Your Philadelphia 76ers (15-14) visited the Brooklyn Nets (20-8) on Thursday. Philly wanted to snap a two-game losing skid and salvage the second leg of a back-to-back after Wednesday’s loss to the Heat. Brooklyn intended on extending its winning streak to four games. Joel Embiid and Seth Curry combined for 61 points, but got very little help from their teammates in a 114-105 defeat at the hands of the under-manned Nets.

Before we get to what I saw, some notes.

Contextual Notes

The Sixers were without the services of Furkan Korkmaz (non-COVID illness) and Georges Niang (health and safety protocol). Tyrese Maxey also missed the game with a left quad contusion.

Grant Riller was nursing a sore right shoulder and was unavailable; Jaden Springer was in concussion protocol and was unavailable.

Ben Simmons, who is not mentally ready to play, was out.

Doc Rivers started Shake Milton, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.

The following Nets were in the league’s COVID-19 health and safety protocol and were unavailable:

  • James Harden
  • LaMarcus Aldridge
  • Bruce Brown
  • Jevon Carter
  • Paul Millsap
  • James Johnson
  • DeAndre’ Bembry

Joe Harris was recovering from left ankle surgery and was unavailable. Kyrie Irving (refusing vaccination) was ineligible to play and was not with the team.

Steve Nash started Patty Mills, David Duke Jr, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, and Nic Claxton. 

First Quarter

It is not a coincidence that Rivers changed the starting unit and the Sixers’ first three shots and scores of the game were high-quality three-point looks. Without Thybulle on the floor to open the game, Brooklyn couldn’t immediately help off of a Philly shooter to double-team Joel Embiid. As such, the Sixers could actually make entry passes to the big man. With the ball in his hands and some space to move, Embiid was able to manipulate and invite late double-teams to his liking and kick to open shooters. Seth Curry, Shake Milton, and Danny Green capitalized on Embiid’s playmaking before the game’s first timeout.

After Wednesday’s loss, Tobias Harris offered some commentary on how athletes who have had COVID are treated by fans when they struggle upon returning from the virus. “Fans and people watching, nobody cares. You know, it’s just a fact. Nobody cares, like, what’s going on with you health-wise, at home, or whatever. It’s like, ‘What are you doing right now on the floor to help the team win?’,” Harris said.

That’s definitely a perspective worth considering. There’s also a simplified culture of “you make big money, therefore you are not a human”. Harris is often over-criticized on the sole basis of the contract he was offered. But, there’s no excuse for missing layups. He might feel weak, but his game is predicated on banging around with bodies at the rim. When Embiid very clearly needs help jump-starting the offense, Harris cannot be missing layups by the handful. The wind might come and go, the pain might be unpredictable, and the athleticism might not be all the way there. But at the end of the day, finding ways to navigate interior defenses to make layups is a bare-minimum for a player of Harris’ archetype. There’s surely some empathy to be had, but it’s not coming on missed layups.

Second Quarter

If the Sixers can’t win the minutes when Kevin Durant is off the court, buddy it’s going to be a long night. Brooklyn has done a great job of developing their young guys quite rapidly. But, the Sixers are just so slow and unathletic. When Durant left the court, Brooklyn’s talent obviously took a major dip. But their pace remained, if not picking up. They ran the Sixers right off the court in transition, moved the ball in the half-court setting, and were physical enough to generate misses on the shots they contested. The Sixers helped them by missing open looks, too. But, the non-Durant Nets weren’t even particularly flashy in skill. They just had baseline skills such as spot-up shooting and made layups. The rest was just energy and athleticism.

That’s a fault in Philly’s roster construction. Daryl Morey kept the on-paper starting unit intact. But, the reality is that that roster construction is carried heavily by Ben Simmons’ athleticism and physical prowess. On one hand, the Sixers didn’t have a ton of money to spend in free agency this past summer. But, many teams didn’t and still carved out decent plans. On the other hand, they could just give in and trade Simmons for reinforcements. But, that caps their long-term ceiling. It’s a tough situation for all involved. And I think the fan approval rating of the team would be much different if expectations had been significantly lower. 

The reality is the Sixers sorely miss Ben Simmons. His hold-out was never going to be addition by subtraction. The offense was never going to get much better without him. Simmons has his faults as a player, and you’d have an understandable case to even call him soft. But all that Philly toughness that the fans pride themselves on has left them wallowing in anger as their team gets boat-raced by under-manned opponents in December. Do I think the fans are to blame for this situation? No, this is much more about internal bones he has to pick with management. Do I think he’ll ever forget when fans chanted “Trade Ben Simmons!” as they left The Center after Game 7? Absolutely not.

Third Quarter

The Sixers got back into the game in the third quarter. Well, it was more akin to the group project in which two guys do all the work and a group of five gets A’s. Embiid and Seth Curry combined for 25 of the Sixers’ 31 points in the third frame. They led the charge back into competitive play with their two-man game and Embiid isolations in that stretch. As for mostly everyone else, it was good cardio.

Philly could’ve helped themselves if they completed possessions on the defensive side of the floor. Few things in basketball are as demoralizing as putting together a strong defensive stand only to buckle when it comes time to secure the rebound. The Sixers slipped and allowed some brutal second-chance points because smaller Nets were able to sneak to the rim and take advantage of lazy box-outs. Elite teams can afford those miscues from time to time. When you’re a dreck perimeter defense and an equally bad offense, you need to be perfect elsewhere on most nights. The little things are often as significant as the big things.

Aside from that, the Sixers were superb on the defensive end of the court after intermission. The lethargy was replaced with energy, and the activity complimented their offensive stride wonderfully. It wasn’t just effort. The awareness was heightened, too. Philly was communicating and rotating in help at the right moments, mucking up Brooklyn’s air space upon catching the ball, and dipping into passing lanes to get out and run. It just goes to show you, being under-manned is not an excuse. Some of it is the opponent. Your defense can be inflated by the opposition letting its guard down on the offensive end. But if the Sixers come into games with the appropriate level of urgency, they’re a different ball club. The will to get down and claw out stops is at least as much a mental battle as it is a physical one.

Rivers has to have his rotations. A player of Embiid’s build and usage needs to get his timely rests within games. But, taking Embiid out for Drummond when the former was heating up was coaching malpractice. If he misses a couple, fine. That’s a sign. But, Embiid had it going all throughout the third quarter and kept the Sixers alive. Given the rest of the game’s context, it was a more-than-fine opportunity to bend the rules of your rotation. Poor feel.

Fourth Quarter

With Embiid on the bench, the Sixers stayed afloat with their defense. Thybulle and Andre Drummond were phenomenal in trapping Patty Mills on high ball screens. The size and pressure created live-ball turnovers, and the Sixers were able to get out in transition for scores.

Shake Milton was generally fine in this game. But, he was called for multiple momentum-crushing charging fouls in the final frame. In real time, they were calls you could see coming because drivers bowling over defenders has become a crap shoot of a foul call. But, at least call it both ways. Nic Claxton flattened a Sixer on a drive to the rim — no call. While we’re talking about charges, get rid of the “ball-handler in air collides with defender on shot or pass” call. It’s a farce.

It seems Rivers would agree, too:

Put this Tobias Harris game in the garbage. 3-for-17 from the field is never going to cut it. But if you take a closer look at his missed jumpers, all of them were short on Thursday. That makes me wonder if his legs were under him. I don’t know it to be true one way or the other. But when shooters miss short consistently, there’s a problem of power under the ball when they shoot.

Harris has been out of COVID protocols for a while now. On one hand, he’s had time to adjust. On the other, this deadly virus hits everyone differently. People can dismiss it as an excuse, but it’s reality. There’s still so much unknown about how it affects athletes. Hell, last time I checked, Jayson Tatum was hitting an inhaler every game since coming out of protocol last season. It’s been a largely awful 30 games for him. But, I also don’t think it’s as cut and dry as “he sucks”, as some fans make it out to be.

Without A Paddle

Not to harp on the Ben Simmons thing, but this team is so obviously missing a catalyst on both ends of the floor. There’s strong individualized talent on the roster. But, the connective tissue does not exist. Shooters are not as good as they need to be. Shots aren’t as open as they used to be. The transition and perimeter defense is of a different league compared to what it was with Simmons. The reality is this team sorely, sorely misses him. 

With half the league seemingly in health and safety protocol, teams can’t even put bodies in uniform let alone orchestrate complex trades involving stars. Before people beg for the conclusion of the Simmons situation, there needs to be an understanding that the team is a singular poor decision away of heading back into a rebuild. The season isn’t lost yet. But, back-to-back losses to brutally under-manned teams is certainly a low point. And with the Simmons situation incredibly fragile, there may be no end in sight. Unless internal factors lose their composures (Embiid, Morey, etc.), this might just be the product you have until the elephant in the room is addressed.

The Sixers (15-15) will host the New Orleans Pelicans (9-21) on Sunday. Tip-off is set for 8 PM EST. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.