The Sixers (12-10) visited the Memphis Grizzlies (12-9) on Friday. Philadelphia wanted to right its wrongs from a loss to the Cavaliers in Cleveland on Wednesday. Memphis wanted to get back to the winner’s circle after a loss to the Timberwolves in Minnesota on Wednesday. A pair of Grizzlies runs with Embiid off the court doomed the Sixers, 117-109.
Before we get to the game, allow me to set the scene.
The Sixers were without James Harden, who is ramping up for a return to play as he recovers from a strained tendon in his right foot. Tyrese Maxey is recovering from a small fracture in his left foot and was out.
Jaden Springer has a strained right quad and was unavailable. Julian Champagnie is on a Two-Way G-League assignment with the Delaware Blue Coats and was out.
Doc Rivers started Shake Milton, De’Anthony Melton, PJ Tucker, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
The Grizzlies were without Desmond Bane, who has a sprained right big toe.
Ziaire Williams has right patellar tendinitis and was out. Danny Green is recovering from the left knee injury he suffered in last season’s playoffs with the Sixers and was unavailable.
Jake LaRavia missed the game with a sore left foot. Vince Williams Jr. is on a Two-Way assignment with Memphis’ G-League affiliate and was unavailable.
Taylor Jenkins started Ja Morant, John Konchar, Dillon Brooks, Jaren Jackson Jr., and Steven Adams.
Really good start for Harris in this one, who was questionable coming in with a non-Covid illness after leaving Wednesday’s blowout with the ailment after shooting 0-for-7 in 23 minutes. He drained a pair of triples from the right wing in the first frame to give Philadelphia some life on offense when both teams started with a dash of boredom.
Melton had a really good display of rebounding on both ends in the first quarter. He used his wingspan and youthful legs to beat his former team to boards, holding off like-sized Grizzlies to grab the ball out of the air or chasing misses that fell long off the rim to the end of the court’s confines. Certainly gave his old friends a taste of what they’re missing.
A good second-half effort from Paul Reed after a horrendous first-half showing. He competed hard for offensive rebounds, tipping the ball up to give his teammates chances to grab misses on Philadelphia’s end of the floor. He also didn’t commit a foul in his second-half run after picking up two in three minutes in the first half.
The quietest 35-11-8 game you’ll ever see from Embiid. If he got to even 25 percent of the offensive rebounds he lost to Adams and Jackson Jr., maybe the Sixers would’ve had a chance in this game.
Embiid hasn’t faced the Grizzlies since the 2019-20 season, when they had Jonas Valanciunas. They’ve since moved one gritty, physical big for another in Adams. And just as Embiid does from time to time when opposite a like-sized, physical big, he didn’t do much to establish himself in the first few minutes. The big guy settled for a number of jumpers when he had Adams defending in space. That’s the environment in which you want to test Adams the most, taking advantage of his lack of mobility. Embiid had a couple buckets at the rim in the first quarter, but there wasn’t a ton of effort on his part to take his counterpart off the dribble and attack the basket like he would other distressed bigs. Embiid has the body to wrestle with the likes of Adams. If he’s not doing it, sheer ability isn’t the reason why.
Rough start for Reed in this one, the Grizzlies happy to match his athleticism and length with their own. As soon as Embiid checked out of the game, the Grizzlies flooded the gates, challenging Reed to stay vertical at the rim with aggressive straight-line drives off the bounce. The backup big man picked up two fouls in three minutes, rewarding Memphis’ aggression inside with a pair of and-1s. He was significantly overmatched from the moment he checked into the game, and it forced Rivers to buy Embiid a bit of a breather by going small with Tucker at the five.
It’s fair to have qualms with some of the lineup choices Rivers made in the first half. The Sixers were quickly flipped over into being the ones on their backs when he went with a lineup of Furkan Korkmaz, De’Anthony Melton, Danuel House Jr., and Reed. Korkmaz and Melton are your ball-handlers there, so there wasn’t a real source of aggressive dribble penetration. That also means the shooters weren’t getting many open looks off the catch.
Memphis’ swarming length really bothered Philadelphia on their shots inside, creating run-outs for the Grizzlies. Even when they contained Memphis to slow the pace, they didn’t have the physical tools to limit them from getting inside. Much of the Grizzlies’ run came in the late first quarter and early second quarter, a period of time during which the offense ran through the two ball-handlers above, and later Milton and Harris. Memphis outscored the Sixers by 18 points in a span of about three minutes and 30 seconds.
There was also a stint during that stretch that featured both Tucker and Matisse Thybulle on the floor next to Embiid. There’s something to be said about deciding whether you want to maximize offense or defense when Embiid is on the floor. Unfortunately, picking one side is the world the Sixers have to live in due to roster mistakes of regimes past. But, you would think adding House represented something of a midpoint between having to completely torch your offense for the sake of leaning into defense with Thybulle. That isn’t to say you don’t play Thybulle. You just don’t have to sacrifice your offense by trying to get your best defensive lineup out there. Even if House isn’t a great option, he’s a capable defender and at least a decent shooter. So, playing Tucker and Thybulle next to Embiid while you’re trying to reinvigorate your offense is questionable.
Oh, and Rivers proceeded to run out the same bench lineup toward the end of the third. The Grizzlies hung around a 10-point lead until that lineup came in, and Memphis pushed it back up to 16 points by the start of the fourth.
The Sixers really had no shot of stopping Morant whether Embiid was on the floor or not. Memphis’ Snug action with him and Adams was absolutely killer. Embiid could’ve made a better effort to step up and guard in space, but the Grizzlies were also excellent at spotting the back-side cutters for lobs at the rim.
So, it was a pick-your-poison situation, at least in this writer’s eyes. I thought the Sixers could’ve helped Embiid a little more on the strong side, stepping up to at least try to slow Morant as he cleared Adams’ screen and began his motion downhill. At least if you slow that attack a bit, it gives the weak-side helper a chance to drop down and cut off the backdoor so that Embiid can step up in space and contest Morant.
On the topic of Embiid, just a brutal effort from him in the third quarter. There was a pair of free throws in the frame during which Adams had some sort of exchange with Embiid, the big guy trying to walk away only for Adams to step back up in his face. There was a little bit of jersey-tugging from Adams, too. Impossible for me to know from where I was sitting, it might’ve been nothing. But, it wasn’t a typical interaction during free throws, at least not in my experience.
I don’t know if that got to Embiid or something, but Adams pretty much outworked him the rest of the quarter. The New Zealander beat Embiid to the glass numerous times in the frame, procuring extra opportunities for Memphis’ offense off their own misses. It didn’t get much better on the other end, Adams blocking an Embiid jumper and tipping away an entry pass to him for a transition dunk. Embiid was completely unwilling to match Adams’ effort and physicality. Just when it seemed Philadelphia was climbing back into the game when an Embiid three brought them to within six points, that sequence kept the momentum on Memphis’ side.
Good lord, the Sixers’ passing in this game was absolutely atrocious. They overthrew a couple of full-court passes. They telegraphed a number of entry and cross-court passes, sending Memphis out in transition. Just an ugly game from Philadelphia on a variety of fronts. I guess the glass-half-full view is that they didn’t get their doors blown off like they did in Cleveland. But, they were certainly out-worked. So, it’s not really any better, even if more competitive.
The Sixers (12-11) will visit the Houston Rockets (5-16) on Monday. Tip-off is set for 8 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.