Photo By Austin Krell/The Painted Lines

The Philadelphia 76ers (12-5) paid the Detroit Pistons (3-13) one last visit on Monday night. The two teams had danced together on Saturday night, with the Sixers eeking out a four-point victory in Detroit. The Pistons won the rebounding battle by eleven, and got to the free throw line eighteen more times than the Sixers did. They sent the Sixers home with their fifth road loss of the season.

Before we get to the game, allow me to set the stage.

Contextual Notes

The Sixers were without Joel Embiid, who missed the game with back tightness. Just a few hours prior to tipoff, Embiid was named Eastern Conference Player of the Week. He averaged 37.7 points and 11.7 rebounds to lead the Sixers to a 3-0 week. Mike Scott (right knee swelling) and Vincent Poirier (h/s protocol) remained out. Doc Rivers started Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and Dwight Howard.

The Pistons were without rookie guard Killian Hayes (right hip strain) and veteran guard Derrick Rose (left knee soreness). Blake Griffin, who missed the first game of the mini-series, was available to play. Dwane Casey started Delon Wright, Wayne Ellington, Jerami Grant, Blake Griffin, and Mason Plumlee.

First Half

The Sixers dug themselves in a deep hole very early in this game, and it was largely due to effort and focus on both ends. They  allowed the Pistons to get whatever they wanted on the offensive glass, and gave Detroit a slew of second-chance opportunities. Dwight Howard was a big culprit of the lack of resistance on the defensive end. There were a number of possessions in which Howard mistimed or chased blocks that he had no chance of recording, only to leave the lane vacated for Pistons to swoop in and grab the offensive rebounds.

On the offensive end, the focus wasn’t there. They committed a number of turnovers on failed alley-oop connections and missed a number of shots around the rim. If you’re wondering whether that’s just bad luck, sure, one missed dunk can just be shoddy fortunate. Multiple means you’re not focused on finishing the play. Whether that all stemmed from the Sixers mailing it in with Embiid out or just underestimating their opponent, the way the rest of the game played out would give some indication.

Active Hands

The Sixers’ level of interest on the defensive end picked up significantly in the second quarter. Instead of what felt like a blowout in the making, the Sixers were able to claw back into this game by playing with active hands on defense. They generated a number of transition opportunities by turning the Pistons over just from awareness.

The Sixers were aggressive in cheating for blind-side steals. Tyrese Maxey was able to force one just by blitzing a ball-handler from the backside. Furkan Korkmaz was able to tip the ball away from the Pistons on a number of possessions just by poking it loose when he fell behind the ball-handler.

Thybulle Injects Life 

Matisse Thybulle injected some life into the Sixers in that second frame, engaging in a physical dance with Blake Griffin during his minutes on the floor. Thybulle recorded a number of steals by just waiting for the entry pass to Griffin in the post and then jumping in and tipping it away. The shorter and lighter Thybulle also put forth an impressive display in staying under Griffin and irritating him as he tried to make things happen in the post.

Ben Simmons and Shake Milton each picked up their third fouls early in the second quarter and were forced to sit the remainder of the half. With increased responsibility being thrust onto Maxey without any notice, the Pistons were able to take advantage. They built their lead as high as seventeen points.

Seth Curry also took on a heavier workload late in that second quarter, and he went to his bag of tricks. Curry has often talked about being more than a spot-up shooter, and he showcased his repertoire late in the half. He didn’t do anything overly fancy, but he provided serviceable ball-handling and some shot-creation that he usually doesn’t get to show. While you don’t want to rely upon his craftiness in creating too much, any degree of self-provisioned spacing is paramount for this team.

Second Half

Tony Bradley started the second half for Dwight Howard, and I thought it was actually well-deserved. Bradley displayed some capacity to switch onto perimeter players in the first half. While you don’t want him doing that too often, he might be able to do it without fouling better than Howard can. Beyond that, Bradley also has a bit of range extending outside of the restricted area.

It’s no secret the lineups featuring Simmons and Howard have been untenable on the offensive end of the court. Bradley gives a slight upgrade in spacing, and some younger legs on defense. Following the game, Rivers talked about the decision, saying, “I just like Dwight with the second group. I was kicking myself because I wanted to do that just because Tony hasn’t played a lot. I didn’t do it to start the game and I really thought we should’ve done it to start the game, so I fought myself on that.”

Simmons had a new lease on life in the third quarter, sparking the Sixers’ push to get back in the game with incredible instincts and aggressiveness in the passing lanes. Once they got the ball back to Simmons in transition, he turned on the jets and put tremendous pressure on the Pistons’ interior. The Sixers made their most aggressive pushes to get back into this game with Simmons on the floor.

Seth Curry did not play at all in the fourth quarter and played only 22 minutes all night. He only committed one personal foul in the game, so foul trouble wasn’t an issue. He did walk a bit gingerly after a fall early in the second half. I’m not saying something is to come of it, but it’s worth keeping an eye on, for sure.

“Right now, it’s not on my list of concerns, I’ll put it that way.”

Ultimately, the Pistons won the rebounding battle by eleven on a night without Joel Embiid there to man the paint. In doing so, the Sixers were unable to go on any sort of sustainable run to get back into this game, losing 119-104. Philadelphia is 12-2 when Embiid plays this season, and 0-4 when he doesn’t. You look around the league and see teams win games without their best player all the time. This has been a problem for the Sixers for four seasons now. They are going to have to find ways to do that sooner rather than later if they want to maintain first place in the Eastern Conference.

Doc Isn’t Panicking…Yet

Historically, as the season goes on, they do find a bit of a rhythm when Embiid misses games. But, it’s never been a rhythm that you felt comfortable with in a playoff environment. After the game, Rivers spoke about his level of concern with the team being winless without Embiid. “To me, it’s, what, nineteen games or whatever into the season. I don’t have, like, panicky concerns at this point in the season with all the guys that have been in and out,” Rivers said. “I really don’t worry about it that much. Now, obviously you have to win games without Joel. But you got to get your team in order first. Now, I think second half of the season, if that happens, we’ll see more of that. Right now, it’s not on my list of concerns, I’ll put it that way.”

I think it’s only fair to evaluate with the long view in mind when you play a 72-game season. The early returns suggest that this team needs an extra piece that it can rely upon to score as a primary option when Embiid isn’t available. But, time will tell what an appropriate diagnosis is.

The Sixers (12-6) will have a chance to right the ship against the visiting Los Angeles Lakers (14-4) on Wednesday. Tip-off is set for 7:30 PM, EST. You can catch the affair on ESPN.