Exactly one week after losing to them in Philly, the Philadelphia 76ers (18-7) traveled to Portland looking for revenge against the Trail Blazers (13-10). The Sixers were looking for their fifth consecutive road victory, and a split of their season series with Portland. The Blazers were looking to establish a winning streak after holding off the Orlando Magic on Tuesday. The Sixers, unable to execute on their final play of the game, suffered a tough defeat in Portland, 118-114.
Before we get to the action, some notes.
The Sixers were without Shake Milton. He sprained his left ankle attacking the rim late in the victory over the Kings on Tuesday. Mike Scott remained out with right knee swelling. Doc Rivers started Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
The Blazers continued to be without CJ McCollum (sprained left midfoot), Jusuf Nurkic (fractured right wrist), and Zach Collins (stress fracture in left ankle). They were also without the services of CJ Elleby (illness). Terry Stotts started Damian Lillard, Gary Trent Jr, Robert Covington, Derrick Jones Jr, and Enes Kanter.
Again, these 10 PM EST starts on weekdays, no bueno. Brian Anderson on the play-by-play, bíen.
The Sixers elected to trap Lillard on ball screens early in this game. Simmons would go under and apply the rear pressure if Lillard didn’t shoot immediately. Embiid would slide over to apply the frontal pressure to crowd Lillard. It ultimately did not produce the desired results, as Lillard scored 19 points in the first quarter.
Before the game, Rivers talked about the point at which you adjust to Lillard if he heats up. He mentioned that it depends on how the other Blazers are playing, and that them collectively playing well creates quite a conundrum for a defense. The Blazers indeed posed that issue in the first quarter, as they converted eight of their thirteen attempted triples in the first quarter.
“Staying physical down low and getting to know what works.”
Ben Simmons had perhaps the best quarter of his season, scoring 13 points with some of his signature defensive pressure. He also collected 3 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 steal, and 1 block. The way in which he was scoring was quite encouraging. He was getting to his spots around the paint with snug pick-and-roll actions with Embiid, and he was actually converting a healthy portion of his post-up attempts. Simmons kept his explanation for the scoring outburst relatively simple after the game. “Just being aggressive,” Simmons said. “Preparing for teams like this, it’s tough. I typically have a mismatch every time I step on the floor with my size. But staying physical down low and getting to know what works.”
Embiid only scored 8 points in the first quarter (which is quite productive for your average player, but not for this one). It was a sign of a trend beginning to take form for Embiid, as he seems to be losing just the slightest grip on the efficiency with which he scored early in the season. But, the offense made more of a point to get him the ball for deep catches where Embiid had his defender sealed to the point of no recovery. It undoubtedly leads to some wear and tear with all of that contact in the low post. But, the Sixers need to maximize those opportunities, as they are nearly automatic points right now.
Second Quarter Lulls
There has been a bit of a trend recently where the Sixers go into a significant defensive lull in the second quarters of games. It happened against Sacramento, where the Kings turned a 14-point deficit into a 7-point lead headed into halftime. The Sixers had the lead early in the second quarter of this game, and the Blazers took an 8-point lead in a matter of minutes. Offenses are obviously incredibly fast-paced and highly prolific in this era of basketball. But there was very little resistance for the Blazers’ interior penetration. They were able to get to the rim and cash in on uncontested looks.
Embiid’s late-half takeover put the Sixers in control, 63-60, at intermission. While he struggled in the first quarter, he was quite dominant in the second. The Process scored 23 points in the first half. He closed it out with a number of difficult jumpers from the mid-post.
The flow of play in the third quarter was a testament to the value Simmons offers on the court, regardless of his offensive pains. The Blazers were down Lillard, McCollum, Nurkic, and others when they came to Philly exactly a week ago. The paper matchup was favorable for the Sixers, but they completely lacked offensive organization in the game with Simmons out with calf discomfort. Embiid’s dominance in Delay action was able to keep them competitive in the first half. But, the Blazers caught on for the second half. They dominated for a sixteen-point victory in Philly.
This time around, Simmons was available. With him on the court, the offense flowed without clotting. Wings were able to cut intuitively, shooters knew where to be on the perimeter, and the offense generally had a scheme. With the obvious defensive boost, there was no Portland run in the third quarter to take command of this game.
Dwight Howard’s fouling tendencies are never going to go away. You can let that ship sail. But, he’s been extremely valuable on the offensive glass in each of the past two games. Perhaps Howard isn’t securing every offensive rebound he goes for. But, he’s creating chaos on the glass, and that can lead to tip-outs that get picked up by the Sixers. For a second unit that is painfully dry on the offensive end at times, those extra opportunities go a long way towards winning games.
“Once Carmelo gets going, you know, he’s still Carmelo, and he reminded us of that today.”
Sometimes you need a reminder as to who you’re playing against. On Thursday, Carmelo Anthony reminded the Sixers who they were dealing with in the fourth quarter. He scored 15 points on a barrage of difficult shots in the fourth quarter, and put the Blazers in control of the game as the clock ticked down in the frame. Rivers was surely reminded of how dangerous Anthony can be. “Just thought the ball stuck. We took tough, bad shots and that got them running, that got them easy baskets, that got Carmelo going,” Rivers said. “Once Carmelo gets going, you know, he’s still Carmelo, and he reminded us of that today.”
“I didn’t think it was a well-run play, I thought I could’ve run a better play.”
Ultimately, the game came down to a controversial inbound play that resulted in a turnover rather than a shot for the Sixers. Some want to complain about a poor decision from Simmons, who was the inbounding passer. Others want to complain about a lackadaisical cut from Harris. Others want to complain about Rivers calling a ‘terrible’ play to close the game.
It’s really important to keep context in mind, even when it may be easier to just be angry fans. The Sixers had no timeouts left, so the Blazers knew to just pressure their individual assignments appropriately to make things difficult for Philly to execute a play. Ben Simmons was working against a 5-second inbound clock, and he ran it down to the final second. He had to make a pass, or he’s turning the ball over without getting a pass off. As for the mechanical pieces of an after-timeout play, it’s easy to criticize the off-ball movers from the television perspective. But, what is very difficult to see is the defense tugging on jerseys and holding players down to prevent them from executing actions.
Now, teams are able to execute plays under those constraints all the time. My point is not that the Sixers were in any tougher of a situation than anyone else. But, it’s also irrational to expect every play under that context to work. On Thursday, it simply did not work. Rivers credited Portland’s defense for countering the play after the game. “Portland did a great job of sagging off the passer,” Rivers said. “It really was supposed to go to Joel or Tobias, or Seth in the left corner. We had three options on it. I haven’t seen it yet. I didn’t think it was a well-run play, I thought I could’ve run a better play. But, listen, I didn’t want to turn the ball over, either. So that’s tough, tough way to end a game.”
The Sixers (18-8) left Portland with a bit of a humbling loss after winning four consecutive road games. They will travel to Phoenix to face the Suns (15-9) on Saturday afternoon. Tip-off is set for 3 PM EST (thank the lord). You can watch the game on NBATV.