The Philadelphia 76ers (18-9) traveled to Salt Lake City to visit the Jazz on Monday night. It was the final game of their four-game road trip, a trip on which they were 1-2 headed into the final leg. The Sixers were looking to avoid their second three-game losing streak of the season, but the Jazz would be no small obstacle. The Jazz, at 22-5, are arguably the best team in the NBA. The Sixers surrendered 18 triples on 45 attempts, and were unable to maintain pace with the Jazz in a 134-123 loss to finish up their road trip.
Before we get to the game, some notes.
Shake Milton missed the contest as he continued to nurse a sprained left ankle. Before the game, Doc Rivers laid the expectation that Joel Embiid would be available to play in this game, despite the league injury report saying Embiid was questionable. Rivers indicated that he was unaware of any issues related to Embiid’s health. Yet, just thirty minutes before tip-off, Embiid was scratched from the affair with back tightness. Mike Scott started in his place.
After the game, Rivers calmed any nerves regarding Embiid’s health. “It’s just a late scratch. I mean, honestly, I thought there was no issues with Joel, I thought he would play. Then, they came to me and told me his back is still stiff. So, I don’t think this is a long-term issue or anything like that. It’s just a game missed.”
The Jazz were without Mike Conley, who is recovering from a tight right hamstring. Quin Snyder started Donovan Mitchell, Royce O’Neale, Bojan Bogdanovic, Joe Ingles, and Rudy Gobert.
Ben Simmons. That’s the tweet. But in all seriousness, what a first quarter for the most scrutinized Sixer. Simmons scored 19 points on seven field goal attempts and converted all five of his free throws. He also recorded 5 assists in the first frame, contributing 30 of the Sixers’ 42 first-quarter points. His dominant first quarter underscored something that fans have been very frustrated by–Simmons can thrive without a jump shot if he is consistently that aggressive.
Throughout the first quarter, Simmons refused to pick up his dribble until he got directly under the rim and elevated for powerful finishes. He was fearless in attacking Utah’s interior and forcing contact to create scores. Now, the Jazz appeared to invite Simmons into the teeth of their defense, as they often funneled him directly into Gobert. Simmons, however, was able to craft some superb finishes over the former Defensive Player of the Year.
Speaking of that monstrous first quarter for the Sixers, they collectively played loosely and didn’t overthink their decisions. They reacted appropriately to passes and made much quicker decisions. That, in large part, pulled the Jazz out of position on defense, and afforded the Sixers open looks. The Jazz give up 107 points per 100 possessions–second fewest in the NBA. The Sixers scored 42 points on 33 possessions in the first quarter.
Doc Rivers talked about the importance of not giving up dunks and three-point shots following the loss to the Suns. The Jazz came into this game leading the league in three-pointers made (16.7) and attempted (42.3) per game. The Sixers allow their opponents to tee up more than 34 three-point attempts per game. As one might predict, three-point defense would be a critical focus if the Sixers were going to pull off the victory sans Embiid. The Jazz attempted 24 triples in the first half, while the Sixers accumulated just six. The Jazz connected on nine of those attempts, while the Sixers capitalized on just three of theirs.
Grab Some Bench
The bench continues to be an incredible negative for this team. The Sixers built a double-digit lead with the starting group in. As soon as Simmons and Harris departed for their first rotation, the Sixers coughed the lead right up. The Jazz’s incredible defense rendered a normally terrible Sixers’ bench offense completely untenable. The ball movement continues to be painful, and the likes of Korkmaz, Thybulle, and Howard, with whomever else is staggered with them at the time, just don’t generate any type of offense.
The front office will have to address the second unit at the trade deadline and beyond if this team has plans of advancing past the second round of the playoffs. Korkmaz, especially, is struggling at the moment. He’s good for the timely steal once in a while. But, he can’t be trusted to handle the ball and he isn’t consistent enough of a shooter to capitalize on open looks. We’re at the point in the Korkmaz experience where it does no harm to explore looking at Isaiah Joe in those minutes instead.
The Sixers’ three-point defense continued to be an issue even after intermission. Utah connected on nine more of their 21 attempted triples after the half, exceeding their average number made and attempted. The problematic context of those triples is that many of them lacked a respectable contest. The Jazz were getting relatively open looks, with the Sixers biting fakes or closing out too heavily. The effort, however, was there. That means it was more of a schematic issue, which I believe it was.
“That’s when you have to push up on guys.”
Rivers elected to go with a zone defense early in the fourth quarter. If you recall, they whipped out the zone late in the Pacers game and earned their first victory of the season without Embiid. The difference between the Pacers and Jazz, however, is marked. Inviting the Jazz–again, the league’s best three-point shooting team–to step into open triples is questionable at best.
Rivers cited a need to control the basketball as key to defending the three-point line after the loss. “Just trying to control the ball. I thought they got into the paint a ton,” Rivers said. “That’s what they do, they do a great job of getting in the paint, driving it, and kicking it. They had three or four threes late, like the last one. There was no reason for us to wander off the three-point shooter. Gobert had the ball with one second left. That’s when you have to push up on guys. I thought we had four or five of those tonight, where we could’ve taken away. But, listen, they’re committed to the three-point line. They’ve done it all year. They did it against us.”
Two-Fifths Of The Starting Five
We’re at the point in the season–nearly 40 percent of the way through, in fact–where it’s very clear that the Sixers have to address their own perimeter offense deficiencies. You never know what you’re getting out of Danny Green on any given night, and Seth Curry has developed somewhat of a timidness when comes to shooting from the perimeter. Green’s defensive deficiencies are far too significant to warrant his offensive highs and lows. So that wing position is certainly something the team has to look to upgrade.
On Monday, Green fell victim to the zone late in the game. There were a handful of back-breaking triples buried with Green as the closest defender. He wasn’t necessarily defending poorly, but he’s the one the fans look at when the shots go in. My concern with Green is based in more traditional defensive schemes where he is responsible for one player instead of one area of the court. In one-on-one situations, he cannot stay in front of smaller wings and guards anymore. It’s a mismatch whenever he’s on the court. Come playoff time, the winning team is the one that exploits those mismatches the most.
Curry, I believe, will find his way back on track once he gets his legs back underneath him. I think it’s easy to forget just how much time he missed since he’s been back for a few games now. But, his three-point volume is down from last season, although his conversion rate is better.
Simmons And Harris Lead The Way
As unfortunate as it is to have to accompany such performances with a loss, I must commend Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris for their individual efforts in this game. Simmons scored a career-high 42 points, dished 12 assists, and grabbed 9 rebounds. He also converted 12 of his 13 free throw attempts in this game. Simmons is converting better than 66 percent of his free throw attempts this season–far and away a career-best thus far.
“People don’t realize your mental is a huge part of the game.”
That confidence at the free throw line exudes from the way he plays. He is not shying away from contact because he doesn’t fear the free throw line. As a result, he’s becoming a better finisher. Obviously, the domino effect is a much more aggressive, effective, and dangerous star player. If the Sixers can back Embiid with the version of Simmons that they were treated to in this game, there is no ceiling for this team.
Simmons credits his recent elevated play to a better mentality. “I think it’s all mental,” Simmons said after the game. “People don’t realize your mental is a huge part of the game. For me, I continue to work on that. So, I’m just trying to get better and progress my game and get to that next level.”
Moving over to Harris, the forward produced arguably the best game of his Sixers tenure. He scored a Sixers’ career-high 36 points and pulled down 10 rebounds. Harris did not commit a turnover in this game.
I would like to end the story of this game offering condolences to Dwight Howard, who lost a family member before this game, Rivers revealed after the loss. Kudos to the veteran big man for being able to focus on playing and helping his team at such a sensitive time.
The Sixers (18-10) will host the Houston Rockets (11-16) on Wednesday. Tip-off is set for 7:30 PM. You can watch it on ESPN.