The Philadelphia 76ers (18-8) visited Devin Booker and the Phoenix Suns (15-9) on Saturday afternoon. The Sixers were looking to right their ship after a tough road loss to the Blazers on Thursday. The Suns were looking to push their winning streak to five games. Philadelphia allowed Phoenix to convert nearly 61 percent of their field goal attempts en route to a second consecutive road loss, 120-111.
Before we get to what I saw, some notes.
Shake Milton remained out with a sprained left ankle. Mike Scott was available after missing thirteen games with right knee swelling. Doc Rivers started Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
The Suns were fully healthy. Monty Williams started Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Frank Kaminsky, and Deandre Ayton.
The Sixers started this game planning to hedge ball screens involving Devin Booker. That’s a sensible strategy, as you want to stunt a ball-handling guard of his caliber so that he can’t turn the corner and put pressure on your interior defense. Embiid is mobile enough to credibly defend Booker on those screens while Simmons is fighting through them.
The issue is that you don’t want to become too content with giving Booker those looks. He’s one of the premier three-level scorers in the game, and he can adapt to your defensive approach rapidly. The key is to mix up the looks so that he can’t get too comfortable. The Sixers did a fine job of that early on, mixing up his matchups a bit so that Danny Green could take a few swings at containing him. It was effective in the opening quarter, as Booker struggled to establish his rhythm early.
Simmons spoke highly of the early game plan against Booker after the loss. “The coverage, overall, was good at the start of the game. We had a few blitzes going on leading to turnovers in transition,” Simmons said.
A Budding Two-Man Game
It seems we’ve seen the Embiid-Simmons two-man game develop more this season than ever before. They’re beginning to build intuitive understandings of one another. It’s become quite noticeable of late. Embiid is finding Simmons with mismatches and feeding him the ball to exploit those opportunities. Part of it is attributable to the better spacing around the duo this season. That has empowered Embiid as a passer. Simmons has been a more consistent beneficiary of the sharing. You would like Embiid’s recognition of similar opportunities to accelerate so that defenses don’t have time to correct themselves, but their collective better play has helped silence the narrative that one must be traded because they don’t fit together.
The Bench Problem Continues
The bench, as favorably as it compares to that of seasons past, is just so brutal to watch right now. The ball movement is scarce and the development of possessions is rather poor. The offense is so dry that some of the more common outcomes are Korkmaz isolations (not good) or Howard free throws (also not good). One would imagine that, if we can see it, Daryl Morey and company can see it, too. Upgrading the offensive versatility of that second unit is a good bet on what the upgrade searches leading up to the trade deadline will look like for the Sixers.
Rivers is aware of the bench’s woes, he made clear after the loss. “Even when we change the rotation, still, the bottom line is we got to do better,” Rivers said. “The bench hasn’t been bad this year. But, they’ve been bad lately, probably going back about five games, in my opinion. So, it’s a long season, I don’t ever overreact to a couple of games. But, you still have to be better offensively. That will help the defense a little bit. But, if you’re going to be bad offensively, you have to be great defensively. Right now, that group has been bad on both. So, that’s something we have to address.”
Danny Green continues to get burned on defense, and his production as a three-point shooter is not close to enough to justify his being guaranteed the starting nod if the Sixers add depth to that wing position. Green is serviceable as a stationary defender whose one job is denying an opponent the ball. But, as soon as he’s asked to be an impactful help defender or even stay in front of an offensive player as the on-ball defender, he’s actively hurting the team. The effort and intelligence is there, but father time is undefeated. He can guard Devin Booker as an off-ball threat and make it difficult for him to retrieve the rock. Everything that happens after Booker, though, is problematic for Green.
Tobias Harris was a much more significant weapon in the offense in the third quarter after scoring just 8 points in the first half. He took advantage of mismatches on a handful of possessions, getting to the rim for scores against smaller defenders. The Sixers also ran a few off-ball actions to engage Harris, who converted those opportunities. He doubled his point total in the third quarter alone.
The Sixers connected on four of just thirteen three-point attempts through three quarters. That underscored an important theme of this Sixers’ group. Even with the additions of Curry and Green, and the better play of Tobias Harris, the Sixers still do not attempt enough triples to keep pace with opponents. They attempt the third fewest threes per game and they make the third fewest threes per game in the league. If adding a credible sharpshooter such as JJ Redick means they’re sacrificing some of their top-five defense, I think targeting those types of players is worth the drawbacks that may come on the defensive end of the court.
The three-point volume is a problem that Danny Green is aware of, too. “We don’t have to drastically change that,” Green said after the loss. “But, I do think a lot of it changes when we move the ball. Our attempts behind the perimeter are the result of ball movement, or lack thereof. We don’t get a lot of attempts behind three because we’re moving too slow or we’re not moving at all. So, if we do what we’ve been doing early in the season, we had times where we were rolling and getting some attempts up, we’ll get more attempts from the perimeter. But, yeah, I do think that has to change a little bit.”
Getting To The Line
Say what you would like about Simmons’ growth as an offensive player. A lot of those criticisms are certainly warranted. Some are not. But, the one thing that cannot be taken from him on the offensive end is the clear improvement in free throw shooting. He’s much more aggressive in attacking the basket because he’s more comfortable from the free throw line. Dipping into the obvious, a lot of those points that were left on the court in past seasons are being redeemed now, and those add up when counting victories. Part of the improvement is mechanical, as his motion is becoming smoother and less separated between the upper and lower bodies. Better than that, he has reduced the free throw percentage drop that has traditionally plagued him in the early stages of seasons. A groundbreaking development, perhaps not. But, it undoubtedly makes him a better offensive player.
Playing To The Whistle
It seemed as though Embiid lost focus of how to approach his attack late in this game. Now, don’t read that as me knocking his performance at all. He did what has become a nightly thing–35 points on impressive efficiency. He undoubtedly kept the team alive when things looked bleak. But, it felt as though he was attacking for contact instead of focusing on finishing.
There were a number of possessions that ended in poor shots and Embiid complaining to officials for not making calls. Sometimes, he gets hacked and the complaints are understandable. But, playing to contact is never the right move, as that gives the official power to decide possessions. Embiid only got to the line ten times, and he attempted 23 field goals. A number of the misses were followed by him raising his arms and frustration with the lack of whistles. Embiid, as we all know, is as dominant a player as there is in the league right now. He doesn’t have to play to the whistle to get calls.
The Sixers (18-9) will head to Utah for the final leg of their road trip to face the Jazz (21-5). Tip-off is set for 9 PM EST. You can watch on NBC Sports Philadelphia.