The Sixers (31-20) visited the Dallas Mavericks (29-23) on Friday night. Philadelphia intended to right its wrongs from a loss to the Washington Wizards on Wednesday. Dallas hoped to snap a two-game losing streak. The Sixers had absolutely no answer for Dallas’ zone defense, and a 33-point second half doomed them in a 107-98 loss.
Before we get to what I saw, allow me to set the scene.
The Sixers were without Shake Milton (back contusion) and Furkan Korkmaz (sore left knee).
Paul Reed and Jaden Springer were on G-League assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats and were not available.
Ben Simmons is not mentally ready to play and was out.
Doc Rivers started Tyrese Maxey, Seth Curry, Matisse Thybulle, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
The Mavericks were without Kristaps Porzingis, who has a bone bruise on his right knee.
Tim Hardaway Jr (left foot surgery) and Sterling Brown (sore left foot) were unavailable. Maxi Kleber was a late scratch with a left knee effusion.
Jason Kidd started Luka Doncic, Jalen Brunson, Reggie Bullock, Dorian Finney-Smith, and Dwight Powell.
The Sixers did a very nice job of showing Luka Doncic different defensive schemes in the first quarter. At first, Matisse Thybulle fought through ball screens to minimize the downhill space Doncic had to attack the rim and registered a block on one of the star’s field goal attempts. Then a possession or two later, the Sixers showed high with the screen defender hedging while Thybulle recovered around the pick to perturb Doncic. Later in the first quarter, Thybulle spun under the screen and met Doncic on the other side.
Stars are stars largely because of how quickly they can solve defenses. So, sitting in one scheme all night is a recipe for disaster. Mixing up your coverages to keep a player of Doncic’s caliber honest is critical, and the Sixers did that early on Friday.
Of the many improvements Joel Embiid has made this season, one is keeping the ball out of harm’s way when he’s attacking the cup on a runway. He keeps it high above his head, with one arm extended so that no one can reach in and poke it away without fouling, as he soars in for points at the rim. Matched up with Marquese Chriss, Embiid used a shoulder fake to get his man off balance before bursting to the rim — arm-extended to protect the rock — for a one-handed slam.
There was a 40-plus minute delay due to a crooked hoop that needed to be replaced — except the backboard was made crooked by the rim-fixing process. So, the solution was to fix the entire basket setup on that side of the court. The Sixers have had multiple obscure delays like this on the road this season, and it feels like they’ve all taken place in the late-night games. Killin’ me (and the rest of the Sixers beat).
There was a play towards the end of the first quarter in which Seth Curry got caught on a flare screen for Reggie Bullock, and then fouled him on a triple as he rushed to recover. Curry’s size is something that playoff opponents are going to look to punish. He’s just too small and, maybe worse, too slow to get through screens and pressure off-ball shooters.
Teams are going to pick on his inability to get through screens, just like they will use guard-guard or guard-wing pick-and-rolls to get a bigger creator isolated against Tyrese Maxey. Switching those off-ball screens will help, except you’re going to have a screener posting Curry up — obviously problematic. It ultimately may just be a downfall of roster construction that the Sixers cannot account for, but they have a few more days to tighten those screws with some peripheral trades.
Doc Rivers appeared to embrace some significant rotational adjustments to start the second frame. First, he ostensibly tied Thybulle’s first-quarter minutes to Doncic’s, as Danny Green didn’t play at all in the first frame. However, Doncic came out to open the second quarter, Thybulle was given a breather, and Green checked in.
Beyond that, Rivers staggered Maxey with a second unit of Green, Isaiah Joe, Georges Niang, and Andre Drummond. Theoretically, that unit is capable of creating some distance between the team they represent and their opponent. Three shooters who will let it rip from anywhere on the floor. Then, you have Maxey’s downhill speed to carve up the interior if the perimeter defense is too aggressive. That lineup ultimately yielded exactly those results. Niang hit a pair of triples, Drummond got a few buckets, and Maxey glided to the rim for a beautiful layup to push the Sixers’ lead to 15 points.
The Sixers did much more blitzing when Doncic checked back in, with Embiid stepping out to trap him as Thybulle followed through the screen. That’s a fine strategy as long as your back-line helpers are in appropriate position when the swing pass is made. That wasn’t the case with Dorian Finney-Smith, who answered a Sixers run with a corner triple off of a bad rotation.
If they don’t know where they’re supposed to rotate in help, that swing pass is going to concede threes. Perhaps you can sleep at night knowing that your defense gave up open threes from role players while you kept the opposing superstar at bay. But, great shooting teams will pick you apart that way. Such is especially frustrating when those breakdowns are preventable.
Few things make for a better laugh than watching Danny Green rush back to his matchup in transition defense. Imagine someone walking a rocky plane with cinder blocks tied to their feet.
Tobias Harris is not fooling anyone with his end-of-quarter shots just after the buzzer. That man must have some field goal percentage clauses in his contract. Milliseconds late every time.
It might work once in a while, but there was more harm than good in double-posting Harris and Embiid against Dallas’ zone. They were setting up on the same side of the floor and one was consistently either too high or too low. So the spacing was a mess, and that allowed Dallas to interfere with the passing lanes.
To exacerbate the issue, the Sixers simply came out with a lack of discipline and focus on defense. They bit fakes, closed out on shooters with flat feet, and breached neutral ground to over-help. I suppose the most inexplicable thing about the Sixers’ frequent issues in solving zone defenses is that they theoretically have one of the most potent tools needed to beat it. Embiid’s growth as a passer and aptitude as a midrange shooter make him an optimal man in the middle to exploit the weak spot of the zone in the middle of the floor. Even if the defense goes to a 3-2, Embiid can isolate up top and make plays if the zone doesn’t converge. The most damning of all — Doc Rivers had no answer for it. Even coming out of timeouts, the Sixers had nothing.
Teams have proven entirely willing to throw zones at Philly as part of their regular defensive strategy. That’s quite indicative that you have glaring weaknesses in the shooting and playmaking departments. And the worst part is that the Sixers have come up with virtually nothing to counter that zone. The opposition is going to do that come playoff time. And the Sixers will be sitting ducks. Georges Niang revealed that Rivers is merciful in practice, to put it respectfully. Maybe they should spend more time working on zones so that they don’t look utterly lost when teams throw it at them. And don’t tell me they don’t have enough practice time — the schedule limitations are league-wide.
I will credit Rivers for seeing something in his second unit that I certainly didn’t see coming into the fourth quarter. He stuck with them deep into the final quarter of play, and that unit authored an 11-0 run to swing the game back in Philly’s favor. The most notable thing about their push to open the quarter was Tyrese Maxey. He hasn’t proven to need certain lineups to do what comes naturally to him. Whether it’s a starting unit with ultra floor space or a bench units trying to pinch together buckets, Maxey can get to the cup and convert from whatever angle is there. And in the fourth quarter, he doesn’t hide from the spotlight. He steps right up and believes in himself.
I don’t really understand the logic of leaving Danny Green on Doncic for the majority of a quarter, but here we are. Green was the designated Doncic defender out of the triple-threat, and the superstar guard manipulated the Sixers’ interior. It’s not like Thybulle battled foul trouble throughout the game or was over-extended in minutes. He registered 26 minutes and committed just 2 fouls. It’s utterly baffling that Thybulle wasn’t in there earlier in the fourth quarter. I get the need for shooting, but this isn’t any random team. Thybulle is your stopper against the elite of the elite. You sacrifice offensive threat to contain the biggest foe, especially when you’re trailing in the game as is. Scores are irrelevant if you don’t compound them with stops.
As has been their kryptonite all season long, the Sixers botched an opportunity to take control of this game in the closing minutes with their performance on the defensive glass. They got a beautiful defense stand out of Seth Curry, who stayed down on Doncic’s fakes to force a prayer from about 30 feet. However, the Mavericks beat the Sixers to the glass and revived the possession. And how did that break the Sixers’ backs? With a Doncic and-1 to turn a two-possession game into a three-possession game.
Kate Scott and Alaa Abdelnaby seem like great, great people. But my goodness, it is hard for their officiating complaints to hold weight when every night is the worst officiated game in the history of basketball. A producer at NBC Sports Philadelphia needs to talk to them about that this offseason.
The Sixers (31-21) will visit the Chicago Bulls (33-19) on Sunday. Tip-off is set for 3:30 PM EST. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.