Photo by Jason Blevins/The Painted Lines

The Philadelphia 76ers (39-18) were back in action on Wednesday. They welcomed the Phoenix Suns who, at 41-16, have been one of the West’s two best teams this season. The Sixers were looking to get back on track after suffering a setback to the Warriors. The Suns were looking to build a two-game winning streak. Embiid’s full-court heave as time expired was nearly perfect, but his 38 points were not enough as the Sixers fell to the Suns, 116-113.

Before we unpack what I saw, some notes.

Contextual Notes

The Suns were without Abdel Nader (right knee soreness). Monty Williams started Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder, and Deandre Ayton.

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

After the game, Rivers was unsure of who would be available for Thursday’s contest in Milwaukee. He blandly stated that he hoped some of his guys would return, but didn’t know if all three would be available to do so.

First Half

The Sixers’ perimeter defense got away from its own principles rapidly in this game. Philly conceded the right corner as a symptom of Phoenix’s ball movement early in the first quarter. The Suns made them pay with triples from that spot on three consecutive possessions.

Embiid established himself early in this game, hunting shots at all three levels. I was satisfied with his efficiency in identifying the defender in front of him and getting to the most appropriate spots for his shot attempts. That translates to “he wasn’t settling”, and that, as simply-stated as possible, is how Embiid has transformed into an MVP candidate this season. The Suns felt a rush of sweat trickling down their brows as Embiid got fired up by the officiating in the first half. As we’ve come to understand from seasons past and present, a fired up Embiid is the game’s most unstoppable force.

Struggles With The Entry Pass

The Sixers really missed Ben Simmons’ presence on the floor, and the biggest impact wasn’t even a tangible box score item. Much of Embiid’s production in the half was generated from grit-and-grind play. He had to create a number of his own shots because his teammates did not have the size or feel for making the entries to the post. It seems fairly rudimentary, but Simmons’ size and passing touch afford him an ease to get Embiid the ball without too much contact or energy. The wear and tear of Embiid having to wrestle to establish himself well enough for a pass compounds over time, and it exhausts him before he even pivots into his face-up.

Shake Milton is really struggling, and there doesn’t appear to be an ending in sight. Right now, shots are barely falling. The slump is bleeding into other areas of his game, as well:

The playmaking is non-existent, and he’s not making up for it on the defensive end of the floor, either.

Tyrese Maxey has made a loud push to get back into the rotation over the last two games. With Milton unplayable in this game, Maxey added 14 points on 11 field goals in 31 minutes off the bench. I’ve harped on this all season, but his greatest offering to this team is his ability to unclog a backed up offense with lightning-quick drives and changes of speeds with the ball in his hands. For a rookie, his finishing has been spectacular, according to my eye test. Once he learns how to sell contact and is incentivized to approach the rim with force, he’ll get to the line every game. That’s when he’ll start to become a really productive NBA player.

Second Half

The fluidity with which George Hill plays on the ball is quite encouraging when you project how he’ll play when he has a better understanding of the team’s offense. Right now, he’s mostly reading and reacting with quick decisions. In this game, Hill was particularly effective as a cutter off the ball and playmaker on the ball. His passing wasn’t setting the world on fire. But, I thought he slowed the game down and adapted to what Phoenix showed him instead of twitching and losing composure. That, more than anything, is what the second unit is going to need come playoff time. His shooting is steady as is, but his experience as a ball-handler and floor general showed as he made easy reads as a scorer and facilitator without Embiid on the floor to provide the one-step plan to generating offense.

After the loss, Embiid made it clear that he is excited for Hill to get fully integrated into the offense. “He’s been a point guard. He can shoot the ball, so he’s gonna open a lot of stuff, especially when you get down to the playoffs,” Embiid said. “So, he’s a great addition and he’s only gonna get better. I don’t think he’s playing at his full potential yet. He’s still gotta get in shape, as I do. He’s been pushing through it. So, you know, I can’t wait til he’s 100-percent.”

“I mean, I thought he chased him to exhaustion.”

What can you say about Matisse Thybulle? Once a theoretical great defender lacking the requisite discipline to play without committing fouls, Thybulle has established himself as one of the league’s premier weapons on that end of the floor. His gift, besides his length, is his light-footedness and agility. There are very few players, if any, in the league that have the physical tools to close, change directions, and find a second wind to burst back and make a strong contest across the court.

Thybulle willed himself into the national eye’s All-Defense conversation with the way he guarded Devin Booker in this game. There were a number of plays in which Booker was able to wiggle free to get the ball and elevate for a shot, but he was stifled on a number of his attempts because of Thybulle’s agility. Booker finished with 11 points on 11 field goal attempts, and committed 3 turnovers, when guarded by Thybulle. Both of Thybulle’s steals came at Booker’s expense and 2 of his 3 blocks were registered against the All-Star’s field goal attempts.

After the game, Rivers lauded Thybulle’s defensive performance on Booker. “Thought he was unbelievable, overall. I mean, I thought he chased him to exhaustion,” Rivers said after the loss. “I thought, you know, it’s a hard job, and I don’t know if anyone’s done a better job on Devin. Devin is tough and, think about that last shot he made. I mean, most of his shots were those type of shots. I think Devin probably got a couple baskets when Matisse wasn’t on him. But, overall, I thought he was absolutely phenomenal tonight.” Rivers later added with certainty that Thybulle is a candidate for the league’s All-Defensive teams, and comfortably asserted, “There’s not ten better defenders in this league, I can tell you that. It may not be five.”

At the end of the day, the Sixers did themselves in on both ends of the floor. Without three of their typical offensive initiators, Philly committed 16 turnovers. For a team whose transition defense has been a major disappointment this season, turnovers are often fatal in that the Sixers not only lose an opportunity at a shot, but it also usually swings the momentum because the opponents comes down and scores on their end. Beyond that, the Sixers missed 8 free throws in the contest. When you lose by three points, those missed free throws make a world of difference.

“I think the biggest thing is just communicating.”

Following up on my comments about turnovers and transition defense, Philly’s transition defense simply isn’t getting better. 58 games into a 72-game season, it’s hard to write in good faith that I think the Sixers have time to normalize that weakness. At this point, poor transition defense somewhat blended with elite half-court defense is what the Sixers seem to be. With the game hanging in the balance, transition defense put the Sixers against the ropes, as the Suns were able to hit a handful of corner triples to take control late. The good news is they’re starting to commit fewer turnovers when everyone is healthy. The operative word there, of course, is when.

Danny Green would disagree with my opinion, though. “There’s always something you can do. We can keep striving to get better at it,” Green said after the loss. “I think the biggest thing is just communicating. Guys matching up, not finding their man but finding a man. And just, you know, getting back when a shot goes up. We know Jo [Embiid] is getting double-teamed. Also, it helps when you’re not turning the ball over. We have too many turnovers, it’s hard to get back. But, if we get better shots, and guys getting back as soon as the ball goes up, it’s a lot easier. So, match up and find a man, but there’s always ways to improve and get better.”

The Near Miracle

Between injuries and the Kawhi shot, there has been quite the load of on-court heartbreak for Joel Embiid. While the magnitude of this miss wasn’t quite that significant, it was a momentary heartbreak for the MVP candidate. Embiid nearly banked in a prayer that would’ve sent the game to overtime from the opposite restricted area. It was this close:

A cruel fate, but Embiid has bigger fish to fry than a random Wednesday against the Suns. He’ll live with it if he gets to hoist the O’Brien and an MVP trophy.

The Sixers (39-19) will head to Milwaukee to face the Bucks (35-22) on Thursday and Saturday. Thursday’s game is scheduled to tip at 7 PM EST. You can catch the action on TNT.