The Sixers (32-21) hosted the Phoenix Suns (43-10) on Tuesday night. Philadelphia hoped to build upon a victory over the Chicago Bulls on Sunday. Phoenix wanted to push its own winning streak to three games. Critical errors — in both strategy and in judgment — down the stretch doomed the Sixers, 114-109.
Before we get to what I saw, some notes.
The Suns were without the services of Landry Shamet, who missed the game with a sprained right ankle.
Frank Kaminsky and Abdel Nader missed the game with right knee stress reactions and injury management, respectively.
Dario Saric is recovering from a torn right ACL and was unavailable.
Monty Williams started Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder, and Deandre Ayton.
The Sixers were without the services of Shake Milton, who remains out with a back contusion.
Paul Reed was on a G-League assignment with the Blue Coats and was unavailable. Jaden Springer was out with a sore left knee while on a G-League assignment with the Coats.
Ben Simmons is not mentally ready to play and did not play.
Doc Rivers started Tyrese Maxey, Seth Curry, Matisse Thybulle, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
The Sixers were not too keen on getting back in transition early on. Stop me if you’ve read that before. But to compound the danger, the Suns were running the baselines with Jae Crowder. The lackadaisical Sixers surrendered a number of vacant three-point attempts to Crowder in the first few minutes of play. Fortunately for them, Crowder is one of the streakier players in the NBA, and that streak trended towards ice cold early on.
One of the few problems you can critique in Joel Embiid’s offensive repertoire is his tendency to play to whistles. He’s a savant when it comes to sensing and drawing contact on shots. But that aptitude lends itself to shooting to the whistle instead of letting the whistle exist separately from the shot.
So when he senses the opportunity to draw the foul, he assumes he’ll get it. Of course, his shot is disrupted when he doesn’t hear the whistle because he turns to the official asking for the call. Fortunately for him and the Sixers, there’s an easy way to fix that — stop worrying about the foul and focus on the shot as often as possible.
One of the few selfish things about Tobias Harris’ game is his need to get rid of the ball in the last five seconds of the shot clock. If he can’t envision a comfortable shot coming, he’s finding the nearest teammate and leaving it up to them to turn the ball over or rush a shot.
Perhaps I would give him more benefit of the doubt for thinking his teammates were open when they actually weren’t if he didn’t also make sure to chuck half-court shots after the first-, second-, and third-quarter buzzers sounded ostensibly to avoid hurting his field-goal percentage.
Harris outweighed that selfish moment with a selflessly selfish second quarter. Realizing that his team needed him to carry a brunt of the load as the leader staggering with the second unit, Harris stepped up.
He scored 13 of his 17 first-half points in the second quarter. And his confidence rose with each passing basket. He was feeling himself to the point of pulling up for a three in transition — and rattling it home — and riding the baseline for a powerful dunk after blowing by Deandre Ayton late in the second frame.
Matisse Thybulle did as good a job as you could ask him to do against Devin Booker. There were occasions in which Phoenix made enough extra passes to exploit the Sixers’ scheme and find Booker open on the perimeter. But when the Suns entrusted Booker with isolations, Thybulle made it a battle of discipline versus the highest level of skill.
Devin Booker’s finest art is his ability to leverage fakes to get defenders off their feet before rising up for shots. But, Thybulle kept his feet planted. Booker had to rest to pivots, counter-pivots, and counter-fakes just to try to create space for a shot when he terminated his dribble. Like the great player he is, Booker got some of those shots to drop. But, most of his damage came against the Sixers’ second units, when the speed and agility wasn’t there.
A significant balance of the Sixers’ attack in the third frame came courtesy of Tyrese Maxey. He was completely unbothered by the lengths and basketball intelligence of Phoenix’s guards and wings. If he sniffed even the slightest hint of an angle, he took his foot speed to another gear to blow by the defender in his way and get to the rim. They weren’t basic finishes, either. Faced with bigs threatening to send his layups in the opposite direction of the basket, Maxey put some English on his finishes to circumnavigate the impediments and put points on the board.
On today’s edition of the Andre Drummond experience, we have registering a nice steal, possessing the ball in the open floor, taking a couple dribbles, picking the ball up with both hands and taking 2 steps, and then resuming his dribble. An easy, game-tying dunk in transition? Nope — a double-dribble violation and dead-ball turnover.
As many games have this season, this affair was decided over the final 5 minutes of play. Perhaps the Sixers could’ve amassed enough stops under a different defensive scheme, but the switch scheme grilled them, once again. And just as it has the last handful of games, the Sixers wound up with perhaps their worst defender on Devin Booker. Even when Philly took the lead late in the game, the Suns got the matchup they wanted with Curry switched onto Booker, and tied the game to silence the momentum.
That schematic preference is something that is going to haunt the Sixers if they continue to deploy it in the playoffs. It’s a consequence of having small, unathletic guards and wings. But, that’s Rivers’ job to determine the adjustment. I’ll leave it at that.
The other problem down the stretch was that the Sixers over-complicated something as simple as getting the ball to Embiid. They wasted precious shot-clock time trying to find the entry pass to Embiid, or made too many inconsequential passes to generate a decent look when the ball got to its final stop. Part of that is Embiid’s fault. He needs to relocate or call for baseline screens so that he can force switches or open up on the block after peeling off the screens. Instead, he jockeyed for position on one side of the floor to no avail.
The Sixers ultimately shot themselves in the foot when it came to winning time. Tobias Harris secured a rebound off of a missed free throw, only to get stripped by Jae Crowder. The result was a wide-open Chris Paul three at the top of the key. As easily as Embiid scored the ball on Tuesday, he made some critical errors, too. First was an unnecessary isolation that he commanded, only to settle for a step-back triple that he air-balled. Second was a live-ball turnover that Embiid forced on Chris Paul to get Philly possession with just over 20 seconds left trailing by 3 — only to throw the outlet pass out of bounds.
Some of these mistakes are fixable, others are not. Regardless, the Sixers have the memory of this loss to carry into the trade deadline.
The Sixers (32-22) will host the Oklahoma City Thunder (17-36) on Friday. Tip-off is set for 7 PM EST. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.