Tobias Harris thoughtful

The Philadelphia 76ers (14-6) traveled to Indiana to take on the Pacers (11-8) on Sunday evening. The Sixers got back on track with a blowout victory over the Timberwolves in Minnesota on Friday. They were looking to make a statement against one of the best teams in the East, as the Pacers trail them for first place by just 2.5 games. The Sixers, powered by a matchup zone defense late in the second half, pulled off a twenty-point comeback victory in Indiana to move to 1-4 without Joel Embiid this season. 

Before we get to business, some notes.

Contextual Notes

Joel Embiid missed the game with back tightness. Before the contest, Doc Rivers said that he didn’t anticipate it to be a lingering issue, but that he had played through it in Minnesota. The back soreness was an irritant before last week, and was aggravated after a hard fall in the team’s victory over the Lakers on Wednesday. The Sixers were also without Terrance Ferguson (h/s protocol) and Mike Scott (right knee soreness). Rivers started Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and Tony Bradley Jr.

The Pacers were without TJ Warren (stress fracture in left foot), Caris LeVert (kidney surgery), and Cassius Stanley, Brian Bowen II, and Jalen Lecque. Nate Bjorkgren started Malcolm Brogdon, Justin Holiday, Jeremy Lamb, Domantas Sabonis, and Myles Turner.

First Half

Without Joel Embiid, the Sixers were able to get a bit of separation early with some energetic ball movement on the perimeter. The ball obviously stagnates some when Embiid plays. So, when Embiid sits, the offense has to run through a new source. The safest bet is to work the ball around the perimeter for the best look. That ball movement forces the defense to burn energy, and ultimately pulls them out of position by the time the shot goes up. The Sixers hit a pair of early triples because of that movement.

Jump-Stops

Ben Simmons continues to struggle around the rim, and this game did not pose any particular matchups that struck confidence that he could have some easy buckets. Jeremy Lamb, Domantas Sabonis, and Myles Turner are long, physical players that can get into Simmons space and cause damage. However, Simmons could exhibit some positive results by getting into the habit of using jump-stops as he approaches the basket. That would have the effect of creating some space as the defender’s momentum carries him away from Simmons. Then, Simmons can rise up for a finish. Even if the look isn’t there, leveraging jump-stops is much more likely to produce positive outcomes than is bowling into defenders and flinging up contested layups at difficult angles.

To close out the first frame and open the second, Rivers deployed a lineup consisting of Tyrese Maxey, Shake Milton, Furkan Korkmaz, Matisse Thybulle, and Dwight Howard. To no one’s surprise, that unit’s main source of offense was Dwight Howard free throws. It went as you might think, and the Sixers were down by ten points after one quarter of play. May no one have to experience that lineup ever again.

Simmons At Center 

Rivers tried some minutes with Simmons at center in the second quarter. I think viewers get wrapped up in the idea that the center has to be the center on both ends of the court. It is perfectly reasonable to slide Simmons into the center spot on offense so that he can function as a pick-and-roll diver and playmaker off of the short roll. Then, on the defensive end, using a bigger body at center to anchor the paint works, as well. Rivers can manipulate how he uses Simmons at the center position while maintaining the pace he wants.

The issue is, of course, the Sixers do not have the personnel to play that way. That style worked with Horford last season because his combination of experience at center and floor-stretching capabilities allowed Simmons to be the center on offense and the power forward on defense. If the front office adds a stretch big, I think Rivers can get back to something similar to that, and the Embiid-less games won’t be so sour.

Big Man Depth Is An Issue

The Pacers scored 38 points in the paint in the first half. The Sixers only permitted 38 points in the paint against the Timberwolves on Friday. That theme underscores not only the impact Embiid has, but that the team’s backups for Embiid just have not been nearly good enough. Howard was theoretically supposed to be the best backup Embiid has ever had. Aside from his vertical athleticism, he’s nearing unplayable. He commits far too many fouls to be effective over a lengthy stretch and doesn’t have the same rim presence he used to project.

Bradley Jr is fine, but it’s ridiculous to think you can bank on him for minutes against contending teams at this point in his career. If the Sixers are going to start to really separate themselves in the East, they have to come up with a non-laughable solution behind Embiid so that he can comfortably rest without the Sixers having no chance of winning. It might not be the primary need heading towards the trade deadline and buyout season. But, it’s clear the team is close to needing to look at other big man options to solidify that second unit.

Second Half

The Sixers came out with a lack of energy in the second half. The Pacers continued to face little resistance in the paint, and the Sixers committed a plethora of lazy turnovers to essentially aid Indiana in pulling away. The frustrating part is that the turnovers were bred from laziness. They came on sloppy dribble penetration where the Pacers were able to poke the ball loose and get out in transition. If not penetration with poor ball security, they came on silly jump-passes that were deflected. The Sixers did not have to trail by twenty points before mounting a comeback effort, but they insist on shooting themselves in the feet, especially when Embiid is out.

Things Got Worse Before They Got Better 

The third quarter was a very disappointing display by pretty much everyone not named Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris. The Sixers were not hustling to loose balls, committing soft fouls, and offering little resistance in transition. Sure, the team is in first place and it isn’t necessary to dramatize anything at this point. But, there needs to be a level of accountability for these types of nights from the biggest contributors off the bench. The energy is indicative of a team that gives up as soon as it is known that Embiid isn’t playing. That accountability doesn’t show itself in the media availabilities when representatives of the team are saying all the right things. Accountability is seen in performance following these types of games.

“Just take them out of their rhythm.”

To their credit, the Sixers almost definitely read my game story before the fourth quarter. I’m sure they read that last paragraph, too. Doc Rivers went with a zone defense throughout the final frame, and the Sixers got an injection of energy. They outscored the Pacers 37-15 in the fourth frame, and forced seven Indiana turnovers. Matisse Thybulle played a huge part in the turnaround, contributing eleven deflections in the final twelve minutes. 

After the game, Rivers talked about the decision to go with the zone. “Just take them out of their rhythm,” Rivers said. “We were jokingly calling it our John Chaney Matchup Zone. It was great. Guys bought into it. Zone is interesting, especially in the NBA because the short shot clock. When you get a couple stops, it starts becoming more mental to the other team. They score and you have to get out of it. But, I just wanted to knock them off rhythm. I thought they had such great rhythm against us for those three quarters. Running it towards the end was fantastic.” 

Rivers added, “I run it until I think they solve it. What it did stop their movement. Their movement was killing us. They were attacking the paint and then all the sudden we were in zone and packing it in. They missed a couple shots and, you miss a couple threes early, it becomes tough all of a sudden.”

“I was out there to get buckets and help our team win.”

Just as they did on Wednesday, the Sixers went to Tobias Harris in the guts of the game. He did not disappoint. Harris scored ten (4-for-5 shooting) of his 27 points in the fourth quarter, and effectively closed the door on an incredible comeback victory in Indiana.

After the game, Harris talked of his big fourth quarter. “I was out there to get buckets and help our team win,” Harris said. “We started calling a couple sets for me to get on the block and go to work. I just was taking advantage of the moment and opportunity.” Harris later added, “For me, just, fourth quarter game like that with Joel out, too. Just get to your spots and get a bucket up for the team and come back.”

“Our guys are starting to believe that they can run stuff down the stretch of games.”

The Sixers (15-6), less Joel Embiid, stunned the Pacers (11-9) with a twenty-point turnaround. They left Indiana with their first victory without Joel Embiid this season. After the game, Rivers discussed what the comeback win said about his team: “It says a lot. We’re starting to get that, you seen it several times now, fourth quarter comebacks. A full-court execution down the stretch of games. We have a long way to go but just the growth of this team down the stretch again, that’s how you’re going to win playoff games. Our guys are starting to believe that they can run stuff down the stretch of games. They can get the shot they want. They can get stops. When you start feeling like that, you start winning close games, and we’re starting to do that.”

The Sixers will head to Charlotte to play host to the Hornets (9-11) on Wednesday. It will be the finale of their three-game road trip. Tip-off is set for 7 PM, EST. You can watch it on NBC Sports Philadelphia.