76ers

Sixers waste brilliant Al Horford performance and get torched by Devin Booker and the Suns

Sixers waste brilliant Al Horford performance and get torched by Devin Booker and the Suns

BOX SCORE 

Devin Booker and the Phoenix Suns ended the Sixers’ run as the lone unbeaten team in the NBA Monday night.

The Suns’ guard torched the Sixers for 40 points on 15 for 19 shooting and the Sixers fell to Phoenix, 114-109, dropping to 5-1 on the season.

The Sixers wasted an excellent game from Al Horford, who had 32 points on 13 for 20 shooting, and another strong offensive performance from Tobias Harris (24 points and 10 rebounds). 

They’ll play the Utah Jazz next, on Wednesday at 9 p.m. (NBCSP). 

No answers for Booker

The Sixers just couldn’t stop Booker. Josh Richardson, the primary defender on him, had a frustrating game overall, with eight points on 3 for 11 shooting, five assists and four turnovers.

Brett Brown sees Richardson as the Sixers’ “mortar,” which sounds ideal in theory. In practice, Richardson doesn’t seem to have completely found his spots yet offensively. That’s not a reason for panic — Richardson and the Sixers have 76 more games to figure it out and have lost just one of their first six. 

Ricky Rubio, not renowned for his three-point shooting, made 3 of 5 behind the arc for Phoenix. 

An interesting offensive shift 

The Sixers entered the game running the fewest pick-and-rolls in the NBA, but Brown ran several in the first quarter with Harris as the ball handler and Ben Simmons as the screener. Brown later ran a pick-and-roll with Simmons as the screener later in the quarter, this time with Richardson as the ball handler, and the Sixers’ guard converted an open three off it. Simmons commands plenty of respect as a roller, and set good, physical, legal screens Monday. 

As a team, the Sixers will most likely finish the season with the most post-ups in the NBA — the Lakers are the only team who might end up in the same ballpark — and that makes sense for many reasons. They’ll have size advantages just about every night, Embiid is hard to handle when he gets deep position, and Horford and Simmons are excellent passers from the post. 

Still, a bit more pick-and-roll isn’t a bad idea, especially on nights without Embiid. Harris has historically been an efficient pick-and-roll player and he thrived in that setting Monday. He’s very good at shielding off his defender once he gains a step, then taking his time to get the shot he wants. 

Horford is also skilled both as a roller and in the pick-and-pop, with the ability to knock down open threes and to make plays for his teammates when the jumper isn’t available.

The best “backup center” in the league

At the moment, Horford is playing like the best “backup center” in the NBA. He totaled 57 points and 11 assists during Embiid’s suspension.

In addition to the stats, Horford has been valuable as usual outside of the box score in setting strong screens, defending the pick-and-roll well and just playing smart basketball. 

And, at 33 years old, he can still elevate. His 32 points Monday were more than he ever scored as a Celtic, and just two shy of his career high.

Brilliant on one end, stymied on the other 

There have been lapses here and there, but Simmons has been a more engaged defensive player this season.

He was ready to go right from the opening tip in Phoenix.

Simmons tied a career high with seven steals on an excellent defensive night. 

Offensively, he was stymied by the Suns, who dropped deep into the paint and gave him a ton of space to shoot jumpers, which he did not. Simmons’ longest made field goal through six games is from seven feet out. He posted six points on 2 for 8 shooting, six assists, five rebounds and four turnovers. 

Will Neto stay in the rotation? 

When Embiid returns, Brown will have a number of decisions to make, among them whether Raul Neto stays in the rotation.

The Brazilian point guard helped turn the game Saturday against the Trail Blazers, and he played well in his first-half stint Monday.

Neto hit Horford in the corner with a nice pass at the end of the first quarter.

And Horford didn’t need any help at the conclusion of the first half, nailing a very long three. 

However, Neto wasn’t as good in the second half, committing a turnover that led to a Mikal Bridges dunk near the end of the third quarter and getting scored on by Tyler Johnson a couple of times early in the fourth.

While there haven’t been many exceptional plays in which Neto is at the center of the highlight, the Sixers have mostly been better when he’s on the floor. That would certainly seem to merit playing time.

Korkmaz gets the nod, sets a career high

Furkan Korkmaz took Embiid’s spot in the starting lineup, and he had no hesitation in taking his first shot since his game-winner Saturday in Portland. It looked like he’d sunk it, too … but his three-pointer from the left wing went in and out.

He couldn’t retain all of the magic of that moment vs. the Blazers, though he did score a career-high 20 points. On the night, Korkmaz shot 6 for 13. 

Korkmaz got the nod over Matisse Thybulle, who didn’t have a great night and only played four minutes. The rookie isn’t playing with much decisiveness or confidence on offense, and the fact that he isn’t hitting shots is surely connected. Thybulle shot 1 for 3 Monday and is now 7 for 27 through six games (25.9 percent) 

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There are positive signs, but still glaring issues with Sixers

There are positive signs, but still glaring issues with Sixers

After dropping their second straight game in overtime Friday night in Oklahoma City (see observations), the Sixers at times sounded like a team looking for answers.

More of that is likely struggling to answer questions coming off another brutal loss. They have an idea why they’ve lost five of their last seven after starting their season 5-0. A large part of it is a group with a bunch of new faces that are still figuring each other out. On Friday, fouls were an issue as they allowed the Thunder to attempt 41 free throws.

For a team that has championship aspirations and got off to such a hot start, this isn’t where they expected to be 12 games into the season.

“Obviously we're frustrated,” Tobias Harris said to reporters postgame. “7-5 is not where we want to be. It's early in the season and right now we're going to progress and get better and figure out ways that we can help each other and help our team and go from there. This game is over. Tomorrow, we'll watch film on it, we'll find out which ways that we can better ourselves and be ready for the next game. [We’re] 7-5 right now but ... we'll just go into the next game and be ready to get that win and go from there.”

There are reasons for optimism — with Harris being arguably the biggest.

After missing 23 straight threes and looking lost recently, Harris splashed his first trey of the game and looked like a totally different player. He finished with 21 points on 8 of 16 from the field and 3 of 4 from three. He was much more aggressive and decisive than he’d been in the previous two games.

Josh Richardson, returning to his native Oklahoma, has continued to show signs of improvement. He poured in 28 points, his highest total as a Sixer. More importantly, he’s looked much more comfortable in the offense as he figures out his role.

Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons both had their moments. Embiid had a game-high 31 points and Simmons broke out after a quiet first half to play the entire second half.

One of the team’s biggest issues is figuring out the pairing of Embiid and Al Horford. The reality is Horford has never played with a center like Embiid who demands the ball and attention offensively. It’s been an obvious adjustment for Horford, who shot just 5 of 12 Friday and has done most of his damage with Embiid off the floor.

The uncomfortable offensive fit for the entire starting five has been a big reason the Sixers have been involved in so many close games. A familiar theme emerged Friday, as the Sixers held a nine-point advantage with 7:20 to go in the game. Instead of hitting the gas and putting the Thunder away, they gave up a 12-2 run and saw their lead evaporate.

These are talented players that have won in different places. They’re still learning how to win together.

“I was just telling Al about that,” Harris said, “and really it's just I think a matter of right now we are yet to be up like eight points and push that to 15 and really push what we're doing and move forward with that, and really imposing our will and dominating. And that's something that we have to get to and that's something I think we're still learning — how we can do that and how we can make those type of runs. That's something we definitely got to get better at.”

The good news is you see the talent and recognize some of the issues.

And Brett Brown has 70 games to figure it out.

“If you're sick and you don't know why, that's a problem,” Brown said. “We are in a tough spot right now, but it's a long year. I think that it doesn't take much for me to understand where we have to get better. And it's really that simple. If you're scratching your head, sort of confused, then I think we got some problems and that's not what I'm doing. I think the guys understand the areas that matter most that can best impact changing the way things are going and get back on the winning side.”

They know the problems, now they just have to answer the questions.

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Sixers Talk podcast: What went wrong in OKC?

sixers-talk-okc-ben-simmons.jpg
NBCSP/USA Today Images

Sixers Talk podcast: What went wrong in OKC?

Danny Pommells and Paul Hudrick discuss Brett Brown's decision to have Furkan Korkmaz play key minutes in overtime, using more pick-and-rolls with Joel Embiid, and the loss to the Thunder.

• Should Brown have gone to Korkmaz when Tobias Harris fouled out in overtime?

• Do the Sixers need to rework their offense?

• The starting lineup looked good at times, but what went wrong in OKC?

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