The Sixers (23-16) hosted the Charlotte Hornets (22-19) on Wednesday night. Philadelphia was looking to push its winning streak to 8 games. Charlotte had designs of pushing its winning streak to 4 games. The Sixers didn’t have enough defensive depth on the perimeter to contain the Hornets, who saw three players score at least 20 points and sent Philly to a 109-98 defeat.
Before we get to what I saw, allow me to set the scene.
The Hornets were without the services of Kelly Oubre Jr, who is in the NBA’s COVID-19 health and safety protocol.
Vernon Carey Jr was on assignment with Charlotte’s G-League team and was unavailable.
James Borrego started LaMelo Ball, Terry Rozier, Gordon Hayward, Miles Bridges, and Mason Plumlee.
The Sixers were without Shake Milton, who is nursing a back contusion.
Jaden Springer and Braxton Key were on G-League assignments with the Blue Coats.
Ben Simmons is not mentally ready to play and will continue to be unavailable for the foreseeable future.
Doc Rivers started Tyrese Maxey, Seth Curry, Matisse Thybulle, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
The Hornets went into a 2-3 zone once they sensed Joel Embiid targeting Mason Plumlee in isolation. That’s largely been the story for the Sixers’ offense lately. Teams aren’t worried about them catching fire from deep. Most of that rationale is based in the fact that the Sixers roster a bunch of guys who lack quick triggers. They’re far more likely to think before shooting, even going as far as to throw pump-fakes before doing anything real with the ball. That hesitance allows lanky types to recover to the shooter quite effectively, thus inviting teams to pull out a zone as more of a key cog in their defensive strategy against the Sixers than a break-in-case-of-emergency resort.
But that hesitance to let it fly from deep seems to be part of Philly’s DNA. As such, they often look lost against zones. The Sixers average .947 points per possession against zones this season. They only score on 41 percent of their possessions against zones, according to Synergy Sports. The data suggests that that is approximately average. So, perhaps the eye test is worse than the numbers. But, being average against a zone just means your shooting isn’t dangerous enough. Whether playoff opponents go zone or not, having shooters that don’t strike fear in opposing defenses is a bad character flaw.
Just as Embiid appeared destined to have to do everything for the Sixers’ offense to have a chance on Wednesday, Tyrese Maxey was launched out of a cannon. He had 8 points in the first quarter, hitting a pair of triples off the dribble and attacking a close-out for a floater. Most encouraging of all was Maxey’s aggression against Charlotte’s second unit. He sensed an opportunity to push the pace and take over as the most capable source of shot creation the Sixers had on the floor.
Once Embiid checked back into the game in the second quarter, the Hornets blitzed his pick-and-rolls to try and trap the ball-handler. First, I don’t know why you’d ever blitz an Embiid pick-and-roll when this is the roster with which he has to work. Save for Maxey’s outbursts — which are more contained by the coach than they are by the guard, himself — there’s not a single guard on this roster truly capable of creating chaos with speed once they turn the corner on a screen. So with Embiid really the only entity capable of smoking a defense on a possession-to-possession basis, why you’d ever decide to leave him alone on a roll in favor of blitzing guards that don’t profile as quick shot-creators is beyond me.
Second, I am equally perplexed by the decision to blitz a pick-and-roll with Tobias Harris as the ball-handler. Harris is perhaps better at handling pick-and-rolls than given credit for. But he’s slow, indecisive, not a gifted passer, and certainly isn’t a lethal shooter right now. So unless you really trust your back-line defenders to help and tag in rotation, I don’t see the gain to be had in curbing his dribble penetration with a blitz. But, the Hornets did it. And it got Embiid a catch on the move to the basket, and he converted a hook shot over a defender who rotated just in time.
Teams like Charlotte are the Sixers’ kryptonite as long as Ben Simmons is out and there’s no return to fill in his spot on the roster. The common denominator that will cripple Philly in both the regular season and in the playoffs is the lack of athleticism on the wings. Charlotte has at least four wings who are capable of shooting from deep, can get downhill, and are gifted athletes. They — and teams like them — just have more wings than the Sixers have serviceable defenders.
The Hornets got whatever they wanted against the Sixers. They had no problems attacking close-outs and soaring to the rim, out-muscling smaller defenders en route to the paint, and sliding backdoor on cuts. And even if Philly cracked down and applied pressure at the cup, the Hornets are together enough to anticipate where their shooters are. As such, they had no problems finding the likes of Gordon Hayward squaring beyond the arc for open triples as the Sixers converged on the rim.
More dangerous than anything was Charlotte’s buy-in on defense. They fought Philly tooth and nail for all of the 50-50 balls. The Hornets were urgent to passing lanes, and were extremely successful in generating deflections. Even when Embiid had the ball, smaller Hornets were audacious enough to send cross-court double-teams to try to create turnovers. That energy bothered Philly, and the Hornets had no problems getting out in transition en route to creating a 14-point lead at halftime. As everyone knows by now, you can rest your starters in the fourth quarter if you can force the Sixers to defend in transition enough times throughout the course of a game.
You can sense his teammates getting the slightest bit frustrated with Tobias Harris’ play. That isn’t a report. It’s certainly not something to aggregate. But, you don’t need sources to detect body language. Even Harris’ transition play seems affected by his his prolonged stretch of underperformance. He’s often the first one to receive the outlet pass in transition, and then he pushes the ball up the middle of the floor before making a last-second read to a teammate that isn’t actually open. He doesn’t quite see the play ahead.
Harris regularly misses opportunities to forward the ball up the court after the outlet, thus missing on actual open passes. You could see teammates trying to motion to Harris that someone was open. Of course, he didn’t see the window to pass them the rock. And when he missed them, you could see a bit of a sigh on their faces. Even when Harris got all the way to the basket, he would concede the rock on a slap-down strip, thus enabling the Hornets to get out and run. When that happened, the Sixers were not quite putting in the effort to get back in transition.
As it has been on every day ending in “day” recently, Embiid tried to will the Sixers back from a 20-point deficit in the third quarter. When he gets into his zone, Embiid is really a perfect storm of sorts. He’s the perfect balance of skill and physical dominance. And he brought the Sixers within 7 points of tying the game before he checked out for his regularly scheduled rest towards the end of the third frame.
The Andre Drummond experience is elite rebounding accompanied by four free throws that weren’t even close to going in to the basket, and then a behind-the-back pass that was intercepted for a live-ball turnover as he tried to attack the rim while the Sixers’ second unit worked to recover from a double-digit deficit early in the final frame.
I give Rivers credit for getting a little crazy with his fourth-quarter lineup to try and steal a win. Going with the two-big lineup featuring Drummond and Embiid is an outside-the-box is as good a way as any to try to maximize rebounding potential in the guts of the game. If that lineup loses its minutes, it’s Rivers’ fault. If they win their time together, it’s genius. It’s not an easy call due to the fit. But given Rivers’ usual unwillingness to deviate from his norms, I’ll give him his flowers for making a quirky adjustment.
Even with that adjustment, the Sixers’ pick-and-roll defense presented an immovable obstacle to any run they tried to make to get back into the game. LaMelo Ball was able to probe his way into the teeth of the Sixers’ interior defense, and create lobs at the rim for his teammates. The Sixers were able to put scores together in the final frame, they just couldn’t follow those scores with stops. And time eventually ran out on their efforts.
The Sixers (23-17) host the Boston Celtics (21-21) on Friday night. Tip-off is set for 7 PM EST. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.