Tobias Harris Passes

The Sixers (42-30) matched up with the Houston Rockets (44-27) on Friday night. It was both teams’ final games before embarked on what they hope are long playoff journeys. 

Before discussing what we observed in the contest, some notes:

Contextual Notes

Joel Embiid, Al Horford, Tobias Harris, and Josh Richardson were all full goes for the affair.

Russell Westbrook (quad) was unavailable.

First Half

Embiid was given the ball in the post six times in the first five minutes of play. While the smaller Rockets were able to pester him with quick double-teams, swipes, and strips, they were still overmatched by Embiid’s imposing size. Embiid did turn the ball over on a risky pass across the court to the weak-side corner. Overall, he handled the small-ball pressure with poise and calmness, scoring 7 points (3-for-5 shooting) in those first five minutes.

The Sixers’ help defense in the early moments of this contest was sluggish, unaware, and disappointing. There were multiple instances in which Houston’s half-court offense broke down and they were on the cusp of committing a turnover. However, rotations didn’t come, and Harden was able to find open teammates under the rim for finishes.

That will not fly against the Celtics, who have four different players who can score 30 points on any given night. The Sixers will need to improve their communication as off-ball defenders and remain active and aware in help. They will have to anticipate one pass ahead of the play and rotate to the correct spots on time. The Rockets have the luxury of deploying one of the game’s best scorers. Harden consistently draws double-teams because defenses would rather lose at the hands of Houston’s role players than inadequately defend the game’s best isolation scorer. The Sixers won’t be able to game plan for the Celtics that way, and will need to rotate appropriately, or they’ll be headed to Cancun very shortly.

Playing In Fear

Norvel Pelle played six seconds at the end of the first quarter and committed one foul before being yanked. He did not play the remainder of the half. Matisse Thybulle played seven minutes in the first half, and registered 1 block, 2 steals, and 1 turnover. While staying true to his uniform rotations, Brown continues to keep young players on very short leashes. Sure, he’s coaching for his job and is treating every game like a game seven. But, his rotational patterns with Thybulle this season served as a microcosmic example of why some young players have seen themselves flourish after leaving Philadelphia during Brown’s tenure.

His shock collar approach with rookies instills a sense of fear in those young players. They feel a slim margin of error because of the punishment they will receive if they make mistakes. As a result, they lack aggressiveness–on both ends–and their production is inconsistent because they lack confidence. If Brown coached his young players with a longer leash, his tenure in Philly may have taken a different course up to this point.

Second Half

Alec Burks seems to have legitimately bought into his role with the 76ers since play began in the bubble. Burks has become the recipient of increased minutes over the last few games, and has responded:

Brett Brown seemingly added a wrinkle to the offense to feature Burks more, as well. The play is a dribble hand-off option from Embiid at the top of the key. Burks is the recipient. Upon receiving the ball, he can turn and accelerate to the rim, or he can step out to the three-point line. If he chooses the latter, Embiid’s screen turns into a pin-down.

An obvious factor in Burks’ increased usage and, thus, engagement. After the game, Horford echoed the importance of using Burks: “He’s getting an opportunity to play, and that’s what’s most important. He can really score the ball and get to the free throw line.” If this small read option off of a screen gets the ball in Burks’ hands and weaponizes him as a scorer, it is something off of which the Sixers’ staff should look to build. The more Philly can weaponize Burks as a scorer, both off the catch and off the dribble, the more he can help them. It may even invigorate him on the defensive end. If that were to happen, the Sixers’ first round series with the Celtics becomes much more interesting. 

The 76ers ultimately beat the Rockets at their own game, connecting on 18 three-pointers in the affair. They closed out the unprecedented regular season with a victory, 134-96, over the Rockets. The Sixers, who finished the season 43-30, have a date with the Celtics at 6:30 on Monday evening. Game 1 will be televised on NBC Sports Philadelphia and ESPN.