The Philadelphia 76ers (14-12) hosted the Golden State Warriors (21-4) on Saturday night. Philly intended to right its wrongs from a loss to the Utah Jazz on Thursday. Golden State wanted to push its winning streak to three games. The Sixers used a dominant fourth quarter to upset the top dog in the Western Conference, 102-93.
Before we get to my observations, some notes.
The Warriors were without Klay Thompson (rehabilitation, torn right achilles) and James Wiseman (rehabilitation, torn meniscus in right knee).
Two-Way signee Jeff Dowtin was on assignment with Golden State’s G-League affiliate and was unavailable.
Steve Kerr started Stephen Curry, Jordan Poole, Andrew Wiggins, Draymond Green, and Kevon Looney.
The Sixers were without Ben Simmons, who is not mentally ready to play.
Grant Riller, who is nursing a sore right shoulder, was out.
Paul Reed, Jaden Springer, and Aaron Henry (Two-Way) were on G-League assignments with the Blue Coats and were unavailable.
Doc Rivers started Tyrese Maxey, Seth Curry, Matisse Thybulle, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
It’s quite difficult to diagnose the issue in real time, but the two-man game between Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey just hasn’t developed the way intuition might tell you it should’ve by now. When Embiid catches the ball at the elbow or higher, his pivot is automatically to Seth Curry to initiate a DHO or screen for a pick-and-roll action with the sharpshooting ball-handler. Only when the opposition denies the action on that side of the court does he resort to going Maxey’s way.
The problem is that you cannot develop that chemistry without repetitions. So when Embiid looks to Curry, Maxey is left to float over to the corners and wait for teammates to look his way. It’s a fine result when the rock swings his way and the shot drops. But, you’re not getting the most out of Maxey — and thus, the unit’s offense — if you don’t allow him to leverage his speed. It ultimately comes down to Embiid’s trust. He seems to trust Curry as a ball-handler out of screen actions more than he does Maxey right now.
It was pretty obvious from the jump that Rivers wanted to do whatever he could to limit Stephen Curry from starting the game on a heater. Matisse Thybulle’s distinct role within the starting unit was to chase Curry around off the ball and apply as much pressure as he possibly could to the superstar guard when the ball was in his hands. To Thybulle’s credit, he navigated off-ball screens beautifully. He denied Curry any edges to peel himself into freedom upon clearing the screen. As such, Rivers actually went as far as tethering Thybulle’s minutes to those of the elder Curry.
To the Sixers’ credit, their defensive scheme was excellent. The likes of Embiid and Andre Drummond were playing up on Curry’s ball screens and taking the gaps immediately outside the screens away so that he beat them with passes instead of walking into open threes. Philly didn’t grow complacent in its defensive strategy, either. They avoided drop coverage whenever Curry was the ball-handler. Beyond that, Philly toyed with switches, X-outs, and hilariously exaggerated hard hedges. Curry didn’t hit a triple in the opening quarter, so mission accomplished.
Tobias Harris relapsed some with his over-dribbling. It might’ve been a combination of having to process a hybrid big like Draymond Green and an actual big like Looney in his way. Regardless, Harris was lost. Precious shot-clock time was wasted as he toggled through options while dribbling the ball between his legs over and over again.
To Harris’ credit, he got to the rim a few times and converted through contact or got to the charity stripe. But, he was clearly troubled by the traffic in his way. Right now, he’s over-complicating the decision-making process. It should be pretty simple off the catch — be the connective tissue and swing the ball to the second side of the court, shoot, or attack the rim. Dribbling should only be an option if he’s slashing after catching the ball on the perimeter. It should never be part of the menu when he catches the ball in a non-post-up situation within the arc.
Golden State’s two-big tandem drove Embiid crazy in the second quarter. He got to the line throughout the half. Beyond that, it was hell on earth for the big fella. He was forcing shots that weren’t really there and turning the ball over when his teammates entrusted him to make things happen out of face-ups. That frustration flooded onto the defensive side of the equation. There were a number of plays in which Kevon Looney or other Warriors beat him to the basket because of his own late rotations within the half-court defense.
Embiid has allowed frustration to get the better of him in recent games. He certainly has reasons to be frustrated. But, he’s also benefitted from quite the gratuitous whistle in recent games. He’s a superstar and, as such, his energy is contagious. If he lets frustration win, the whole team suffers. Everyone you ask about Embiid’s leadership says that he’s made strides this season. The next progression might be understanding the importance of transferring positive energy in his role.
The Warriors really put a hurting on the Sixers in transition in the second quarter. The Sixers built a ten-point lead in the second frame. Once Embiid got rattled, Golden State got themselves right back into the game by creating live-ball turnovers. With Draymond Green spear-heading those transition possessions, the Warriors exploded down the middle of the floor and scored at the rim without much resistance.
From Embiid’s perspective, it’s very understandable that he’s letting the frustration show itself. There are three guys on him every time he catches the ball in the post. Even when he handles the pressure adequately, it’s a buzz kill when the recipient of his pass misses the open three. He can only serve the ball on a silver platter.
The bottom line is that Embiid cannot do it himself. He needs all of his teammates — especially Harris — to step up. If he’s doing almost all of the leg work and the only ask is that guys convert what are essentially practice shots, they need to do that. It’s not just about making shots. If defenses feel they have to respect Sixers other than Embiid, he won’t be faced with such heavy pressure every time he touches the ball. And everyone wins if that happens.
The Shake Milton-Drummond pick-and-roll relationship has blossomed into a beautiful chemistry. They intuitively play off of each other. Drummond times his rolls to the rim perfectly and Milton executes his decisions at the perfect moments. It’s become something of an instant offense off the bench when the Sixers are desperate for anything positive on that end of the floor. Milton delivers lobs right over the top of the rim, intersecting the plane where Drummond’s hands are at the height of his jump for an easy deposit.
If it’s not a beautifully-timed lob, Milton is weaving and bobbing around the screens to keep the opposition guessing. If they don’t present a full road block, he gets to the rim. When they lift, he pulls up for a short jumper or leverages his wiry frame in an effort to sneak around the interior defender. That tandem was a major spark plug at the end of the third quarter and being of the fourth quarter for Philly.
Thybulle effectively won the game for Philadelphia. Even when the elder Curry checked into the game for crunch time, the Warriors had no answers for Thybulle. His first reflex after clearing multi-player actions was to find Curry and make the best contest possible. And no matter what Golden State did, Curry was unable to evade the defensive mercenary long enough to get clean looks.
When Philly took the lead as the final frame ticked down, Golden State used a zone as a last-resort attempt to throw the Sixers off. But, the Sixers responded to it perfectly. They didn’t panic or slow their pace down. Rather, the Sixers continued doing what got them to that point — with one modification. They placed Embiid in the gap by the free throw line and got the ball to him as quickly as possible. In that vulnerable spot within the zone, Embiid was tossing up practice-level midrange jumpers. And that was all she wrote for the Warriors.
The Sixers (15-12) will visit the Memphis Grizzlies (16-11) on Monday. Tip-off is set for 8 PM EST. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.