Photo by Austin Krell/The Painted Lines

The Philadelphia 76ers (47-21) were in Indiana to face the Pacers (32-36) on Tuesday night. Philadelphia was in need of one more victory to clinch the top seed in the Eastern Conference. The Sixers were looking to push their winning streak to nine games. The Pacers were looking to build a winning streak and inch within a half game of the Hornets for the 8-seed. A terrible second half doomed the Sixers, who fell, 103-94.

Before we get to what I saw, I owe you some context.

Contextual Notes

The Sixers were without Joel Embiid (non-COVID illness), Furkan Korkmaz (sprained right ankle), Shake Milton (right knee soreness), and Matisse Thybulle (sore left hand). Doc Rivers started Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and Mike Scott.

According to Keith Pompey of The Philadelphia Inquirer, Embiid did not travel with the team to Indiana. A source told The Painted Lines that there was hope that Embiid would join the team in Miami if the Sixers were to lose in Indiana. The source said Embiid would not join the team in Miami if they clinched the 1-seed in Indiana.

The Pacers were without:

  • Malcolm Brogdon (sore right hamstring)
  • Jeremy Lamb (sore left knee)
  • Myles Turner (partial plantar plate tear on right toe)
  • TJ Warren (stress fracture of left foot)
  • Edmond Sumner (left knee contusion)

Nate Bjorkgren started Caris LeVert, Justin Holiday, Doug McDermott, Oshae Brissett, and Domantas Sabonis.

First Half

From a mechanical standpoint, there’s nothing to explain Curry’s recent stretch of torrid shooting. From his lower body all the way up to his release point everything is the same. The difference would appear to be a heavy injection of confidence. He’s hunting triples and launching them without hesitation. You can also feel the swagger exuding from his body after he shoots. He’s jawing with courtside spectators and engaging in momentary celebrations after he sees his attempts cash in.

In Good Health

I also suspect there is an element of newfound health for Curry. He’s battled an array of injuries and battled COVID earlier this season. Curry is deserving of a lion’s share of the credit for the team’s eight-game winning streak. The Sixers are going to need him to continue the elevated play if they’re going to make their push for the NBA Finals. It will help space the floor for obvious reasons. Beyond that, the usage of dribble handoffs with Simmons is going to force defenders to play up on the Australian point guard to counter the threat of Curry stepping into open triples. Of course, that’ll free up Simmons to explode down the lane and make plays on the move.

Of course, it would help the team’s offensive consistency if Curry didn’t follow up hot stretches with mysterious bouts of timidness from deep. Granted, the eye test says Curry is a more than adequate midrange shooter. But, as the analytics era has taught us, the triple is more valuable than the long two.

Passing And Driving

Both Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris set the tone on the offensive end of the court early in this game. They were playing to straight line-drives and making extra passes, and that intensity was contagious. When they weren’t initiating offense for others, they were pushing the rim off of feeds from their teammates. When they got to the rim, particularly encouraging was that they weren’t finishing around contact. They were challenging the Pacers to commit fouls or give up shots in the paint. The Pacers weren’t inspired enough to resist, and the Sixers were scoring with ease.

It truly was a team effort on the defensive end of the floor. All of the Sixers were active and alert in the passing lanes, creating deflections and getting out in transition. Even when they weren’t poking the ball away, they were very much in sync as they defended Caris LeVert. I was reasonably concerned that LeVert would go off without a secondary wing defender when Simmons was off the court and without Embiid there to deter him at the rim. Simmons, and the rest of the Sixers, were not giving LeVert any air space in the halfcourt setting, and he missed nine of his eleven field goal attempts in the first half.

Second Half

The Sixers lost focus on the defensive end very quickly in the third quarter, and it came back to bite them quite rapidly. They were especially lethargic fighting through off-ball screens to weaponize McDermott off of curls. That lethargy generated open triples, and McDermott was eager to cash in.

“So, yeah, that was on us.”

The Sixers also hurt themselves with poor positioning in help defense. They frequently had their backs turned to their primary assignments and were not keeping their heads active. Lacking the senses needed to detect their primaries moving, they were getting roasted on backdoor cuts. The poor defense enabled the Pacers to claw back into the game, and a 16-point first half lead dissipated into a 3-point deficit late in the third quarter.

Harris admitted that the team lost focus on that front after the game. “There’s an emphasis that they run a lot of backdoor cuts and they have a lot of cutters at any given time out there. So, yeah, that was on us.”

“I think we slowed down our pace. I mean, we got a lot of good looks. We just didn’t knock them down.”

As great as Ben Simmons was in the first half, I thought there were plenty of opportunities for him to take the game over in the third quarter when the rest of the team couldn’t do much of anything on offense. Instead of using his body and building on a strong first half, Simmons was far too passive when his team was desperately in need of someone to step up. I’m generally understanding of Simmons lacking a score-first mentality. But, it was rather absurd that he had an electric first half and then seemingly forgot what to do in the second half. His team needed him to take over. He was looking to facilitate DHOs for the likes of Seth Curry and other teammates who best suited for feeding off him rather than playing off of him with the ball in their hands.

Simmons didn’t see a problem with his sudden lack of aggression. In fact, he felt it was just a problem of guys missing shots. “I think we slowed down our pace,” Simmons said after the loss. “I mean, we got a lot of good looks. We just didn’t knock them down. So, I mean, if we do hit those shots, I think it’s a different game.”

I suppose that’s one way of looking at it. But, I would also wonder what his teammates would retort with. Simmons is the point forward. He had a terrific offensive showing in the first half. He proved to himself and everybody watching that he could take the Pacers to the weight room and win. So, it’s hard to digest his sudden deference at a time when no one else had a solution. 

Look, at this point, Doc Rivers is going to go with Mike Scott whether you like it or not. We’re all watching the same thing that Rivers is. He has access to the same games that we have access to. There’s something about Scott to which Rivers is loyal, and he sees something of value to playing him. Obviously, those external to the team disagree with Rivers’ affinity for the veteran forward. Scott shouldn’t be in the closing lineup when Embiid isn’t available. To be fair, the closing unit likely looks different if Korkmaz is available. But, the best thing I can offer you is the peace of mind knowing that Scott almost certainly will not be back after this season ends. So, this isn’t something that fans have to exorcise demons over for too much longer.

“I thought it was one of those games where we got tied into the players, to the refs, our guys did and we lost our focus.”

The Sixers ultimately shot themselves in the foot in the fourth quarter. They failed to cash in on open looks and squandered possessions with offensive fouls and questionable turnovers. The best way to describe the late collapse was that the team lacked a focal point to its offense–which was exactly the case with Embiid out. Nonetheless, the Sixers are 47-22, and they’ve climbed within a single victory of clinching the 1-seed in the East despite playing without Embiid for twenty games this season. They’re 9-11 without him this season. While talent mismatches have ultimately proven fatal in some of those Embiid-less games, such should not be the case against an under-manned Pacers team fighting for its play-in life. The Sixers thought they could waltz into Indiana and win without Embiid, and they got punched in the mouth.

Following the loss, Rivers expressed clear dissatisfaction with his team’s offense in the second half. “We didn’t have any execution tonight. We really didn’t,” Rivers said. “First half, first quarter we were brilliant with moving the ball and getting the ball in the right spots. Running our stuff. I thought it was one of those games where we got tied into the players, to the refs, our guys did and we lost our focus. So, we had no execution tonight.”

Now, they have to wait another day to clinch the 1-seed. They will try again on Thursday when they visit the Heat (38-31) in Miami. Tip-off is set for 7:30 PM EST. You can catch the action on TNT.