Sixers' issues go beyond Embiid's scoreless night

Sixers' issues go beyond Embiid's scoreless night

While certain aspects of the Sixers’ offense are starting to come around, Monday’s game showed a fatal flaw.

With Joel Embiid almost inexplicably going scoreless, the Sixers held a 96-91 lead with under four minutes to go after Josh Richardson hit a jumper from the corner.

Then everything fell apart. 

The Raptors went on a 10-0 run to close out the game as the Sixers lost their sixth road game of the season and had their four-game winning streak snapped in a 101-96 loss at Scotiabank Arena (see observations).

The game was there for the taking, but the Sixers crumbled down the stretch.

“I think just overall the whole game [we had] a lot of mental errors that we didn't correct,” Ben Simmons said to reporters postgame. “Jo had a tough night so that also doesn't help. But I mean, we look back at this game, we know we should have won this one. But Toronto made plays.”

It was a such an odd game to get a grasp of. The Sixers scored 30-plus points in the first and third quarters but were held below 20 in the second and fourth. During one stretch, two of their best free throw shooters missed four straight.

But in a game where their “crown jewel” was scoreless and their point guard turned the ball over seven times, the Sixers had every opportunity to win it down the stretch.

While Simmons was tremendous at certain points of the game — he had 14 assists and helped turn the tide of the game with an aggressive third quarter — he had a tough time down the stretch. After a Fred VanVleet miss with 18.6 seconds left, Embiid grabbed the rebound and threw an outlet pass to Simmons. Simmons pushed the basketball up the floor in an attempt to catch Toronto off guard. He then tried an ill-advised lob pass to Tobias Harris that was picked off by Pascal Siakam.

The Sixers had one more chance to tie the game. Harris missed a tightly-contested three, but Simmons got the rebound. Not realizing that he still had time left, Simmons took a heave from well beyond the arc with 6.2 seconds on the clock.

“I mean, if we're big boys, you'd say, of course, there has to be,” Brown said when asked if his team can learning anything from this game. “You're going to walk out of here and find something that is going to make us better. And we will do that. At this moment, 10 minutes after the game, it stings. You'll wake up in the morning, you'll be wiser for it and learn things that we have to just respond to better. 

“We had a stage there where we missed four free throws, they came back and hit a three and it's kind of like a seven-point swing. And you’d like to have a few of those turnovers back at the end of the game, so that's where I'm at.”

Harris was understandably frustrated with the way his team closed the game out. 

When he was re-signed and Jimmy Butler was sent to Miami, there was some thought to Harris taking over as the team’s late-game scorer. He got himself a decent look on a floater that would’ve put the Sixers up with under a minute to go but couldn’t get it to go.

He certainly wasn’t in the mood for lessons after this one.

“We learned that we got to be better late in the fourth quarter,” Harris said. “We got to be better engaged, offensively and defensively — executing on both ends of the floor. That's what we learned.”

So far this season, it had been Embiid who was the late-game option.

But there was no reasonable way Brown could go to his All-Star center who was 0 for 11 from the field and 0 for 3 from the line. Normally you’d credit Marc Gasol for such a poor night from Embiid. While Gasol deserves part of it, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse deployed a different strategy than he had in the playoffs.

During that seven-game series, Toronto rarely doubled Embiid and took their chances with Gasol in the post. On Monday, Nurse sent quick and aggressive double teams every time Embiid touched the ball in the post.

Embiid didn’t handle the double teams that poorly early but was trying to force things whenever he had any breathing room.

And yet, his teammates almost pulled it out.

“Getting zero production from me offensively and we still end up being pretty close,” Embiid said. “That says a lot about the group of guys we've got. We got a lot of talent. We got a lot of guys that can pick it up when someone is cold so that's great to see, but obviously we didn't get the win and in the fourth quarter we made a lot of mistakes and we're going to learn from it.”

Is it new starters trying to figure things out? Guys still trying to find their roles? Coaching?

“Honestly, no,” Harris said. “Just poor execution offensively and defensively with everybody, including myself. Something that we as a team, we got to be way better at. This was our game. It should have been our win tonight, but it went the other way.”

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To be mature, or to be dominant, that is the question for Joel Embiid

To be mature, or to be dominant, that is the question for Joel Embiid

In years past, it was a common occurrence for Joel Embiid to make a big play and elicit cheers from a sold-out Wells Fargo Center. He’d then raise his arms, imploring the crowd to get louder — and they’d oblige.

This kind of moment happened in Tuesday night’s 97-92 win in a slugfest against the Nuggets (see observations).

With Denver having gone on a run to cut a double-digit deficit to two, the Sixers made a push late in the third. As the clock was winding down, Embiid grabbed an offensive rebound and made a circus shot while he was being fouled.

Embiid went out to center court, raised his arms and the fans went nuts.

Moments like this haven’t been as frequent this year. Not because Embiid hasn’t had spectacular moments, but because he’s trying to be even-keeled.

I haven't done it enough all season,” Embiid said. “I have not been having fun like usual. … It goes back to with me being mature. And one of the biggest parts of my game is just having fun and by having fun is talking trash, but that part, that's kind of been cut. I just need to be myself and I guess just do whatever I want. Because when I'm having fun, I dominate. But this year, I don't know, I can probably count on one hand how many times I've done it. Last year was basically a reaction that I love it. They get me going. They understand me, I do understand them. So, I need to start doing it again because that's how I'm gonna dominate.

Embiid continues to be his dominant self on the defensive end — in case some national pundits forgot that there are two ends to a basketball court. He’s No. 1 in the NBA in terms of defensive rating (95.3) and anchored the defense that held the Nuggets to just 92 points.

With Jimmy Butler gone, it’s also been Embiid who’s been tasked with being the team’s go-to scorer in the fourth quarter. Going to a post player late in games is not something a ton of teams do. Then again, most teams don’t have a big man as physically gifted as Embiid.

Brett Brown has tried to do different things here and there — run isos for Tobias Harris or pick-and-rolls with Ben Simmons. Ultimately, though, Brown said his offense still runs through his “crown jewel.”

Embiid, who almost sounded like a player that had just lost, admitted that he’s still adjusting to his late-game role and also to the idea of drawing attention to free up his teammates.

“Not good enough,” Embiid said when asked about his late-game scoring. “Still getting used to [it]. The whole season I've been trying to adjust. Obviously, it's not the same as last year. It's completely different. So the adjustment has been hard but I'm gonna do whatever I'm asked to every single night. Like I keep mentioning, even if it's being a ball screener or just rebound the ball or take three shots — I'll do that. Whatever they ask me to do.”

It’s been a peculiar season for Embiid. If you were to just look at his scoring numbers, they’re way down. He’s averaging just 21.9 points, down from his 27.5 mark last season. A lot of that is the result of more aggressive double teams and a new supporting cast.

He also just seems a little off as far as his personality goes — and his words Tuesday kind of confirmed that. The only game where he seemed to be his usual plucky self was back on Oct. 30 against the Timberwolves. Of course, that’s the game where he got into a scuffle with Karl-Anthony Towns, shadowboxed to the crowd, got into a profanity-laced Instagram war with Towns, and got suspended for two games.

After that incident, Embiid vowed to never get suspended again. It’s a respectable cause, to be sure, but it seems like it’s led the 25-year-old into an existential crisis.

I'm not trying to be a distraction to the team," Embiid said. "The fight happened and we had good momentum and from there, we just kind of lost it. We lost a couple of games. So, I'm not trying to be a distraction, but that's just part of my game. And I feel like me losing that part, I think it's kind of taken a toll on my game. So it just goes back to me. Sometimes I might be childish and like I said, do whatever I want to, but then again, I care about winning. Everybody knows that. I'll do whatever it takes to win. I care about my teammates, I care about the organization, I care about being a role model. Everybody told me that I need to be — from fans to everybody else — I gotta be mature, so I'm doing it and I don't think it's working but I'm gonna keep doing it.

To be mature, or to be dominant, that is the question.

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Charles Barkley takes aim at Joel Embiid, says Sixers ‘got no chance’ at NBA Finals

Charles Barkley takes aim at Joel Embiid, says Sixers ‘got no chance’ at NBA Finals

The Sixers have only played 25 regular-season games, but that has been sufficient time for Charles Barkley to form some strong opinions about his former team and Joel Embiid. 

At the September unveiling for his statue at the Sixers’ practice facility in Camden, New Jersey, Barkley said the Sixers were his pick to win the NBA title.

His thinking has shifted quickly and, on the NBA on TNT’s postgame show Tuesday night, he targeted Embiid after the Sixers’ 97-92 win over the Denver Nuggets (see observations).

He’s the toughest player in the league to match up with, but we don’t talk about him the way we talk about Luka [Doncic], Giannis [Antetokounmpo], Anthony Davis, James [Harden] — we don’t ever say that about him. It’s frustrating for me, because I picked the Sixers to get to the Finals. They ain’t got no chance. 

Embiid posted 22 points, 10 rebounds and six assists vs. the Nuggets and is averaging 22 points and 12.4 rebounds on the season.The two-time All-Star has a 95.3 defensive rating, the best of any player in the NBA who’s played at least 25 minutes per night.

For Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal, the 25-year-old is falling short of his potential.

"We’re telling you, ‘You can be great. You ain’t playing hard enough.’ Twenty-two ain’t enough to get you to the next level,” O’Neal said. “Do you want to be great or do you want to be good? If you want to be good, keep doing 22 points. You want to be great, give me 28, give me 30. You want to be great, watch Giannis — he wants to be great.”

Embiid has admitted that he perhaps hasn’t always played with his highest level of intensity. The Sixers have prioritized managing his minutes and delivering him to the playoffs healthy and in peak physical condition. Sunday, Embiid had an interesting quote about that philosophy.

The whole season it feels like I've been going through the motions and part of it is also making sure I'm healthy for the playoffs,” he told reporters. “Going into the season, the last playoffs that I've been part of I've not been healthy, so for me going into this season, my main goal was to make sure that I get to the playoffs healthy and so far I've been doing a good job of that —taking care of my body and also, on the court when I'm needed, I'm gonna bring it. But then again, I'm also lucky that we got so many guys that can make a lot of things happen. But if I'm needed, I'll be there.

The NBA on TNT crew is clearly not aligned with Embiid’s outlook. They don't seem impressed with Embiid's defense, the fact that he's been an efficient, high-volume post player on offense, or much about the Sixers overall.

Barkley is almost ready to abandon his preseason prediction. 

“When the season started we were like, OK, Milwaukee is in that conversation, Philadelphia — that was it,” Barkley said. “There were two teams. But right now Boston has really played better, Toronto has played better, and that shouldn’t be. … I don’t want to jump totally off, but I’m in the air.”

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