Joel Embiid has been out for five consecutive games after testing positive for COVID-19. It’s no coincidence the Sixers have lost every one of them.
The Jazz blew the Sixers out Tuesday night at Vivint Arena, 120-85. Utah improved to 9-5, while the Sixers fell to 8-7.
Bojan Bogdanovic scored a game-high 27 points. Rudy Gobert posted 15 points, 17 rebounds and four blocks.
Shake Milton scored 18 points for the Sixers and Tyrese Maxey had 16.
The Sixers were without Embiid and Matisse Thybulle (health and safety protocols), Danny Green (left hamstring tightness), Ben Simmons (personal reasons) and Grant Riller (left knee injury recovery). The team fined Simmons for not traveling on its six-game road trip, The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported.
The Sixers’ next game is Thursday night against the Nuggets. Here are observations on their loss in Utah:
Curry’s cold spell continues
Asked last week how he felt after returning from a left foot contusion, Seth Curry said, “Good enough to play. That’s pretty much it.”
The question is perhaps worth revisiting. Curry hasn’t appeared to be 100 percent and, following a 1-for-8 game, is 8 of 30 from the floor over his last three outings.
After a scorching start to the season, Curry was bound to regress a bit. Still, whatever the reasons, it’s unfortunate that he hasn’t managed any big games or strong shooting nights without Embiid. Furkan Korkmaz’s slump has been ill-timed, too.
Maxey flashed exciting offensive skills again, although it was suboptimal that much of the Sixers’ offense ran through Tobias Harris (12 points, five assists) and Milton when the second-year guard was on the floor. Maxey had a few sharp moments attacking before the Jazz defense was completely set, though. One highlight was when he accepted an Andre Drummond drag screen and knocked down a pull-up transition three-pointer.
A 2-for-4 night from three-point range puts Maxey at 42 percent on the season. There’s plenty of games to go and a rough patch is inevitable at some stage, but Maxey’s three-point success is looking more and more like legitimate improvement and less like small sample size-related randomness. Of course, Curry would still be the very strong favorite to finish the year with a superior percentage from long distance.
Grasping for frontcourt answers
Playing his first game against his former team, Georges Niang subbed into the game late in the first quarter at center.
Though the Sixers didn’t have any truly “big” center options, Niang was certainly a small one against 7-foot Hassan Whiteside. Niang also played alongside Drummond in a conventional lineup. That didn’t go well for the Sixers as Utah started the second quarter on an 8-0 run to take a 38-28 lead. After a timeout, Sixers head coach Doc Rivers inserted rookie center Charles Bassey for Drummond.
Rivers only played Drummond for 12 minutes. Drummond grabbed six rebounds and Utah had a 56-42 edge on the glass.
The small-ball look without Drummond was at least somewhat intriguing, since both teams had obvious advantages. Instead of putting Whiteside on Niang, Utah used him on a perimeter player. The Sixers capitalized on one play where Milton cruised past Whiteside for an and-one layup. In the long term, having lineups with Niang (or Harris) at the five as a playoff possibility would be valuable. We’ll learn more as the season progresses about whether or not such units are viable.
A positive note on the Sixers’ bench is that Isaiah Joe saw his first action since clearing health and safety protocols. He nailed a three-pointer on his first touch and a fast-break layup on his second. Joe played 24 minutes, many of them in garbage time, and scored eight points on 3-for-11 shooting. Any and all healthy players are welcome at the moment for the Sixers.
The Sixers allowed Utah to take a 17-8 lead as the Jazz scored early in the shot clock and through dribble penetration with ease. The rest of the evening wasn't much better.
Ultimately, the Sixers’ defensive personnel is a massive problem right now. The team made occasional mistakes, sure, but the Jazz won mainly thanks to an enormous advantage in firepower.
Embiid, Thybulle and Simmons were voted as three of the NBA’s 10 best defenders last season. Their absences don’t account for every Sixers defensive deficiency, but it’s almost impossible to overstate the level of talent the team is missing. There’s just no way to scheme around every undesirable matchup.
Those defensive issues were exacerbated by a 36.7 percent performance from the floor, 20.7 percent from three-point territory.
Where will the Sixers next find a win? Denver is known to be a difficult place to play, but everything seems extremely challenging for a shorthanded team with zero All-Stars. Until Embiid is cleared to play, that’s what the Sixers are.