Blazers visit the Sixers

The Sixers (16-6) returned home after sweeping their three-game road trip, looking to extend their winning streak to five games. They played host to the Portland Trail Blazers (11-9), who were winners in their last affair. Despite a dominant first half from Joel Embiid, the Sixers could not back up his effort, and succumbed to an undermanned Blazers team, 121-105, for their second home loss of the season.

Before we get to what I saw, some notes.

Contextual Notes

The Sixers were without Ben Simmons (left calf tightness), Mike Scott (right knee swelling), and Terrance Ferguson (h/s protocol). They were also short Rayjon Tucker and Paul Reed, who were on assignment with the G-League. Furkan Korkmaz started in Simmons’ place.

Before the game, Doc Rivers said that he didn’t expect Simmons to miss extended time, but could not comment with certainty on that. He mentioned that Simmons brought up the discomfort on Wednesday night and was ultimately able to participate in the team’s shoot-around. Simmons was listed as probable on the league injury report up until the Sixers announced that he was out at 5:30 PM, EST. Obviously, we will be monitoring this situation.

The Blazers were without the services of Damian Lillard (abdominal strain), CJ McCollum (fractured left mid-foot), Jusuf Nurkic (fractured right wrist), Derrick Jones Jr (sprained left foot), Zach Collins (stress fracture in left ankle), and Nasir Little (sprained left knee). The Blazers started Gary Trent Jr, Rodney Hood, Robert Covington, Carmelo Anthony, and Enes Kanter. 

First Half

The Sixers first ten points of the game were scored at the free throw line or lower, which was more a reflection of Portland’s defense than anything else. The Blazers allow 116 points per 100 possessions, which is second worst in the league. They don’t offer much resistance on that end of the court, and for a team featuring Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris, that’s a favorable trait to exploit.

The Moment All Of Philadelphia Stood Still

Joel Embiid left the game with a knee injury in the middle of the first quarter. He injured it going up for a block on Enes Kanter. At first, it appeared that he bumped knees with Kanter as they both came down from the play at the rim. From a different camera angle, Embiid’s knee clearly buckled as he impacted the floor. Often times, that movement around the knee is followed by a torn ACL diagnosis. For the moments Embiid went to the locker room, the air was sucked out of Philadelphia. The thought of the season being lost infiltrated the minds of many.

“I was pretty concerned,” Embiid said after the game. “You never want to mess with any injury, especially the knee. I kind of felt it when I landed, but I ended up coming back and pushing through it.   That was okay, I kept going. I felt good, I mean I wasn’t all the way there. But, I just tried to push and make sure that we get a chance. But. I feel good, we’ll see how it feels tomorrow when I wake up. I should be good.”

Fortunately, the MVP candidate was able to return just a few minutes later. He moved very gingerly on the defensive end of the floor, but was able to move under his own power without showing any sort of pronounced favoring of one leg. He was diagnosed with a hyperextended knee.

Lacking An Initiator

The Sixers were unable to string together consistently good offense in the first half because of Ben Simmons’ absence. As much as people get on Simmons about his lack of offensive growth, he facilitates and initiates their offense whenever he’s in the game. The Sixers lacked a credible ball-handler to direct traffic on that end of the floor. There were a number of wasted seconds on the shot clock where the ball never made any meaningful advances past the three-point arc. The Sixers also missed their first eight three-point attempts in this game. Their lack of self-provisioned offense on the perimeter is well-documented. So, not having their best distributor to line up their looks surely factored into the difficulty with connecting from deep.

Sometimes, you just have to sit there and admire what you’re witnessing. Tonight was one of those nights. Embiid scored 27 points after scaring the city half to death with the awkward knee buckle in the first quarter. In the second quarter, Embiid dropped 25 points. He connected on eight of his eleven field goal attempts in the frame, and converted all nine of his free throw attempts. Embiid was the only reason the game was tied at 57 going into halftime.

Second Half

Seth Curry, who has not scored a point in six consecutive quarters, did not start the second half. You might conclude it’s due to those struggles. But, Curry was visibly shaken up after a collision in the first half. He did not return to the game, and was described by the team as “not feeling well”. Milton started on his behalf.

“I say this respectfully, but tonight was just a bad loss.”

The Sixers really struggled to manufacture offense in the third frame. The Blazers used that to their advantage, opening up the quarter with a 14-0 run. The Sixers were not interested in getting up after being punched in the mouth with that run. Frustration seeped in and the disengagement became rampant. That manifested in careless turnovers, and the Blazers were able to pull away. They outscored the Sixers 40-19 in the third quarter, and put themselves in excellent position to close the victory out in the fourth quarter.

After the game, Embiid sounded off on his team’s effort in the loss. “I say this respectfully, but tonight was just a bad loss,” Embiid said. “The way we played defensively, we had no energy. They were more physical than us. We had no offense. I think at one point in the fourth, we were three for twenty [from beyond the arc]. It’s hard to win a game when you shoot bad, when you combine that with defensive effort we didn’t have. Like I said, they’re a great team. But, we could’ve at least made it a game.”

“Ben’s value is so much more than what you guys are talking about.”

The Sixers fell down so remarkably in large part due to the absence of Ben Simmons. The Blazers’ top three isn’t as good as the Sixers’ is. But, their four through ten is more capable and more consistent. That was the separation in this affair. Defensively, the Sixers were not prepared to keep themselves in the game. Communication in the pick-and-roll was poor, resulting in open three-point looks for the Blazers. Rotations on swing passes and ball reversals to the weak side were poor, also culminating in open triples for Portland.

After the game, Rivers spoke of Simmons’ importance to the team. “I thought we missed his presence all over the floor. That’s the point I’m trying to make to you guys when we start talking about Ben not taking threes. I keep trying to tell everyone, Ben’s value is so much more than what you guys are talking about. You could see it early on today. Just defensively, he spearheads our defense. Here’s the bottom line, though: we still have to be a decent defense when Ben’s not on the floor.”

Matisse Thybulle talked about the mindset following a disappointing loss of this sort. “Just move on,” Thybulle said. “Learn from it, and then move on. There’s no reason to hang onto this. We know, for the most part, where we messed up and it’s just onto the next one.”

The Sixers (16-7) made six fewer triples than the Blazers (12-9) did, and suffered their second setback at home, 121-105. The Sixers will host the Brooklyn Nets on Saturday evening. Tip-off is set for 8 PM, EST. You can catch the dance on NBC Sports Philadelphia.