Photo by Austin Krell/The Painted Lines

The Philadelphia 76ers (8-6) visited the Utah Jazz (8-5) on Tuesday night. Philly was looking to snap its four-game losing streak. Utah wanted to get out of their own two-game rut. The Jazz knocked down 16 threes to send the Sixers to a fifth consecutive loss, 120-85.

Before we get to what I saw, some notes.

Contextual Notes

Joel Embiid and Matisse Thybulle missed another game as they progress through the league’s health and safety protocol. Before the game, Doc Rivers had this to say about their progressions:

Danny Green was unavailable after leaving Saturday’s loss to the Pacers with left hamstring tightness. Grant Riller, who is recovering from surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee, was out.

Ben Simmons, who is still claiming a lack of mental readiness to play, missed another game. Shams Charania reported on Monday that the Sixers fined Simmons for failing to travel on the team’s six-game road trip.

Rivers started Tyrese Maxey, Seth Curry, Shake Milton, Tobias Harris, and Andre Drummond.

The Jazz were without Rudy Gay, who is recovering from a right heel injury.

Quin Snyder started Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell, Royce O’Neale, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Rudy Gobert.

First Quarter

Andre Drummond was disinterested in making plays at the rim against Utah’s ball-handlers early on. The Jazz’s guards got to the rim at will in the first few minutes of the games. You expect Drummond to be aware of Gobert and maintain a box-out. But, he wasn’t making plays on drivers at all. The ask isn’t even that he toggle to elite rim-protection against guards while wrestling with opposing bigs on a moment’s notice. But, there needs to be an effort to stop the basketball.

There were plays in which Drummond was there, but didn’t physically attempt to step up to block off the lane. Another play involved Drummond not converging on one of Utah’s smaller musicians as they approached the rim while he was on the perimeter. It wasn’t even as if he was stretched away from the play, either. He had one foot in the lane and could’ve easily rotated into the paint to put some pressure on the ball. It amounted to effort, and there was little to none of that early in the affair.

Tobias Harris attempted to casually reverse a layup against Gobert early on, and the defensive anchor promptly spiked the ball away from the basket. You can’t dog layups like that against a guy like Gobert, and Harris was a deserving example to be made of that fact. 

At the same time, Maxey pushed to the rim as urgently as his legs would allow near the end of the quarter in an effort to beat Gobert. The Defensive Player of the Year promptly swatted his layup away. The strength with which Gobert was able to deflect shots under extremely different contexts served as a stark reminder of just how elite of a rim guardian he is.

Isaiah Joe got some run towards the end of the first quarter, knocking in a triple and converting a layup in transition in just about one minute of playing time. It was encouraging to see the second-year wing both appear healthy and respond positively to some action in a non garbage time situation. 

Second Quarter

Rivers noticed Drummond’s lack of engagement on defense, giving rookie big Charles Bassey some minutes after a blown coverage by Drummond early in the second quarter. It was the second consecutive game in which Rivers opted for Bassey over fan-favorite Paul Reed. “Bball Paul” has improved his discipline on defense, so it’s a big puzzling that Rivers seems to be skipping him to get to Bassey of late. The best I can read into that is that perhaps Reed’s favoring within the coaching staff is dependent upon matchups. Beyond that, perhaps there is a lack of uniformity as to how Reed should be used. After all, his playing time has noticeably dwindled since Harris returned to from his bout with COVID. The interpretation there is that there’s some thought that Reed is a power forward, not a center.

After a catastrophic 14-0 Jazz run early in the second quarter, the Sixers made inroads when Rivers opted to go small with Georges Niang or Harris in the middle. Obviously, there’s a lot to be desired in regards to protecting the rim with such small lineups. However, the perceived benefit is that having shooting all over the place instead of one big that isn’t credible in that regard will lift shot-blockers like Gobert and Hassan Whiteside away from the rim. Theoretically, that makes it easier to capitalize on defensive miscues from the non-bigs and affords looks at the rim. 

Beyond that, going smaller increases agility. Better agility helps create chaos in the passing lanes. Part of the trap is that the Sixers wanted the Jazz to try to feed the beast down low. The allure of feeding an obvious size mismatch gets the ball moving more. That’s when small-ball lineups can make hay on defense.

Cold Curry

Seth Curry finished the first half with a donut on 7 field goal attempts. Part of that is Utah’s size and speed present problems for small, slow guards. But, the bigger picture is that Curry has been off the last few games. The culprit is likely that he’s finally feeling some fatigue after being asked to take on a bigger role as a primary ball-handler and creator. I’m a broken record on this topic at this point, but it’s a role that he’s adopted in his thirties. Curry is more than adequate as a secondary or tertiary creator. But, his torrid shooting was never going to be sustainable if the ball-handling duties were going to persist.

The goal should be to maximize Curry’s shot-making ability. With that — and given Maxey’s prowess as a speedy ball-handler — it’s baffling that Maxey is playing off-ball as much as he is. At the very least, there should be some experimentation with elevating Maxey’s ball-handling duties and whether it correlates with another Curry hot stretch.

Third Quarter

During this losing streak, the Sixers’ ball movement on offense has mostly been dreadful. At first, they were a “gutsy team showing their culture and chemistry” by staying in games in which they were so under-manned. But as the losses piled, you start assessing the why behind them when four of the five have been by fewer than 10 point. The main culprit in the offense falling apart at inopportune times is that the team isn’t moving the rock. And that problem wasn’t fixed against the Jazz, either. It’s not about the absence of Ben Simmons. It’s about lethargy and engagement on that end of the floor.

For instance, Tobias Harris attacked the gap in the middle of the lane and then pivoted to find a teammate once his defender cut off his angle. But, none of his four teammates on the court moved around him to get open. Harris is by no means a playmaking wizard. But he’s in no man’s land if he picks up his dribble and no one moves to release the pressure. Possessions like that in which the ball sticks are compounded and worsened by a lack of moving off the ball. 

Things will obviously improve on the defensive side of the ball when Joel Embiid and Matisse Thybulle return. But, at some point you must wonder how much better it can get. The Sixers are basically non-competitive in their perimeter defense at the moment. They bite shot fakes with heavy close-outs. They don’t maintain mutual positioning away from the ball. And they don’t sprint out to shooters. They’ve given up a ton of open threes over the course of this streak, and it’s not getting any better.

Fourth Quarter

You know Korkmaz is going through it when he misses that patented side-step three after throwing a pump-fake when he catches the long offensive rebound. You can really tell he’s down bad when he gets multiple shots in a possession and can’t adjust himself to knock in the second one. After a wonderful start to the season, Korkmaz has really struggled over the last handful of competitions.

Notably, he’s worn tape on his shooting wrist ever since he missed a game due to wrist soreness. The problem is that Korkmaz is historically very streaky. Rivers likes to dismiss questions from the media about the wrist as Korkmaz being a streaky shooter going through a cold streak. So, it’s difficult to warrant digging deeper than that. However, if it continues perhaps he’ll get a game off due to “wrist soreness”. Then, we’ll know.

Georges Niang’s shooting volume is why he’s a playable NBA reserve forward. The reason the Sixers aren’t paying him a ton of money by NBA standards is that he’s limited athletically. But my goodness, the man is going to be a target come playoff time. If the Sixers are going to marry themselves to switch schemes in the postseason, Niang cannot be a fixture in the rotation. But, does anyone trust Rivers to lean into Reed as the backup four if the Sixers commit to switching on defense? The fans love Niang’s shotmaking and energy right now, but that relationship might be tested if he’s getting picked on in pick-and-rolls with the season on the line. 

The Sixers (8-7) will visit the Denver Nuggets (9-5) on Thursday night. Tip-off is set for 9 PM EST. You can catch the affair on NBA TV.