The stage was set for a feel-good Sixers win.
At least a feel-fine win.
Tyrese Maxey (left quad contusion) and Furkan Korkmaz (non-COVID illness) were back for a festive evening at Wells Fargo Center in the Sixers’ final home game of 2021. Maxey’s family sat courtside, celebrating his father Tyrone’s birthday. The Hawks’ roster was hit by COVID-19, leaving John Collins and Bogdan Bogdanovic as the only usual starters this season active. If the Sixers handled business, they’d wake up on Christmas morning with consecutive victories.
That didn’t happen, and so head coach Doc Rivers was left to offer explanations for the Sixers' regular struggles this month with teams that possess inferior talent after a 98-96 loss.
“I thought we approached the game very casual,” Rivers said. “And I thought we played that way. I thought they did what they wanted. … Disappointing.”
The occasional stinker is inevitable in the NBA. Teams fail to find the necessary focus or motivation to play good basketball night after night. The Sixers have a troubling trend, though.
Since Nov. 27, the night Joel Embiid returned from COVID-19, they’ve fallen into early holes against the Timberwolves, Celtics, Hornets, Heat, Nets and Hawks. Their first-quarter net rating in December is minus-14.2, 25th in the NBA.
Rivers said he didn’t know why the Sixers have struggled so often against shorthanded opponents. Most teams are shorthanded in some way because of COVID-19, which does make it a trickier question to answer.
Perhaps he would have struck a slightly different tone if Embiid (23 points on 6-for-17 shooting) had made his open jumper at the buzzer to tie the game and lifted the Sixers to an overtime victory. Or perhaps not.
“I (sometimes) jokingly talk about the basketball gods,” Rivers said. “They were not going to let you win that game tonight. We didn’t deserve to win that game, and so we have to own that.”
Tobias Harris agreed with the “casual” assessment but didn’t think the Sixers had assumed they’d enter Christmas on a winning note.
“Not necessarily,” Harris said. “They’ve got guys out, so do we. The whole thing has been an anomaly of a scenario, just to be honest, between us and every other team in the NBA that’s going through this type of thing (with health and safety protocols) right now. … I don’t think we’re overlooking or whatnot with the guys they have out.
“Honestly, the way that we started the game, it’s hard to really believe that. But I know personally coming into this game, they’re coming off a back-to-back, we needed to have more energy to start this game — more pop to us and everything.”
The Sixers had five players out as Danny Green, Shake Milton, Georges Niang and Andre Drummond were in COVID protocols. Ben Simmons hasn’t played in an NBA game since turning 25 years old in July.
However, the Hawks were the team lacking rest and the majority of their starting lineup.
“It’s the nature of the game, the nature of life,” Maxey said. “You get complacent when you see other guys are not playing or top guys are not playing. You become complacent and you become content. We can’t do that. We’ve got to take every single game the same way.
“There’s going to be a lot more games like this game because of COVID-19. So no matter if we have guys out or other teams have guys out, these games count on your record, so you’ve got to go out there and … find a way to win.”
Along with the sluggish starts, a few other things have become familiar with the 16-16 Sixers.
Rebounding is problematic. The team is last in offensive rebounding percentage and 25th in opponents’ offensive rebounding percentage, according to Cleaning the Glass.
Transition offense is less readily available without Simmons. After ranking fifth last season in transition frequency, the Sixers are currently 15th. They’re 29th in pace.
When open three-pointers aren’t dropping and Embiid isn’t at his best to save the day in the clutch, serious issues emerge.
“Overall, for us through the year I think it’s basically our offensive execution lacks when our defense is not up to par,” Harris said. “It stops us from getting out and running, having an open floor. When we have to take the ball out every time, it (allows) the other team to be set defensively in the half court and kind of pick how they want to play their half-court defense against our offense.
“I thought tonight we had shots we should’ve made; had some great looks. But I think overall, that’s the key to it. Our transition offense is a catalyst to us being a better offensive team. And if we don’t stop them, we’re not able to get to that, really.”
The Sixers will play the Wizards on Sunday in Washington, D.C. A loss would put them below .500 for the first time this season and undoubtedly be bitter.