Josh Richardson poses for a fan

The 76ers (42-27; 3-1 in the bubble) embarked on the latter half of their seeding schedule on Sunday evening, matching up with Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers (32-39; 3-2 in the bubble). The Sixers have put forth discouraging performances through four seeding games. Nonetheless, they found themselves just one game out of the fourth seed in the East prior to tip-off. The Blazers are finally seeing some semblance of a healthy roster. They are within one game of the eighth seed in the West when the game began.

Before breaking down what the Sixers showed us in this game, some things to be aware of:

Contextual Notes

Star point forward Ben Simmons (knee) will leave the Orlando bubble to undergo surgery to remove loose bodies in his knee. While he is deemed out indefinitely, I do not foresee the former first overall pick returning to the Sixers’ lineup this season.

Glenn Robinson III (left hip; pointer) was available for his first “regular season” action in the bubble. Robinson III injured his hip on a live-play collision during the team’s final scrimmage prior to the seeding games.

Prior to the game, Brown stated that his rotation would be trimmed to nine players. As of now, Raul Neto will not be part of that group.

The Trail Blazers were without the services of center Hassan Whiteside (left hip; strain). This was an interesting development, as Joel Embiid has a beef, of sorts, with the veteran center. Embiid has notably dominated Whiteside, so it was worth considering whether the absence of his opposing equivalent would affect his level of engagement in this affair.

Following some postgame drama with Paul George, the running joke was that Damian Lillard was going to take his anger out on the Sixers. Boy, did he ever.

First Half

Joel Embiid registered a pair of fouls on Jusuf Nurkic in the opening minutes of the game. The Blazers opted to go small, replacing him with 6’9″ rookie forward Wenyen Gabriel. Terry Stotts pushed Zach Collins up to center to counter his starting center’s foul trouble.

Embiid left the game early in the first quarter, seemingly favoring his ankle after an awkward landing on a stanchion underneath the basket after making a contest at the rim. It was later announced that he would miss the remainder of the game with an ankle injury. Following the game, Brown noted that Embiid looked to be in high spirits on the bench despite being unable to play. But, he would not comment on the severity of the injury or Embiid’s status going forward. As it pertains to how he would deploy Embiid going forward if available, Brown said, “You want to have an honest sort of medical assessment of anything that equals a potential problem, you just want to avoid.” 

Brown’s caution might extend to other players on the team:

The Interior Was Exposed

Brett Brown elected to replace him with Norvel Pelle. The Sixers’ defense quickly deteriorated (it had already been headed that way), and Lillard and McCollum were getting to the rim at will. A complete lack of offensive rhythm, encapsulated in behind-the-back passes from Furkan Korkmaz and ill-advised shot selection from Alec Burks, and a clear sense of desperation from Portland’s offense pushed the Sixers into a double-digit hole early.

Brown inserted Kyle O’Quinn in the early stages of the second period, and the Sixers’ defense cracked even further. O’Quinn, who struggles with lateral movement, could not stay in front of Lillard or McCollum in the half-court. He also left a pair of triples short, resulting in long defensive boards for Portland. O’Quinn’s poor minutes allowed the Blazers to continue their onslaught at the rim.

Josh Richardson kept the Sixers alive in the second frame, working the pick-and-roll and cracking Portland’s interior. Richardson, responded to recent scrutiny, pouring in 14 of his 16 first-half points in the period. Even with his efforts, the poor defensive resistance kept the Sixers down nine at intermission.

Second Half

Matisse Thybulle started the second half for the injured Embiid. The Sixers began making some in-roads in the third quarter, courtesy of strong ball movement. The extra passes were pulling Portland’s defense out of position, and were resulting in open looks. Philly cashed in on the open opportunities. Richardson continued his torrid hand in the third quarter, hitting in the pick-and-roll and generating open looks for his teammates at the rim. The Sixers, finding a rhythm on both ends of the floor, were able to tie the contest up late in the third period.

Mike Scott Checks In

Brown elected to go with Mike Scott as a small-ball center in the second half, moving away from Pelle and O’Quinn as Horford’s backups. While Scott has struggled often this season, Brown’s decision ultimately paid off, as the Sixers began to click on the offensive side of the ball.

Following the game, Brown spoke on the move: “I didn’t feel like it was heading in the direction that I wanted it to. I felt like it was just apples for apples. Really, with the players that we had on the court and the way that Portland was playing, I felt like their apples were going to get the better of our apples, to be frank. And so you had to throw in, I felt, something different. Just a little bit of an adjustment, something that was not apples for apples and we went small ball. I thought that the guys did a great job of changing a bunch of things. We played a little bit faster. We were able to pull Nurkic away from the basket and still do a decent job defending him.”

Brett Brown Adjusts

A significant factor in the Sixers’ push was Brett Brown adjusting the pick-and-roll defense to stunt Portland’s ball-handlers. Lillard and McCollum were unable to turn the corner and get into the interior. Pushing Horford up to confront the backcourt pair took the Blazers out of their offensive rhythm. The Sixers were able to turn a nine-point halftime deficit into a one-point lead heading into the final frame.

While the Blazers struggled to find any offensive rhythm early in the fourth quarter, the Sixers unleashed Alec Burks in the pick-and-roll. Thanks to selfless play, the Sixers were finding unoccupied lines to the rim and were getting to the teeth of Portland’s interior. With Terry Stott’s defense in shambles, the Sixers were getting uncontested looks, and they were capitalizing on the opportunities. 

Horford picked up his fifth foul with close to six minutes remaining in the game, and it looked as though the Blazers were poised to strike. However, Nurkic picked up his fifth foul on the next possession, forcing both teams to go small until the final stretch of the game.

Dame Time

The affair was ultimately decided in the last four minutes of regulation. Damian Lillard, who finished with 51 points in the contest, completed a four-point play to give Portland the lead. Lillard then buried a deep triple to put the Blazers up six points with under two minutes to play. The Sixers, however, hung tough. They found themselves with possession of the ball and a chance to tie the game with the last shot in regulation. Brown, as good of a second half as he had up to that point, failed to use his final timeout when the Blazers blew up the after-timeout play. The Sixers got the ball in, but the possession never materialized into a decent shot. Portland escaped with a desperately-needed win.

Matisse Thybulle showed candidacy for extended minutes going forward. The rookie wing was phenomenal with sequential live-ball defense in this game. He wasn’t baited into reckless close-outs, wasn’t committing undisciplined fouls, was reading screens well, and was rotating quickly as the ball moved.

Josh Richardson commended Thybulle after the game: “I’m super proud. You know, that’s kind of getting thrown in the fire as a rookie having to get your first big minutes in a while against a scoring tandem like that. He held his own and I think he did a great job and I’m taking him in that matchup ten times out of ten. So, he’s a guy I definitely want in my foxhole.”

The Sixers (42-28; 3-2) will look to rebound against Devin Booker and the Phoenix Suns (31-39; 5-0) on Tuesday afternoon.