Tobias Harris, Photo By Austin Krell/The Painted Lines

Your Philadelphia 76ers (8-5) visited the Indiana Pacers (5-8) on Saturday night. The Sixers wanted to snap a three-game losing skid. The Pacers were looking to build a winning streak with a second consecutive victory. A lethargic Sixer defense allowed Indiana to control the game early on and send the Sixers to a fourth consecutive loss, 118-113.

Before we get to what I saw, let’s set the scene.

Contextual Notes

Joel Embiid and Matisse Thybulle (health and safety protocol) were unavailable for Philly. Earlier in the day, Isaiah Joe was activated from the health and safety protocol and made available for the game. 

Grant Riller, who is recovering from a torn meniscus in his left knee, was out. 

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

Doc Rivers started Tyrese Maxey, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and Andre Drummond.

The Pacers were without Goga Bitadze (non-Covid illness) and Isaiah Jackson (hyperextended left knee). TJ Warren, who is recovering from a fracture in his left navicular bone, was unavailable.

Rick Carlisle started Malcolm Brogdon, Caris LeVert, Chris Duarte, Domantas Sabonis, and Myles Turner.

First Quarter

Tobias Harris was basically the only good thing that happened in the first quarter for the Sixers. He hit three triples in the frame, and burst to the rim on a gorgeous back-door cut for a layup. His legs appeared to be back under him as he scored 17 first-quarter points after looking a bit iffy in the Toronto game.

Philadelphia’s transition defense was horrendous in the first quarter. That was the main culprit for their relinquishing an early six-point lead and losing control of the game by the second quarter. They just weren’t getting back, allowing Indiana to run the ball from end to end because they had numbers in run-outs. The Sixers did nothing to prevent leak-outs and long passes from the back-court for the Pacers. Indiana’s transition pace caught the Sixers off guard all quarter, and they showed no urgency in stopping the bleeding.

On offense, the Sixers weren’t doing much to help the situation. Besides Harris, they weren’t getting good shots in a half-court environment. Part of the problem there was that Andre Drummond was far too involved in the offense and empowered as a scorer. There were too many possessions in which he caught the ball in the post and then watched his teammates go limp as they watched him. The ball became sticky, as Rivers likes to say. That’s both a coaching fault for not motivating his lethargic players to get more involved. But, it’s also on those around Drummond for putting him in that situation. The Sixers simply didn’t move the ball well enough to generate good shots. And Indiana made them pay on the other end.

Furkan Korkmaz is back to missing his jumpers woefully short. He couldn’t get anything going for a pitiful Sixers offense in the first quarter. You wonder whether that wrist — which he missed a game to nurse — is bothering him. Rivers said the equivalent of “It’s not that deep” when asked if the wrist was at the root of Korkmaz’s recent slump. But, his jumper has been quite off for the last two-and-a-quarter games. Time will tell if it’s just a cold stretch or something deeper is at play.

The Sixers were blissfully unaware in their game plan of attacking respected shot-blocker Myles Turner. I use that phrasing because they had absolutely no chance of doing anything at the rim with him on the court and it was confounding to see them take those bad results and continue to try to go right at him.

That inability to do anything at the rim is more so on Rivers for enabling his personnel to drive right at Turner over and over again. When you see your team getting rejected over and over again, it’s time to call some sets or alter your rotation so that your five on the floor force Turner to lift out of the lane to defend. Sure, Embiid’s absence takes that shooting threat at center away. But, you can also run Niang out there as a small-ball decoy within the offense so that your catalyst (ie, Maxey or Harris) can operate with an open lane.

Second Quarter

Philadelphia — in the midst of a three-game losing streak, with a schedule that will only get more taxing — was lethargic on close-outs within their half-court defense. Indiana was moving the ball well, and their shooters were leveraging shot fakes to create space even when the close-out was there. The Sixers simply weren’t interested in acting like they cared enough to make a contest after the first botched close-out. The poor close-outs were allowing the Pacers to put the ball on the floor and attack the paint. As such, the passing lanes really opened up for Indiana to feed their shooters or plunging bigs. 

Justin Holiday, of course, caught fire in the first half. Whether it was peeling off screens, staying active on the empty side of the floor, or sprinting ahead in transition, Holiday cooked a disinterested Sixers defense in the first half.

Even in the slog that was their offense, the Sixers did a fine job of feeding the hot hand once Harris checked back into the game in the second quarter. They didn’t just insert him and then ignore his first quarter production by playing him off the ball. They got the ball back to their best player and let him cook until the hot water ran out. 

You know things aren’t going well on offense when Danny Green feels the need to throw a behind-the-back crossover to open up a path to the middle of the paint and self-provision a shot. It was that kind of half for Philadelphia.

Seth Curry only had 3 field goal attempts at halftime. Philly did not do nearly enough to get him involved in the offense away from the ball. He’s adopted the point guard role in his early thirties. But it needs to be as a secondary duty — not a primary role. As such, his usage cannot be tethered to him handling the ball. It’s too much work when you add the efficient shooting to the mix of his responsibilities.

With Embiid out, Curry’s opportunities to recharge away from the ball are going to diminish. But, Curry is still a featured ball-handler with Embiid on the floor. Perhaps there were no ill effects in the first few weeks because Curry had a torrid start to the season. But with wear and tear and natural fatigue, there’s going to be a fork in the road at some point. More ball-handling at the risk of diminished shooting efficiency, or give Maxey and Milton more ball-handling duties so that Curry’s shooting proficiency can be maximized.

Third Quarter

Rivers opened the second half with a very intelligent adjustment to counter the Sixers’ size disadvantage at the rim. When Sabonis tried establishing himself in the low post, Danny Green was there to front his positioning so as to deny the entry pass to the big.

Sabonis is ultimately too big and skilled to have Green’s fronting be a shut-down solution for the entirety of the game. But, it makes life harder for the Pacers on the offensive end of the floor. That wasn’t something that the Sixers did at all in the first half. Beyond that, it forces Sabonis to back up to catch a deep lob. That extra time and reduction in space as the big steps back towards the baseline to catch the ball gives your defense enough time to help with a double-team or apply pressure against the baseline.

The three-point defense did not get markedly better in the third frame. The Sixers were still late on close-outs — as they’ve been all week (and ever since Thybulle went out). Being late on close-outs is acceptable if you’re recovering to shooters with urgency and adjusting on the next shot so that the lapse doesn’t happen again. But, the Sixers were lazy in their recoveries to shooters and were basically living and dying by whether or not Indiana could convert open looks. Even after his torrid first half, Justin Holiday was still finding himself open on the perimeter. The Sixers were just lucky that he went cold after the intermission.

It was refreshing to see Harris get to the line 10 times in this game. He was noticeably physical attacking the basket and did not shy away from contact. Harris has never been the type to live at the line to begin with. So, it was particularly encouraging from a conditioning standpoint to see him embrace contact and play with enough motor to operate through the physicality.

Danny Green left the game in the third quarter with left hamstring tightness and did not return.

Fourth Quarter

This week has unearthed one significant weakness that will persist even when Embiid returns. Georges Niang has been a significant upgrade over Mike Scott on offense. But, he can’t move laterally on defense. He was able to get away with it when the Sixers were in the midst of a six-game winning streak. But, over four losses this week against the Knicks, Bucks, Raptors, and Pacers, Niang’s inability to bother mobile offensive players was on full display.

The problem will persist with or without Embiid as long as the Sixers marry themselves to a switching defensive scheme in the pick-and-roll. Switching works wonderfully when you have players with the requisite size, speed, and agility to keep matchups in front. But Niang doesn’t have the intangibles to be that type of defender.

As such, all four opposing teams were able to toggle through pick-and-roll combinations until Niang was on an island with the desired offensive player. It’s not a Niang problem — he is who he is. It’s on Rivers to understand the focal point of the opposition’s offense and tailor the defensive scheme to his personnel on the floor. That, or identify and acquire a backup stretch-capable four with those intangibles. The issue then becomes cost and what you have to give up to find one such player.

We’re starting to see why Drummond was available for the veteran’s minimum. The man has bricks shaped like hands at the ends of his arms. He cannot catch the ball on the move and has horrendous touch around the rim. That poor touch showed itself in the most critical juncture of the loss to the Raptors. On Saturday, he missed bunnies galore as the minutes ticked down to leave points on the board for Philly. The Sixers missed 51 shots, and Drummond had 9 offensive rebounds. He certainly had the opportunities to turn some of the garbage into gold. He makes the occasional great pass and anticipates his blocks quite well. But, it’s hard to comprehend how a guy of his size and experience is so inefficient around the rim. 

It’s been a great week for Tyrese Maxey, if you’re tracking individual player stock. He has scored at least 16 points in each of the team’s last four games, and has scored more than 20 points in three consecutive affairs. Most impressive of all are his scoring efficiency and care for the basketball. He’s connected on at least 50 percent of his shots in each of those three games. Beyond that, his assist-to turnover ratio over the same span is 4:1. For a guard, 2.5:1 is considered very good.

The young guard continued to showcase his comfort as a featured weapon in the fourth quarter, getting downhill on a big Pacers team numerous times to get to the rim. He continued to play to his strengths in crunch time. That’s something that will forge trust from his teammates and coaching staff in the guts of games.

After the game, it was revealed that assistant coach Dave Joerger, one of Rivers’ top assistants in his Philly tenure, is stepping away from the team temporarily to undergo treatment for a form of “head and neck” cancer. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski was first to report. Joerger informed the players, assistant coaches, and staff of his diagnosis and leave in a meeting following the loss on Saturday night. 

Joerger told Wojnarowski that the disease was discovered at Stage 1, and that he has a 90-percent chance of being cured.

It appears that the prognosis is encouraging. However, it is still somber news to cap off a disappointing performance. Nonetheless, it makes us all remember that basketball is just a game. There’s always another game. You can’t over-think each win and each loss.

The Sixers (8-6) will visit the Utah Jazz (8-5) on Tuesday night. Tip-off is set for 10 PM EST. You can catch the affair on TNT.