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Sixers blow lead, come up short in duel between Embiid and Jokic: Likes and dislikes

Sixers-Nuggets

The Sixers (41-25) hosted the Denver Nuggets (40-28) on Monday night. Philadelphia intended to sweep a back-to-back following an overtime victory against the Magic in Orlando on Sunday. Denver hoped to snap a 2-game losing streak. The Sixers blew a 19-point lead and came up short in a head-to-head duel between MVP favorites Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic, 114-110.

Before we get to what I saw, allow me to set the scene.

Contextual Notes

The Nuggets were without the services of Zeke Nnaji, who missed the game with bilateral knee soreness. 

Jamal Murray (recovery from torn left ACL) and Michael Porter Jr. (recovery from surgery on Lumbar spine) were unavailable. 

Vlatko Cancar underwent surgery on his right foot and was out.

Michael Malone started Monté Morris, Will Barton, Aaron Gordon, Jeff Green, and Nikola Jokic.

The Sixers were without Charles Bassey, Jaden Springer, and Myles Powell (Two-Way), were on G-League assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats and were unavailable.

Doc Rivers started James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, Matisse Thybulle, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.

Likes

Aaron Gordon has a remarkable afro. I mean, he’s taking it all the way back to the 70s. I wonder if the long curls get stuck in his face when he plays.

James Harden and Matisse Thybulle put a hurting on Denver’s lifted defense early in the first quarter with the wing-guard pick-and-roll game. The Nuggets were showing a moderate hedge when Harden was navigating the screen. With the extra attention he received, Thybulle was left unattended off of hard dives to the cup. Even when Harden is struggling to score (it’s been really bad the last x-number of quarters), his ability to pour in points gets respect in the form of those hedges. But your defense is stuck between a rock and a hard place because of how gifted Harden is as a facilitator. In the two plays between Harden and Thybulle, the latter waited just long enough to clear the screen so as to draw the hedge before dumping to his dunker. Thybulle, who did not score against the lowly Magic, registered 9 points in the first quarter.

Thybulle’s spark on offense bled into his defense, and he put forth a masterful first half against Denver’s offense. He was all over the passing lanes, tipping loose balls away from their targeted recipients and igniting fastbreaks. I would be remiss to not mention that there were a couple plays in which the Nuggets mistakenly threw the ball right to him as if he were their teammate. More than the activity in the passing lanes, Thybulle did a masterful job of timing his help. There were a couple Denver possessions in which Thybulle sold out on his man to get some help on Jokic. The key being that he did it at the perfect time — when Jokic pivoted into his shot and couldn’t see the Sixers wing coming. As a result, Thybulle recorded a block on a Jokic fading jumper in the first half to ignite the crowd.

Philadelphia’s ball movement in the first quarter was spectacular, and the primary reason that they jumped out to a 15-point lead in a 37-point first quarter. Most important in the hot start was their capacity to use both sides of the floor. The Nuggets were  giving a ton of attention to the ball-handler when Embiid was the screener. After peeling off the screen, Embiid’s teammates found him at the elbow or nail to take the shot himself or swing the ball to the second side of the floor. The Sixers were forcing Denver into rotations by leveraging both halves of the court and, as such, were making the extra passes to get open looks. Philadelphia had 8 assists on 14 made field goals in the first quarter.

After being mostly passive for the first 2.5 quarters of the game, Harden dialed up the aggression late in the third quarter while Embiid rested. The Beard knocked in a step-back triple, attacked the cup to finish through a foul, and got to the line for a handful of free throws. That knack for gaining marginal advantages before pushing into pockets of space on the interior is what the Sixers need out of Harden. The flashy passes out of the pick-and-roll will break the defense’s back every once in a while. But, putting pressure on the interior is how you cripple a defense throughout a game and blow the doors open. 

Dislikes

Doc Rivers’ rotations have often been a source of criticism in his time with the Sixers. The good news is that he finally made a slight adjustment to his usual shifts. The bad news is that he decided to bring DeAndre Jordan in about 2 minutes earlier than normal, while Nikola Jokic was still on the court. I’m all for changing things up. But, I don’t know that you want to give the reigning MVP too many possessions against Jordan.

The Sixers could’ve pushed their lead into the upper 20s midway through the second quarter, but they hit a dry spell right when Denver started to make shots. Denver held a 12-11 scoring advantage in the second frame halfway through the quarter.

The Sixers have done an incredible job of finding backup bigs that have bricks for hands each of the last 2 offseasons. Sure, you get what you pay for when you sign guys to veteran-minimum contracts. But my lord, these are centers. It’s incredible that Dwight Howard, Andre Drummond, and Jordan are a coin toss to make shots around the basket. Jordan’s misses in the first half were incomprehensible. If he can throw down dunks off Harden lobs, Jordan can jump strong off two feet and dunk the ball in traffic.

Denver nearly erased what was a 19-point Sixer lead as soon as Embiid picked up his third foul of the first half. The disheartening context in Denver’s run was that the Sixers didn’t even make them work for the scores in a half-court environment. Much of the damage was done in transition. The Sixers were slow to get back on defense multiple times, allowing a passing savant big man in Jokic unleash full-court dimes for his teammates to get finishes at the rim.

You’re not going to stop that from happening every time. Jokic is that good of a passer, and eventually the opponent is going to beat you in a sprint one time or another. But for the Sixers to hemorrhage points in much the same way repeatedly — that’s unacceptable. Their transition defense has been a problem all season long. You could certainly make the case that that is as much the value Ben Simmons brought on defense as is anything else he did on that end. But when you don’t have the prowess to profile as a naturally great defensive team, your effort must keep you afloat. And very few times times this season, if any, have the Sixers put forth admirable effort towards being a competent transition defense.

While I can certainly appreciate Embiid’s willingness to become a spacer when sharing the floor with Harden, it’s pretty discouraging to see Harden continue his passivity as a scorer in that environment. Embiid is clearly making an effort to function as a catch-and-shoot guy to incentivize Harden to get downhill as a driver. To Embiid’s credit, he’s shown a prowess to make those shots within the regular flow of his shot diet instead of making it a tough fit. But even without the extra defender in Harden’s way, he still isn’t attacking those gaps or even trying to heat up from deep. He’s just trying to facilitate.

You could very well argue that Harden is trying to play it copacetic. But sometimes being selfish is copacetic because it gives your teammates a break within the game. I do wonder if Harden is trying to play through an injury, seeing as he’s struggled to beat opponents off the dribble and has lacked lift under his jumper over the last few games. Without assuming anything, Harden failed to find that aggressive side of himself while Embiid made an effort to space out early in the third quarter.

I don’t know how many threes Bones Hyland has to hit before the Sixers realize that their emergency rotation on the perimeter should find him when all else fails. Denver did a fabulous job of working the ball around the court and then finding him at the top of the arc, away from the congestion elsewhere on the floor. If he makes two triples, fine. But, you adjust and keep an eye on him. He hits three? You key on him. Four? Forget it, you deserve to lose. Part of his surge was attributable to Philly’s non-existent transition defense. When you’re hot, your pupils turn into dollar signs as you walk into threes in transition. Denver found their rookie guard on run-outs, and he lit Philly up like a Christmas tree.

The Sixers eventually ran out of gas on the second night of a back-to-back, leaving most of their shots well short in crunch time and relying on layups and free throws. Maybe that wouldn’t have happened if they had just ripped the doors off that putrid Magic team against which they went to overtime on Sunday?

The Sixers (41-26) will visit the Cleveland Cavaliers (39-29) on Wednesday. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 PM, Eastern time. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.