The Sixers weren’t going 82-0. We all knew that.
Their first defeat came in a 114-109 loss to the Suns Monday night and they still have two games remaining on a tough West Coast swing.
But what their first loss of the season did was expose a few of the warts on what is still an extremely talented basketball team.
Still playing without Joel Embiid, who was serving the final game of a two-game suspension, the Sixers needed the supporting cast to step up.
Al Horford (32 points) and Tobias Harris (24 points) did just that.
While he was strong defensively, Ben Simmons just couldn’t get it going on offense. The All-Star point guard scored just six points on 2 of 8 from the field.
Former Sixers assistant and current Suns head coach Monty Williams had a plan in place that worked to perfection. Williams decided to match up center Aron Baynes on Simmons. Unconventional, but with Simmons still unwilling to take shots outside the paint — he hasn’t made a basket outside of seven feet this season — it clogged things up.
Five games in, the Sixers had the highest percentage of points in the paint in the league. On Saturday night in Portland, they scored 84 of their 129 points in the restricted area. Against the Suns, they were outscored 48-32 in that department. The 32 points were by far their lowest output.
Brett Brown ran more pick-and-rolls than we’ve seen this season. He used Harris as the ball handler and Simmons as a screener a few times. While it worked in helping Harris shake loose for a few good looks, the Suns’ strategy worked better than Brown’s counter.
“I think putting [Simmons] in pick-and-rolls and trying to roll him out of it was sort of our mission,” Brown said to reporters postgame. “I think letting the ball handler be involved with Baynes so far back. Maybe there's some things we could've done on some elbow isolations but Baynes is good now. Like he moves his feet. He's physical. It's not like a blatant area that stands out as much as you might think.”
It’s fair to point out that Baynes, who has always seemed to be a thorn in the Sixers’ side, is having an excellent season and has looked like an absolute steal for Phoenix.
But should he be able to guard Simmons? To put it bluntly, no.
Simmons seemed to have a different recollection of what happened during a brief postgame availability.
“He allowed me to get my teammates open and get great looks,” Simmons, who had six assists and four turnovers, said of being guarded by Baynes.
Simmons isn’t the only big picture issue for the Sixers’ offense — though he's the biggest.
Horford and Harris were outstanding, but what happens when Embiid, the team’s “crown jewel,” returns to the lineup Wednesday night in Utah?
With Horford, the adjustment will be easy. He’s the type of player that can alter his role. He knows he won’t be asked to carry as much of a scoring load with Embiid back in the lineup and contributing at the center position.
But with the way he’s played in Embiid’s absence, he’s easing a lot of minds.
“Well, the last couple games, obviously, Joel being out, I felt like I've had to step up a little more and be more aggressive looking to score,” Horford said. “Tonight, the way that they were playing, it was kind of giving me a lot of looks and I took advantage of that.”
Harris is the trickier situation.
His best two games this season have been against the Pistons and the Suns — two of the three games the Sixers have played without Embiid. Embiid is the team’s franchise player and Harris just signed a five-year, $180 million contract this past offseason. Something has to give.
The aforementioned pick-and-rolls did work out quite well for Harris. It’s an action he ran a ton of with the Clippers last season when he was playing at a near All-Star level.
You got glimpses of that player Monday night.
“I think just putting them in some of the action and the mindset,” Brown said. “The guys have been great. They really have been. I think Al and Tobias especially were great tonight. We probably would want that foul back when we cut it to three with 30 seconds left. That isn't something that we would do. Short of that mental mistake, I thought Tobias was exceptional. I really thought he carried us offensively.”
All of this and we haven’t even mentioned Josh Richardson, who had arguably his roughest game as a Sixer. He seems to be dealing with what Harris dealt with last year. He doesn’t quite know where he fits offensively.
The good news is, unlike last season, they still have 76 games to figure out how to get Simmons going and where all the new pieces fit.
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