With their best player sidelined, the Sixers ended 2019 with a dismal loss Tuesday in Indiana, a 115-97 defeat to the Pacers. The Sixers trailed by 30 points entering the fourth quarter.
Joel Embiid was out because of left knee soreness.
The loss extends the Sixers’ losing streak to three games and drops their record to 23-13, 7-11 on the road. The Sixers have a 3-4 mark this season without Embiid and finish the calendar year 10-13 in games their All-Star center missed.
The team’s road trip concludes Friday night against the Houston Rockets (8 p.m./NBCSP).
Here are observations on the loss:
Predictable problems without Embiid
Kyle O’Quinn started in Embiid’s place, his first start since the Pacers’ regular-season finale last year. He hadn’t played in the Sixers’ last five games.
O’Quinn was solid in his first stint, playing firm defense on Domantas Sabonis and making a nice cross court pass that resulted in a Tobias Harris three.
However, he didn’t return until the third quarter. Brown played Norvel Pelle for 12 minutes (two points, one block, four fouls), while O’Quinn had four points, 10 rebounds and five assists in 26 minutes.
The Sixers’ backup centers didn’t come close to matching Embiid’s level defensively, which was unsurprising — Embiid is one of the top rim protectors in the NBA, and these type of games give you a greater appreciation of his immense defensive value. The Sixers’ perimeter defense also placed their big men in many unfavorable positions. And, to make matters worse, Indiana made 10 of its first 16 three-point shots.
In contrast, the Sixers had a rough shooting day, hitting 6 of 29 threes.
Looking lost on offense
The Sixers ran a lot of “12” early, the action that begins with a wing coming up from the baseline to either set a screen for Ben Simmons or receive a dribble handoff. Because defenses usually play off Simmons with the knowledge that he’s not a willing shooter, it’s a look that can at least get him into the paint and driving downhill with momentum.
It was a staple for the Sixers late in games when they had JJ Redick, who commanded respect from opposing defenses and was effective at using a variety of secondary options on the strong side wing that centered around his two-man game with Embiid.
Though Josh Richardson, Furkan Korkmaz and the Sixers’ other wings haven’t been nearly as dangerous in “12” as Redick, perhaps Brett Brown will use it more to put Simmons in a comfortable spot and encourage him to drive. If Simmons isn’t going to shoot jumpers, the Sixers need to figure out ways to use the open space teams present to him. That might require creativity at times, but it also might mean finding something that works and sticking with it.
The half-court offense was brutal in the second quarter, when the Sixers were outscored 38-16. It’s tied with their fourth period in Denver on Nov. 8 for the most they’ve been outscored in a quarter this season.
Al Horford shot 2 for 12, Simmons had six turnovers, and the offense often looked aimless without Embiid in the post. And, because of how much success the Pacers were having offensively, Simmons was rarely able to push the ball. The Sixers were limited to eight points on the fast break.
It’s not just effort, but that’s part of it
After their losses this season, the Sixers have often identified effort, not being “locked in” or various other qualities outside of basketball strategy and execution as factors.
Those causes have generally been valid, and they were certainly prevalent Tuesday. The Sixers didn’t show much defensive energy and played like they knew that, in the absence of Embiid, their chances weren’t great after Indiana made its run in the second quarter.
Brown turned to a 1-3-1 zone at one stage in the second quarter, and his team played solid defense for the entirety of the shot clock. But, on a play that summed up the afternoon, former Sixer and notorious hustler T.J. McConnell (11 points, 10 assists) beat everyone for the offensive rebound and kicked it out to Justin Holiday for a corner three. In the third quarter, Simmons took the inbounds pass after two made Jeremy Lamb free throws, couldn’t find an available teammate, and Lamb stole the ball and knocked down a three.
Those were two of many sequences that reflected badly on the Sixers in Indiana.
With all of that said, effort clearly isn’t the only thing the Sixers need to fix. Horford’s offensive fit and overall ineffectiveness recently, bench scoring, and quality perimeter shot creation are issues they have not attributable to effort, and which tend to be magnified when Embiid is out.
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