The Sixers (40-24) hosted the Brooklyn Nets (33-33) on Thursday. Philadelphia intended to build upon its win over the Bulls on Monday. Brooklyn hoped to win its second consecutive game. The Nets bludgeoned an immature Sixers team, 129-100, as Ben Simmons watched from Brooklyn’s bench.
Before we get to what I saw, allow me to set the scene.
The Nets were without the services of LaMarcus Aldridge, who missed the game with a right hip impingement.
Joe Harris is out for the season after undergoing surgery on his left ankle. Ben Simmons was out with back soreness resulting from his reconditioning for return to competition (whew, what a sentence).
Day’Ron Sharpe and David Duke Jr. (Two-Way) were on G-League assignments with the Long Island Nets and were unavailable.
Steve Nash started Kyrie Irving, Seth Curry, Bruce Brown, Kevin Durant, and Andre Drummond.
The Sixers were without Danny Green, who missed the game with a laceration on his left middle finger.
Charles Bassey, Jaden Springer, Charlie Brown Jr. (Two-Way), and Myles Powell (Two-Way) were unavailable.
Doc Rivers started James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, Matisse Thybulle, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
In case there was any thought that James Harden might play with an extra sweet tooth from the jump, Joel Embiid dispelled any plan to feature him early on. The first five minutes of the game featured mostly Embiid going right at Drummond in the post and on isolated face-ups. And aside from a couple rakes across the arms that shook the ball loose, Embiid mostly ate his dinner. He knocked in a pair of jumpers over Drummond’s outstretched hands, and got to the line for 4 free throws in the first 5 minutes of the game.
The Nets were certainly much more poised than the Sixers were early on. Philadelphia’s style reeked of adrenaline. Harden forced a couple shots, Embiid certainly forced some plays, and Maxey pulled up for a three in transition and airmailed it. Beyond forced shots, there were some immature live-ball turnovers that catapulted the Nets into transition, as well. Harden misread Brooklyn’s defense and threw a bad pass. Embiid had a runway to the cup and dribbled the ball off his leg.
You’re not going to play perfectly, of course. But, this Brooklyn defense isn’t imposing by any stretch of the imagination. The Sixers simply hurt themselves by playing unnecessarily fast. Part of that is likely the environment created by the crowd. The building was in an absolute frenzy an hour before tip-off because of Ben Simmons’ return to Philadelphia. Mind you, he didn’t actually play in the game. But the hatred for Simmons was very loud, and the game posed a playoff-like atmosphere. So, perhaps that heat took the Sixers out of focus.
While the Nets had absolutely no answer for Embiid — who drew 3 fouls each on Drummond and Bruce Brown — they were very well prepared for Harden. He certainly got his fair shore of shots in the first quarter — 6, in total — but he looked like the cursed version of himself from playoffs past. The Nets met him with physicality from the front and rear-side help when he drove, batting a number of his field goal attempts in the paint away or forcing him into turnovers. He connected on his step-back triple to pass Reggie Miller for third place on the NBA’s All-time Threes Made list, but was largely ineffective in his first stint of the game.
It was only fitting that this game was televised on TNT. To go along with the drama of Simmons’ return, the Sixers found themselves in a dangerous hole after one period. But like any modern coming-of-age drama, an unlikely character stepped up to help shoulder some of the load in the second quarter. Tobias Harris delivered a nifty lob to DeAndre Jordan for a dunk, hit a fade-away jumper from the baseline, and canned a triple in a short burst in the beginning of the frame. As much as Harris has struggled to contribute much of anything in 6 games since the All-Star break, the Sixers were certainly happy to see him contribute something while everyone else not named Joel Embiid contributed nothing.
Tyrese Maxey’s fit next to Embiid and Harden has eliminated Philadelphia’s need for Harris to be the third best player on the roster. But, he had been a non-factor in those 6 games. The ask isn’t that he deliver 20 points on average. Rather, the Sixers need 16-7 points, 5 three-point attempts per game, and net-neutral defense. Harris likely doesn’t fit into Philadelphia’s plans as part of a long-term Big Four. But, that doesn’t mean he can’t fulfill a role as a secondary scorer backing Philly’s new Big Three. Whether he’s willing to get up 5 threes per game is another story. He just can’t be second-guessing himself off of Harden’s passes.
Speaking of Harden, it was easily his worst half as a Sixer. His shot selection was very Harden-y. A healthy diet of deep step-back threes with the occasional drive in which he lost control of the ball. The problem that arises from Harden’s shot selection is that he’s hurting his team on a night when he’s frigid cold and ineffective. That’s the downside risk of Harden’s style of play. On one hand, he’s a creative assassin as a scorer on most nights. But when he’s off, he’s brutal, and it hurts the whole team.
The glass-half-full view is that there was certainly a ton of variance against them in the first half. Brooklyn shot 65% from the field in the first half. The Sixers, on the other hand, shot 27% on nearly identical shot volume. That’s not going to happen very often for a team with Embiid and Harden. The glass-half-empty view is the that perhaps matters more in a playoff environment. Part of why the Nets were shooting so well was the ease with which they got shots. They were able to shoot over the top of smaller Sixers or beat less agile or lengthy Philadelphians off the dribble to crack the interior. Simply put, the Sixers don’t have more than one credible perimeter defender capable of consistently affecting teams with multiple wing or guard creators. They’ve already expensed their buyout spot on a backup center, a move with which I didn’t particularly agree. You could certainly argue that there aren’t that many dynamic combinations in their path to deem it that concentrated of an issue. But regardless of how you spin it, Matisse Thybulle is Philadelphia’s only high-level perimeter defender. That’s a major weakness that isn’t going away at this juncture.
A positive from the first half — DeAndre Jordan had some excellent minutes. He accumulated 6 points and 5 rebounds in about 5 minutes of play. He could really help the team by widening his defensive stance so as to cover more ground on help rotations. Jordan isn’t agile at this stage of his career. But, he has the length to disrupt shots when games have yet to be decided. At the bear minimum, he has a prowess as a defensive rebounder, can scoop some loose balls, and can flush lobs. I don’t think he can play extended runs as a starter would, but there’s reason for comfort in 5-minute runs as part of the regular rotation.
Any hope of a Sixers comeback was dashed pretty early in the third quarter thanks to some signature shots from Seth Curry, of course. The Sixers played below the level of the screen in Curry pick-and-rolls. Showing a shallow drop scheme, the Sixers surrendered a step-back long two to Curry. A short while later, Curry burned the Sixers with a triple in transition and then off a weak-side swing pass to beat the loaded side of the floor. You would think the Sixers knew Curry’s tendencies well enough to not get burned by his tricks. Guess not.
Bruce Brown put a hurting on the Sixers in the third quarter, as well. The Nets forced a bunch of live-ball turnovers on steals thanks to over-dribbling from Embiid and poor passing chemistry from everyone. When that happened, Brooklyn was first to the loose balls and Brown was out to the races. Those transition points accumulated quickly, and the Sixers soon found themselves down 30.
It wasn’t just the run-outs that were easy. Brooklyn was met with little resistance in cracking Philadelphia’s interior defense, which was out of position all night long. The likes of Drummond, Brown, and other divers got unabated dunks to add insult to Philadelphia’s injury.
Paul Reed looked to be full of life! Everyone knows it probably won’t equate to more playing time, but he was a ball of energy. Reed hit a three, and converted a couple of bunnies at the rim. He also mixed in a couple of loose ball pursuits, like only Paul Reed can.
The Sixers were much more interested in showing up the guy on Brooklyn’s bench than they were on playing the game, and Brooklyn was locked in on showing up their former teammate. Philadelphia was without discipline and lacking in maturity in a total drubbing at the hands of an under-manned division rival. It’s one loss. My job is to avoid overreactive analysis while the fans light social media platforms on fire. You weren’t going to go undefeated with James Harden, but you expected more from him and most of his teammates on Thursday. It didn’t help the image of the loss that it was a beatdown while he had one of his classic ugly Harden games. But, you’ll live with Harden having one bad game out of every six — and that’s what this is in the regular season. One bad game out of six games played. The other five were mostly masterful on the offensive end of the floor.
The Sixers (40-25) will visit the Orlando Magic (17-50) on Sunday. Tip-off is set for 6 PM, Eastern time. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.