G-League assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats and were unavailable.
Doc Rivers started Maxey, De’Anthony Melton, Tobias Harris, PJ Tucker, and Joel Embiid.
The Suns were without the services of Kevin Durant, who has a sprained left ankle.
Deandre Ayton missed the game with a right hip contusion.
Monty Williams started Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Josh Okogie, Torrey Craig, and Bismack Biyombo.
Friday’s loss to the Warriors in the Bay Area was an opportunity to highlight some underrated skills various Sixers offer but don’t often showcase due to role limitations. One of the few early positives for Philadelphia on Saturday was Georges Niang throwing his hat in the ring for underrated skills. Perhaps you don’t expect him to make defenses collapse when he drives because there isn’t a ton of foot speed or lateral athleticism to threaten the interior. But, Niang is sneakily an aware playmaker off the bounce. Every once in a while, he will leverage a rim-protector’s positioning by making him commit to confront the ball. It is at that moment that Niang will thread a pocket pass to Embiid or another lurking teammate, using his drive to set them up for an uncontested finish.
I do think it’s valuable to have some secondary playmaking eyes reserved on your bench come playoff time. If nothing else, it’s just not something that opposing defenses will expect out of a backup forward. But, given that his minutes will probably be cut a bit as the Sixers move further into the postseason, his role is going to be hoisting threes as often as he can. Jury’s out on whether it translates to bigger stages.
The only other good in this game was Maxey, who was unconscious from start to finish. He nailed down seven triples, lacing them off the catch from all over the floor throughout the night. He knocked them down over contests, needing to fade a bit to get a couple of them off. Maxey double-clutched before letting one fly, shredding the net anyway. No. 0 added in a pull-up from above the break, dribbling into it and making TJ Warren pay for not getting a hand up in time.
Maxey scored from all three levels in this one, hitting the target with a couple of floaters off the bounce and getting to the rim for finishes. His 30th point of the night came on a contested turnaround 12-foot jumper to cut Philadelphia’s deficit to six late in the third quarter. 37 points on 19 field goal attempts and 7 rebounds for Maxey in this one. He led the way for the Sixers.
Feels like we say this after losses to good teams fairly often, but the Sixers make a lot of questionable decisions defending away from the ball. The final shot the Suns laced in the first half was a triple from the left wing by Craig. Not a great shooter, but he was far too open on the catch. The index finger points to Tucker, who was all the way in the lane trying to protect against the drive. Far too much distance for him to make up as a helper, and Craig burned him.
The difference between giving yourself a chance as a helper and being dead to rights is simply positioning. Off-ball defenders have to find the spot of mutual distance on the floor and adjust according to the game plan from there. When the ball is on the weak side of the floor, you can stretch out that help a bit because the ball has to travel a longer distance to get to your assignment. But, when it’s on the strong side, a player with Tucker’s experience has to know to take a step or two closer to home base to make himself available to the shooter. Tucker was way out of position as Paul sent the ball to Craig on the strong side, and it was an easy look at a three in the final minute of the second quarter.
Those are the exact defensive miscues Philadelphia has to clean up before the playoffs begin. Over-helping off of stationary shooters is a theme that has plagued the Sixers throughout the season, particularly against good teams such as the Celtics. It might not cost them a whole series, but it’ll surely take them out of a game early in a series if they show up in a Game 1 testing the waters.
If you ask me, this game was lost when Rivers decided to go with Dewayne Dedmon instead of Paul Reed in the non-Embiid minutes. The head coach inserted the veteran big man late in the third quarter, the game still within reach. Philadelphia was outscored by 11 points in the first five of Dedmon’s nine minutes in the second half. The Suns wanted to up the pace, playing fast to get Booker going at various points throughout the contest. Dedmon checking in was blood in the water, and the Suns went right at him. Booker breezed past him in space for a layup, leaving Dedmon cemented to the floor.
Philadelphia also started to foul more, reeling on defense without the same level of faith that they have in Embiid, Reed, or Tucker as the center on the court. Whether it was Dedmon, Niang, Melton, or someone else, the Sixers couldn’t string stops together because they kept fouling the Suns. Some of them were terrible calls (more on that shortly), but many of them fell somewhere between poor decisions and poor discipline.
The Sixers struggled to stay on the floor against shooters, biting fakes and landing into them as they came down. They contested too close to the body, giving contact on jumpers to send the Suns to the stripe. Philadelphia also jumped too early at the rim to try to block or contest shots, sending the Suns to the line without them having to actually go up with the ball.
Another issue in all of it was that the defensive rebounding wasn’t good enough. Embiid on the court or not, the Sixers watched as drivers floated through the air, failing to secure the weak side with box-outs. That allowed the Suns to slide in for putbacks or offensive rebounds, resetting the possession and extending the Sixers’ defense. Harris is usually a central figure in that department. He only had two rebounds in this game, and rarely makes a concerted effort to crash the glass. There were a handful of Suns possessions in which he was by the basket but didn’t box out, allowing Phoenix to sneak in and retrieve the ball while Embiid was out of the picture contesting a drive.
Not to say free throw differential disadvantaged the Sixers at all. But, I thought the officiating crew was dreadful in the first three quarters. Embiid’s 13 free throw attempts did not properly capture the amount of contact he took in this game. He got hit every time he went up, often by multiple purple jerseys. Niang was also victimized a bit in this game, the officials late to an over-the-back fouls as the Suns tried to reach over him for a rebound and then slapping him with a moving screen the next Sixers trip down the floor. The judges missed some kicked-out legs on jumpers from Booker and Paul late in the third quarter, too. Just a poor night from the whistles. Ben Taylor was part of the crew, and he was the subject of a recent controversy involving Toronto’s Fred VanVleet.
The Sixers (49-25) will visit the Denver Nuggets (50-24) on Monday. Tip-off is scheduled for 9:30 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the matchup on NBC Sports Philadelphia and NBA TV.