Photo by Austin Krell/The Painted Lines

The Philadelphia 76ers (35-16) were back in action near Bourbon Street on Friday night. Philadelphia was looking to win its second game in a row. The Pelicans (22-29) were looking to avoid their third consecutive loss. An uncharacteristically poor night for four-fifths of the starting unit doomed the Sixers, 101-94.

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

Contextual Notes

George Hill remained out for the Sixers as he recovers from surgery on his right thumb. On Thursday, he spoke to the media for the first time since being acquired at the trade deadline. Hill said that he recently got his cast removed and is currently undergoing physical therapy and rehabilitation as he progresses towards a return to the court. Hill remarked (jokingly) that he will return this season.

Doc Rivers started Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.

The Pelicans were without Nickeil Alexander-Walker (high left ankle sprain), Lonzo Ball (sore left hip flexor), and Josh Hart (surgery on right thumb). Brandon Ingram (irritated right first metacarpal) and Kira Lewis Jr (strained right calf) were both available to play. 

Stan Van Gundy started Eric Bledsoe, Naji Marshall, Brandon Ingram, Zion Williamson, and Steven Adams.

First Half

It has seemed as though Rivers has slowly begun to shift Curry into the ball-handler spot for the starting unit. That means, of course, Simmons is adapting to life as an off-ball player in the dunker’s spot. Curry is not exactly a dribbler capable of progressing plays consistently, and his main downhill attack is a floater one step below the free throw line. Simmons obviously fades out of the spotlight a bit in that dunker’s spot role.

Rivers is starting to feel more comfortable with running snug pick-and-rolls with Simmons and Embiid to feature his point undefined more on the ball. But, those should never come at the expense of Embiid post-ups. What it boils down to is that Simmons has regressed as a finisher to the point where he’s not confident enough to launch himself at the rim. So, in this version of his slump, he’s been somewhat restricted to off-ball duties in the half-court setting.

The second unit’s defensive intensity in the first half was horrendous. They failed to get back in transition on a number of possessions, allowing various Pelicans to leak towards the rim without obstacles to maneuver. The Pelicans, while not all that skilled up and down the roster, are extremely athletic as a team. They’re not going to miss chip shots at the basket because they’re going to finish above the rim more often than not. Not only did they fail to supply resistance in transition, but they also failed to complete possessions with strong fundamentals. The Pelicans were able to get anything they wanted on the offensive glass, and the second chance opportunities were abundant. 

Second Unit

Embiid settled for a lot of midrange jumpers in the third quarter. His midrange game has been close to automatic this season. So, in a vacuum, it’s fine if he’s taking a lot of middies. The problem in this situation was that the Sixers were reeling as they attempted to fight off the gritty Pelicans. The first look when those in-game offensive slumps come on should be deep catches for Embiid, not face-ups seventeen feet from the basket. Not only was Embiid settling, but the Sixers just failed to get the ball to him in his spots. Embiid scored just 2 points in the second half. That should never happen.

The Sixers lost control of this game between the third and fourth quarters. That segment is otherwise known as the all-bench unit. Without most of Philly’s imposing defenders on the court, Williamson went to work without much issue. We’ve crucified those lineups all season long, and we know how fickle the featured players are. At this point, it’s not the players’ faults for being unable to shoulder the load themselves. It’s on the coach for not making those adjustments.

Rivers has been very good for this team since the very beginning. But, he cannot trot these all-bench lineups out there come playoff time, at least not at the usage he currently does. Five minutes per game seems like a reasonable compromise. But, if he’s asking the bench to withstand pushes for eight-minute stretches, the Sixers are going to lose some winnable playoff games. When the time comes, I believe he’ll stagger his starters. But, the players are what they are. It’s on the coach to decide how to appropriately build his rotations.

“I think a little bit of it is just our organization out there on the floor and just decision-making.”

The last five minutes of this game were as bad as we’ve seen this season. The Sixers made a run to bring a 15-point deficit within 6 points, but they shot themselves in the collective foot to no end with turnovers. Those turnovers didn’t really result from great Pelicans defense, either. The Sixers’ execution was horrendous. They made a handful of comically inaccurate passes that resulted in dead-ball turns. On a universally poor shooting night, vomiting up possessions with unforced errors was fatal.

Harris attributed the uncharacteristically messy fourth quarter to the lineup’s decision-making. “I think a little bit of it is just our organization out there on the floor and just decision-making,” Harris said. “I think tonight, early in the game and then early in the third quarter and into the fourth, we just gifted them the basketball so many different plays that we needed to take care of it. They were able to convert off those turnovers and use that as momentum for them as the game went on. So, we got to take care of the basketball. We know that is a big thing for us to be successful. Tonight, we didn’t do a great job of that and nineteen turnovers says it right there.”

“I thought we lost this game upstairs. I thought this was a mental weakness game for us.”

Ben Simmons will wear most of the blame from the fanbase, but this loss falls on the entire team. Four of the five starters performed well below their average point production. The starting unit combined for 18-of-51 shooting with 13 turnovers. Simmons certainly deserves his share of the blame for his offensive production (10 points, 6 assists, and 6 turnovers). But, it would be unjust for the entire loss to be pinned to him when the starting unit, as a whole, was that off.

While the starting unit was poor, Rivers was especially disappointed with the team’s internal strength after the loss. “I was just disappointed with how we approached the game mentally,” Rivers said. “I thought we lost this game upstairs, I thought this was a mental weakness game for us. We haven’t had a lot of those, but tonight we were mentally weak.”

“He’s fast, faster than I expected.”

Zion Williamson is an absolute beast on the offensive end of the floor. The Sixers struggled to keep him in front all night long. When  defenders don’t bounce right off of his immensely strong body, he glides right to the rim with an incredible first step and elite vertical athleticism that allows him to glide through the air once he lifts off the floor. To put it all together, he’s extremely polished as a finisher. Rivers talked about showing him different defensive looks throughout the game, but it didn’t matter. His box score speaks for the amount of damage he did.

Danny Green offered some insights into what it’s like guarding the Pelicans’ franchise player. “He’s strong man. It’s obvious he’s explosive, everybody knows that,” Green said after the loss. “He’s fast, faster than I expected. From the beginning, he’s got a quick first step. But, the goal was to just change it up and give him different looks. Ben, obviously, is our main defender. But, myself, Matisse, some guards. But he, without Zo [Ball] playing, he’s gonna bring the ball up. So, we want to give him a little pressure ninety-four feet. I think we waited too long to make the change and give them different looks.”

Green continued, “But, I thought it got under him a little bit. We got to do a better job of helping each other in the sense of when he’s attacking the rim and also boxing out. They kill us on the glass. Like I said, he’s strong. I tried to take the bumps, take the hits. He made a couple tough baskets, he took a little pull-up fadeaway that he made. I usually live with that. But, I think I did a decent job, took the hits pretty solidly.”

The Sixers (35-17) will head to Oklahoma City to visit the Thunder (20-32) on Saturday. Tip-off is scheduled for 9 PM EST. You can watch the affair on NBC Sports Philadelphia.