The Sixers (26-18) hosted the Los Angeles Clippers (22-24) on Friday night. Philadelphia wanted to build on a victory over the Magic on Wednesday. Los Angeles intended to right its wrongs from a loss to the Nuggets on Wednesday. The Sixers blew a 24-point second-half lead and lost, 102-101.
Before we get to what I saw, I owe you some context.
The Clippers were without the services of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, who are recovering from a torn right ACL and a torn right UCL, respectively.
Jason Preston is nursing a right foot injury and was unavailable.
Jay Scrubb (Two-Way) and Keon Johnson were on assignments with the Clippers’ G-League affiliate and were not with the team.
Tyronn Lue started Reggie Jackson, Amir Coffey, Nicholas Batum, Marcus Morris Sr, and Ivica Zubac.
The Sixers were without Danny Green (right hip pain), Shake Milton (back contusion), and Matisse Thybulle (sprained right shoulder). Seth Curry also missed the game with a sore left ankle.
Paul Reed was on a G-League assignment with the Delaware Blue Coats and was not with the team.
Ben Simmons is not mentally ready to play and was unavailable.
Doc Rivers started Tyrese Maxey, Isaiah Joe, Furkan Korkmaz, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
From a human standpoint, I imagine work life probably isn’t that great for Tobias Harris right now. And for that, I can empathize with the guy. It’s not as if he’s not at fault for his objectively awful season thus far. But, you could certainly make the case that he’s playing out of role on defense in Ben Simmons’ absence. That doesn’t directly explain the brutal offense from him this season, but he’s been underwhelming on both ends. So, the playing out of role on defense matters. And perhaps somehow that’s leaking into his offensive play.
Anyway, the struggles shooting the ball are at the point where he gets booed during introductions and every time he misses a shot. I’ve made my thoughts on endless booing known. But, I just don’t see how booing a player on the team you support into oblivion presents productive outcomes.
You really saw the debilitating infection that is the Sixers’ lack of off-ball movement around Joel Embiid. The big fella wasn’t afforded the luxury of bathing in single coverage all night like he was against the Magic. The Clippers were spamming double-teams from the weak side of the floor on every Embiid touch, but none of his teammates felt inclined to leverage the gaps on the floor to cut to the basket.
When your best player can’t get a shot off because of the number of defenders in his face, and no one is wiling to help release that pressure by dashing to the rim, your offense is going to grind to a halt. The problem is that one guy not feeling the responsibility of cutting is infectious. Teammates can’t cut to an endpoint if someone doesn’t leave their spot first to start it. It’s not like you can just stop in the middle of the lane and stand idly if Embiid doesn’t reward you for making your move.
Besides the players guilty of literally standing and watching, that’s on Embiid to voice frustration and be the leader his teammates need. It’s also on Rivers — who is known as a motivator — to light a fire under the South-sides of his players. For a coach who emphasizes the importance of cutting on offense when the microphones are on in the media room, his team sure doesn’t do it often.
Tobias Harris had the smaller, ill-kneed Luke Kennard on an isolation and couldn’t blow by him to get to the basket, instead settling for a fadeaway jumper that landed short. If you can’t beat Luke Kennard off the dribble, something ain’t right.
I’ve never seen anyone in the NBA follow free throws with emotion the way Embiid does. Every time it feels even slightly off, the big guy buckles his arms and uncorks a dance move akin to a toddler needing to urinate. On one hand, those freebies that feel bad coming off his hands go in more often than not. On the other hand, it’s quite peculiar that Embiid often feels like his free throw is going to miss because he’s an incredible shooter from the charity stripe, especially for a big man. Typically, I’d be inclined to say that a player who thinks makes are going to be misses probably lacks touch with that particular shot. But, that would also mean that he probably struggles with that shot — and that couldn’t be further from the case for Embiid.
One of the more interesting developments of late is the release on Maxey’s midrange jumper when defenses play up on him. There were a pair of pull-up middies in the first half in which Maxey quickened his release, firing it on the way up instead of at the apex of his jump as he floated across the lane. You typically want to be at the apex when you release your jumper, but perhaps Maxey is using that as an adjustment over outstretched arms. If it goes in, I rest my case. You just don’t want it to be something that affects the mechanics on other shots.
Faced with a 20-point deficit early in the second half, the Clippers opted to go with a small-ball lineup in something resembling a box-and-1 or a triangle-and-2 defense. And as zones usually do, it threw the Sixers off long enough to let the Clippers get back in the game.
Harris was able to put some downhill pressure on the basket, but would elect to pick up his dribble mid-drive and settle for an awkward jumper that had no chance of going in or pass out of his possession. The three-point shooting didn’t pick up despite Embiid’s best efforts to get his teammates involved, either. The big guy had 17 points before halftime, and he had 29 through three quarters. He scored 12 of the Sixers’ 26 third-quarter points.
It sounds weird to say that Niang shooting 3-for-10 through three quarters is great. But, that is the case when you don’t have many itchy triggers on the roster. Niang only hit 1 of his 6 threes before the fourth quarter. That anyone can credibly say, “Well, at least he got up 6 threes through three quarters”, says more about your roster construction than anything else. Your roster around a post-up center should not be so barren of willing three-point shooters that you can look at the bright side of a 1-for-6 outing from deep.
Rivers had just about enough of Andre Drummond after he lost his balance driving to the rim and threw up and under-handed layup that didn’t touch the rim at any point of its travel. It was quite hilarious.
I suppose Eric Bledsoe air-balling an 8-foot floater with Embiid lurking at the rim speaks to the fear the big man elicits as a defender. Embiid wasn’t even within an arm’s length of him, but Bledsoe pulled the panic button. On the other hand, it might just be Eric Bledsoe being Eric Bledsoe.
Embiid has subtly become very good at leveraging his footwork to avoid offensive fouls when he goes directly at defenders. Instead of barreling them over, Embiid will take a dribble or two, plant his foot as he drives, lift the ball up high, and take an extra step through the lane to get to the rim. If he’s already shaken the defender, it’s a dunk. If not, he takes a slight pause to get the defender in the air, and then delivers his finish.
Speaking of progressions for the big fella, we’ve talked about his growth as a passer. But, his craftiness as a passer has grown rapidly, as well. On Friday night, he was delivering behind-the-back bounce-passes to the likes of Furkan Korkmaz and Charlie Brown Jr. The problem is, his teammates couldn’t cash in. I’d imagine few things are more frustrating for Embiid than watching his belief in his teammates go unrewarded.
Even with Embiid’s greatness, his teammates just couldn’t do enough to pick up their shares of the responsibilities. Isaiah Joe, Georges Niang, and Furkan Korkmaz combined to shoot 6-for-22 from the field. So while Embiid, Harris, and Maxey combined for 79 points, the rest of the team couldn’t get shots to fall when they weren’t turning the ball over.
And while they were doing that, the Clippers gained just enough momentum to sneak away with a victory. Make that a 24-point lead thrown away by the Sixers, and this one to a team that was without both its superstars.
The Sixers (26-19) will visit the San Antonio Spurs (17-28) on Sunday. Tip-off is set for 7 PM EST. You can catch the game on NBC Sports Philadelphia.