The Sixers (9-8) visited the Charlotte Hornets (4-14) on Wednesday. Philadelphia wanted to build on its victory over the Brooklyn Nets on Tuesday. Charlotte aimed to break a three-game losing streak. The Sixers simply had nothing left to spare in the tank in the decisive quarter of a 107-101 loss.
Before we get to the game, allow me to set the scene.
The Sixers were without Joel Embiid, who missed his second consecutive game with a sprained left mid-foot. Philadelphia announced earlier in the week that he would miss the current back-to-back with the injury. My understanding is that he will be reevaluated ahead of Friday’s game, but there’s no guarantee he will be cleared to return for that contest. Before Tuesday’s victory over the Nets, head coach Doc Rivers even proposed the possibility that Embiid could return in unison with James Harden, which would target a return in early December. Obviously more than just two games, so we’ll see what happens there.
Harden remained out with a strained tendon in his right foot. Tyrese Maxey has a fractured left foot and was unavailable.
Matisse Thybulle has left ankle Tenosynovitis and was out.
Jaden Springer was unavailable due to a strained right quad.
Rivers started Shake Milton, De’Anthony Melton, PJ Tucker, Tobias Harris, and Montrezl Harrell.
The Hornets were without LaMelo Ball, who has a sprained left ankle.
Cody Martin is recovering from a procedure on his left knee and was unavailable.
Steve Clifford started Terry Rozier, Kelly Oubre Jr., Gordon Hayward, PJ Washington, and Mason Plumlee.
If this was going to be a let-down game for the Sixers against an inferior opponent ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday, the early moments of the first quarter weren’t a good barometer of that, at least not on offense. Philadelphia made good use of Plumlee’s drop coverage, dribbling into pull-up midrange jumpers in pockets of space. They controlled the ball with force, even if they didn’t get to the rim every time. The Sixers had no interest in giving the Hornets’ defense the paint with bail-out threes. They saw a tactical weakness in Charlotte’s defense and exploited it.
I don’t really know where to put this, mostly because I don’t have a feeling toward it either way, so I’ll just put it where my cursor is. The Sixers must have some of the biggest trash-talkers after ordinary made shots of any team in the NBA. They have Harrell bellowing after dunks and layups, Georges Niang yelling at the opposing team’s bench and nearest defender on made threes, and Tucker making hand signs with his fingers and pointing at the opposing bench when he makes corner threes.
Philadelphia will take any playmaking it can get while Harden is out, so it’s a welcomed sight to see Milton developing some nice chemistry with Harrell and Reed on wrap-around passes out of the pick-and-roll. Milton applied pressure on the interior, forcing his way to the rim and drawing all of Charlotte’s attention before ripping looping passes to his screener for dunks. They got those looks a handful of times in the first half, and the Sixers need all of the easy buckets they can get with their three best players unavailable.
Can’t say enough good things about Melton. His jumper was money for much of the first half, picking back up where he left off just 24 hours earlier. Melton is starting to get comfortable pulling up for jumpers in space if his defender goes under the ball screen, a key development for the offensive viability of the Sixers’ reserves if that comfort persists once the two primary ball-handlers return.
I spotted Harrell wearing 2009 Nike Hyperdunks in the second half. So, at least he has fantastic taste in basketball shoes. To his credit, the touch around the rim improved. He found some success with that quick short hook across the lane.
I typically don’t pay much attention to the individual styles of PA announcers, but the Hornets’ PA guy has this great call when the visiting team travels. He says, “No, no, no!” The tone is extremely condescending, I picture this man making the “tisk, tisk” sign with his hands. I love it.
Milton kept the Sixers alive late as the Hornets tried to pull away. A steal and layup in the open floor, a huge midrange jumper to stop the bleeding when Charlotte went on its run, and then an and-1 pull-up just short of the rim. It was a quiet 22 points on 16 shots for Milton. But, he was probably Philadelphia’s best player, also dishing nine assists and pulling down seven rebounds.
Oh, and Tucker made a shot!
Listen, I can’t get on Harrell’s case too much considering he’s on a minimum deal. I also can’t blame Rivers all that much for playing him given the team’s current state. But, I don’t say any justification for giving him minutes when Embiid is back. He’s shooting 50 percent at the rim — a career-worst by a wide margin — and that only got worse in the first quarter. Beyond that, he committed two fouls on Plumlee in the first frame. No disrespect to Plumlee, he’s a fine player. But, he doesn’t exactly have a treasure chest of tools to trick you into fouling him. He isn’t exactly a super athlete, either. Just brutal stuff out of an offseason acquisition that I leaned towards optimism about given his price tag.
I might’ve overestimated how athletic — or, perhaps how competitive in spirit — the Nets were because the Sixers looked like a different team on defense in the opening frame of this game. The Hornets out-hustled and out-muscled in the first quarter, hitting the Sixers with aggression at the rim to force fouls, create rim scores, and reel in offensive rebounds. The likes of Nick Richards and PJ Washington had field days early on, towering over Paul Reed and other smaller or less vertical Sixers in their way.
There were also some poor habits, like Georges Niang getting caught ball-watching to the effect of an open corner three for Washington and then a long offensive rebound for the shooter. The only reason the Sixers were able to build any degree of distance between themselves and Charlotte was the shooting disparity. The Hornets couldn’t buy a bucket through the first quarter, and the Sixers built upon their hot sniping from the Brooklyn game.
Harris loves to throw that off shoulder or forearm to create marginal space when he’s navigating crowds off the dribble, and he gets whistled for the offensive foul every time. I don’t remember him ever getting away with it, so whatever he does to practice that not-so-subtle jab, maybe consult someone who gets away with it all the time?
Reed tried a floater from just within the free throw line on a long offensive rebound in the final minute of the third quarter and airballed it. If it makes him feel any better, Oubre Jr. had a handful of airballs in the game, so at least he wasn’t alone.
You would’ve hoped the Sixers could build on a 12-point lead in the first half because of the anticipation that they’d come back down to earth on the second leg of a back-to-back. But, whether it be for talent reasons or energy reasons, they couldn’t keep them at an arm’s length. So when it was a close game heading into the final quarter, the Sixers predictably ran out of gas. The fatigue manifested in a slew of turnovers. I can understand just succumbing to fatigue. It’s a shame they didn’t give themselves great chances to overcome it, though, forfeiting possessions and giving Charlotte extra cracks on their own end in the game’s decisive period. If you have to go down, you want to go down missing shots, not making mistakes.
The Sixers (9-9) will visit the Orlando Magic (5-13) on Friday. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the game on NBC Sports Philadelphia.