Kyle O'Quinn drives the lane

The 76ers (42-28; 3-2) faced the Phoenix Suns (32-39; 6-0) in their fifth of eight bubble games on Tuesday afternoon. Shake Milton was the only regular starter standing at tip-off. The Suns, vying for a play-in game, were desperate to maintain their winning ways. The Sixers, on the other hand, seemed to be leaning into the East’s sixth seed. They cautiously gave Harris (right ankle soreness), Horford (left knee soreness), and Richardson (rest) the day off.

Before diving into my observations, some notes:

Contextual Notes

The Sixers started Milton, Alec Burks, Matisse Thybulle, Mike Scott, and Kyle O’Quinn.

On Monday, the Sixers provided a medical update on Ben Simmons:

First Half

The Sixers injected a heavy dosage of pick-and-roll play into the offense early in this game. Milton was forcing Phoenix’s defense into making difficult decisions. He continuously penetrated the interior and dared Phoenix to leave his lane unoccupied. The Suns were sluggish and late on defensive rotations. So, they were burnt by backdoor cuts from Thybulle and open jumpers on the perimeter.

The Sixers were content with giving Deandre Ayton open jumpers out of the pick-and-roll in the early going. They were unwilling to allow Devin Booker to get comfortable as a creator in the middle of the floor. Brett Brown touched on that sentiment following the loss to Portland, saying, “When you study the most dangerous offensive players in our sport, there is zero doubt that the most difficult people to defend are the live-ball guards.” Booker finished the first quarter with 6 points (2-for-5 shooting), 1 assist, 1 steal, and 1 turnover.

The offense flowed surprisingly smoothly, in large part due to healthy passing and off-ball movement. Matisse Thybulle, with a pair of back-door cuts, took advantage of Phoenix’s poor rim protection early.

Furkan Korkmaz continues to experiment with these awkward two-dribble miniature fakes before settling for off-balance jumpers. But, he should cease that practice immediately, as he has yet to make one. Of course, the Sixers cannot afford to waste possessions on the off chance that Korkmaz converts one of the off-balance, self-created jumpers.

(Kind Of) The Same Old Defense

The perimeter defense kept the Sixers in this one through the first half. Brown’s wings keyed on Booker, minimizing the space they gave him in the triple-threat and fighting through screens to present him with an uncomfortable presence on his back. Booker, who is the focal point of Phoenix’s offense, finished the first half with 14 points (3-for-9 shooting).

The interior defense was where the Suns did their damage. O’Quinn was often slow to rotate over to attacking guards and lost track of offensive bigs near the rim, surrendering open finishes under the basket. Scott was burned a few times with poor off-ball defensive awareness, as the Suns took advantage of ball-watching to convert some easy looks on back-door cuts. The Sixers were outscored 34-24 in the paint in the first half, and ultimately trailed by 5 points at intermission.

Mike Scott contributed 15 points (6-for-8 shooting) in the first half. In what was his best game all season, Brown engaged Scott with a significant role in the offense. Whether it was spotting up out of flair screens or getting to comfort spots in the post, Scott was locked in from the jump.

Second Half

The Sixers remained tough, leaning on O’Quinn (yes, you read that correctly) as a playmaker. With his dynamic passing, Brown used O’Quinn both in the pick-and-roll as a finisher and passer and in the post as a facilitator. The Sixers were working around him, cutting intuitively and flashing out to the three-point line. The Suns were able to take advantage of Philly’s slow rotations on the perimeter, burying numerous triples off of excellent ball movement to create some separation.

Thybulle committed his fourth and fifth fouls on consecutive plays in the third period, forcing Brown to preserve his rookie defensive maestro. With one less wing taking away from Booker’s breathing room, the all-star guard heated up, pouring in 10 points in the penultimate frame.

Booker continued his torrid second half, pouring in 11 more points in the final frame. The Sixers relied upon playmaking from Raul Neto to keep the affair close. But, the interior defense ultimately broke down. Poor rotations and undisciplined one-on-one defense cracked the Sixers, as the Suns were able to open things up with a balance of outside and inside scores. Devin Booker, who finished with 35 points, took over down the stretch. He and Mikal Bridges (24 points, 8-for-10 shooting) combined for points to beat the Sixers, 130-117.

The Sixers will play the Toronto Raptors at 6:30 PM, EST, on ESPN.