Just like Wednesday night, the Sixers couldn’t have started much worse Thursday in Brooklyn against an undermanned opponent.
They trailed by 20 points in the second quarter and again lost despite a second-half comeback, falling 114-105 at Barclays Center.
Kevin Durant posted 34 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists.
Joel Embiid had 32 points, nine rebounds and six assists. Seth Curry scored 29 points, his high for the season.
Tyrese Maxey was ruled out approximately 40 minutes before tip-off with a left quad contusion. The Sixers were also without Georges Niang (health and safety protocols), Furkan Korkmaz (non-COVID illness) and, has been the case this entire season, Ben Simmons (personal reasons).
Nine Nets missed Thursday’s game. Seven of those players were sidelined because of health and safety protocols, including James Harden.
The Sixers are now 15-15 and will look to avoid dropping below .500 on Sunday when they play the Pelicans in Philadelphia. Here are observations on their loss to to the Nets:
No answers for dominant Durant
There weren’t many stops early in Brooklyn as the teams combined to make the game’s first seven field-goal attempts.
Danny Green guarded Durant, replacing Matisse Thybulle in the starting lineup after a scoreless outing and rough overall performance from the third-year wing in Wednesday’s loss to Miami. Green conceded a fadeaway jumper on Durant’s first touch.
Thybulle was the second man up and didn’t have a good start, letting Durant blow past him on a drive and eventually score off of an offensive rebound. Sixers head coach Doc Rivers called a timeout with his team down 25-17 and again not appearing especially energetic or focused. The timeout failed to turn the tide and the Sixers trailed by 14 points after a dreary first quarter.
The Sixers later put Tobias Harris on Durant and he held up fine for a while, at times using his size to effectively contest shots. Durant always looks capable of scoring whenever he wants, though, and he notched six Nets straight points in the third quarter after the Sixers cut their deficit to six.
Durant was tremendous in the clutch. Within the game's final 4:44, he drained two three-pointers in Harris' face (one of them was a four-point play), as well as a mid-range jumper. When the Sixers then turned to Green against Durant and blitzed the 11-time All-Star, he found Blake Griffin for a three that made it 110-103 with 1:13 left.
Offense stuck in quicksand
Embiid accumulated two quick assists with passes from the post to Shake Milton and Green.
He also flashed unique nimbleness on a Euro step around Griffin. The Nets used Griffin and rookie Day’Ron Sharpe as their main defenders on Embiid and, as is customary for Sixers opponents, sent heavy help on occasion.
The Sixers’ offense in the first half was slow and unimaginative despite Embiid's individual excellence, problems exacerbated by subpar shooting and a lack of sustained defensive success. Almost everything looked difficult and predictable when Embiid sat.
It might be an oversimplification of why the Sixers’ offense has disappointed this season after a hot start, but we’ll note Simmons is exceptionally fast and creative. The team has been deficient in those qualities without him. Curry’s three-pointer with 3:19 left in the second quarter — a play created by Embiid charging up the floor and kicking the ball out — were the Sixers’ first fast-break points of the game.
Embiid pushed his luck shortly after and got his pocket picked trying to lead another transition venture. The “sprinting ahead of the defense and spearheading fast breaks” part of filling Simmons’ void should be a group effort, not something that falls on a 7-foot center, though Embiid’s desire to provide pace on a night without Maxey was very understandable.
One reaction to the Sixers’ recent poor standard of play might be to insist it’s necessary for president of basketball operations Daryl Morey to trade Simmons soon, even if the deal isn’t perfect. However, it certainly appears the team requires more than a modest upgrade to become a championship threat. In light of that reality, the Sixers can’t afford to settle on Simmons; that’s not a stance about misguided pride, but about doing what’s best for the team.
Curry stepped up in the third quarter, bringing some smiles to the Sixers’ bench with his shotmaking. Credit to Curry for hunting shots and recognizing the team needed someone besides Embiid to attack offensively.
The Sixers cut Brooklyn’s lead to 81-79 late in the third but then gave up a 10-0 run. Harris struggled to create any space off of the dribble when asked to initiate offense, and he couldn’t hit many of the open looks he did get. A 3-for-17 shooting performance just isn’t nearly good enough.
Bad night for Sixers' bench
Isaiah Joe was the Sixers’ sixth man and played a season-high 25 minutes.
He did not maximize the opportunity, scoring no points on 0-for-4 shooting and having mixed results defensively against rookie Cameron Thomas and veteran Patty Mills.
Thomas impressed, shimmying free of Joe for a first-quarter three with some nifty dribbling and scoring 11 points over the first two quarters. Brooklyn had a 20-5 bench scoring advantage in the first half, 26-12 in the game.
The absences of Maxey, Korkmaz and Niang weren’t irrelevant but if any team had a valid excuse for a lousy beginning to the game, it was the depleted Nets. That the Sixers sunk into a deep hole against a shorthanded opponent for a second straight night without much apparent resistance reflects badly on Rivers and his team.
The Sixers’ three-man bench of Joe, Thybulle and Andre Drummond did improve considerably after halftime, though. That trio played aggressive defense, pressuring Brooklyn’s ball handlers well during a Sixers run early in the fourth quarter. A Thybulle steal and ensuing transition layup trimmed the Nets’ edge to 92-91.
Leaving the game close with the outcome largely in Durant's hands didn't work for the Sixers. The comeback effort is preferable to quitting on the game, but they would've been fortunate to win.