Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons showed why they can be a dominant and dynamic duo in their final game before the All Star break against the Los Angeles Clippers. Photo by Wayne Terry, TPL.

The wait is finally over. The Sixers took on the Pacers in their first seeding game in the Orlando bubble on Saturday night. A win would give them a tie in the season series against Indiana, and would leap-frog them into the fifth seed in the East. With a career night putting TJ Warren in the spotlight for the Pacers, Indiana took the season series, 3-1, with a 127-121 victory over the Sixers on Saturday night.

First, some notes to be aware of:

Contextual Notes

After missing the latter two scrimmages, Embiid was a full go in this contest. He registered 41 points, 21 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 blocks, and 4 turnovers in the game.

Glenn Robinson III (left hip; pointer) and Mike Scott (knee soreness) were unavailable in this affair.

Domantas Sabonis (foot) and Malcolm Brogdon (neck) were unavailable for the Pacers.

This is completely irrelevant to the game, itself, but the Sixers were introduced to Lose Yourself by Eminem playing in the background. Lame.

TJ Warren dropped a career-high 53 points on 20 of 29 shooting. In four games against Philly this season, Warren averaged 23.7 points, with a true shooting percentage of 78.4, in 33 minutes per game.

Matisse Thybulle only played 11 minutes in this game. While saddled with foul trouble, he ultimately finished the game with four personals. There were situations when he could’ve and, perhaps, should’ve played more, but Brown remained true to his structured rotations.

First Quarter

The Sixers did not attempt a three-point shot in the first four minutes of this game. They opened with a pair of pick-and-rolls with Milton as the ball-handler for one and Simmons the ball-handler on the other. Seeing as Sabonis was not there to contest, it seemed that the intention was to get Embiid established under the rim early.

Prior to the game, Brown verbalized that intention: [on what he wanted to see from Embiid, individually] “Jo, just this maniacal paint presence, a maniacal crash offensive boards, a maniacal deep catch. I want to make sure that we, as a team, that he, personally, has the paint in mind as much as we can. […] You look at their roster, and they’re small. Without Sabonis, they became smaller. So, this thing, for me, as it relates to Joel, you have to expect him to be double-teamed if he catches the ball a lot. You would expect him to be fronted, where they just sort of sit on his thigh and try not to let the ball go in. So, how well are we gonna do on high-lows and recognition of how do you get Jo the ball.” Early in the quarter, the Sixers were honoring Brown’s plan with ease.

The Sixers keyed in on smaller matchups in the early-going, isolating Simmons at the elbow and making it a point to get Embiid looks in the paint. Through the first four minutes of the game, that offensive strategy was efficient, as Philly connected on four of their first six attempts en route to a 7-point lead. 

Then, the Pacers called a timeout, and Nate McMillan inserted JaKarr Sampson at center. This is the best way to sum up what happened to the Sixers next:

To better explain, the Pacers were able to swarm Embiid in the paint and force the ball out of his hands, stunting the offense. Embiid checked out at his usual time, and the Pacers were able to get whatever they wanted on offense. The rattled Sixers, scrambling to stop the bleeding, reverted to sloppy turnovers in the half-court and forced, unnecessary shots. In the chaos, an 8-point Sixers lead turned into a 10-point deficit.

Shake Milton, who was clearly outmatched in his first time starting with the four regulars in an important game, was victimized by the back-court thievery of TJ McConnell and constant bullying from bigger, more experienced Pacers. His frustration reached a tipping point at the end of the first quarter:

Second Quarter

Brown inserted Alec Burks to open the second period, and the offense immediately got off the schneid. Indiana deployed a zone to combat Philly’s perimeter shooting, but Burks capped a pair of triples–off-ball ones, at that–to pressure Indiana into adjusting. Simmons was tasked with stabilizing things on offense as the primary ball-handler. With Embiid back in to protect the paint, the Sixers turned a 6-point deficit to open the quarter into a 4-point lead. 

However, a lack of defensive intensity and general sluggishness on that end of the court allowed the fire within TJ Warren to grow. Warren finished the half with 29 points on 12 of 16 shooting. A more engaged and urgent Simmons was able to contain the red-hot Warren in the closing stages of the first half, cutting off his lane of attack and making him uncomfortable on the perimeter. But, the Sixers ended the second quarter right where they ended the first quarter–down by 6.

Third Quarter

Shake Milton committed his fourth foul of the game in the first 7 seconds of the quarter, and Brown elected to go with Neto, not Burks, as the replacement. Neto would score his only 2 points of the game in the quarter. Some might (justifiably) question the decision to roll with Neto instead of Burks. Burks provides secondary ball-handling and shot-creating, and can certainly help spark an often dry Sixers’ offense. However, the favoritism towards Neto seems to lie in the structure and organization of the offense when he is on the court. Neto, unlike Burks, is not afflicted with tunnel vision. While limited in what he offers, he plays within the offense:

Embiid contributed 10 points and 7 rebounds in the quarter, asserting himself at the rim to the point of either guaranteeing a bucket or getting to the free throw line. Playing largely through Embiid’s grittiness, the Sixers turned a 6-point deficit to open the third into a 6-point lead heading into the fourth quarter.

Fourth Quarter

The Sixers appeared to have this affair in control for the first 4:30 of the period, building a lead as big as ten points. Embiid checked out with 8:38 remaining in the period. The Pacers turned a 10-point deficit into a 2-point lead by the time Embiid came back in at the 5:05 mark. The rigid shift-like structure of Brown’s rotation gave the Pacers an opportunity to make one final push while the star big man was recharging. Without Embiid monitoring the paint, Indiana felt empowered to get into the middle of the lane and make plays.

By the time Embiid checked back in, the Pacers were in a strong offensive rhythm. The Sixers were in the middle of a dry spell. TJ Warren, who had a quiet third quarter, found a second wind in the last five minutes of the game. He scored 19 of his 53 points in the final showdown. 12 of those points came in the last five minutes of regulation. A pair of triples in the final minute, courtesy of you-know-who, sealed the Sixers’ fate.

Brown spoke on how they could’ve defended Warren better after the game: “The space that we gave him was too generous. Maybe we could’ve double-teamed him sooner than we tried to. They have tremendous shooters behind the double-team, so you pick your poison.”

Brown elected to go with Neto in the final six minutes of play, instead of Burks. I did mention previously that there are some situations in which playing Neto over Burks makes sense. But, crunch time is not one of them. Neither guard is serviceable on the defensive side of the floor. So, when deciding who to go with to close out a game, a tertiary ball-handler and shot-creator makes more sense. Such is especially the case when the other option doesn’t provide much tangible value, to begin with. When attempting to win in crunch time situations, you go with the best options to support your star(s). The goal should be to maximize Embiid’s space to operate down the stretch. Burks is the better option in that situation.

When you have odd-fitting pieces, the offensive scheme you’ve tried to impart all along may not be the best option. Rather, in the case of the Sixers, the goal needs to be to put the best player in a situation to win you the game. Electing to play Neto over Alec Burks did not put Joel Embiid in the best possible situation to be successful.

The Sixers will look to rebound against the San Antonio Spurs on Monday night. The game tips off at 8 PM, and will be televised through NBC Sports Philadelphia.