Sixers need to get Ben Simmons going, incorporate Tobias Harris, Al Horford with Joel Embiid

Sixers need to get Ben Simmons going, incorporate Tobias Harris, Al Horford with Joel Embiid

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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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?

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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