The Sixers followed their best win of the season by matching their worst margin of defeat.
After a victory Saturday over the Warriors, the Sixers lost Monday in Memphis to the Grizzlies, 126-91.
Memphis' Dillon Brooks scored 23 points and Jaren Jackson Jr. posted 22. Tyrese Maxey had 23 points and seven assists.
The 15-13 Sixers will return home to play the Heat on Wednesday. Here are observations on their blowout loss to the Grizzlies:
Embiid and Curry scratched
For most of Monday, it seemed the Sixers would have their full rotation available. By tip-off, that was not close to the case.
The team ruled Seth Curry out with right shoulder soreness approximately 35 minutes before game time. Joel Embiid was then about as late a scratch as one can be because of right rib soreness. Grizzlies star Ja Morant (left knee sprain, health and safety protocols) was Memphis’ lone starter out.
Any time Embiid has a health issue, it merits some degree of concern for the Sixers. The team is 12-5 when he plays this season and almost certainly will not meet its championship ambitions unless he is available and at or near his best in the playoffs.
As for this particular injury, relevant context is that Embiid felt what the Sixers classified as “right side abdominal pain” Thursday during the team's loss to the Jazz. He said postgame that the injury was “pretty painful.” Embiid played Saturday, though, and posted 26 points despite noticeably grimacing and stretching out his right side early on in the game.
Asked whether the area was bothering him, Embiid said, “Yeah, a little bit. But like I said last game, I think I’ll be fine.”
The Sixers’ replacement starters were Furkan Korkmaz and Andre Drummond. Matisse Thybulle started a second straight game over Danny Green after the 24-year-old’s world-class defense Saturday on Stephen Curry.
Bassey back in the mix
Both Drummond and Charles Bassey were dunked on in the first quarter as the Grizzlies were unafraid to challenge the Sixers’ rim protectors not named Embiid. Jackson slammed the ball in over Drummond and Kyle Anderson threw one in on Bassey.
To Bassey’s credit, the rookie rose with Anderson again on Memphis’ next possession and blocked his shot.
This was a tough assignment for Bassey, who hadn’t played meaningful minutes since Embiid’s return from COVID-19 late last month, and he didn’t look overmatched at all despite picking up three fouls in his opening stint. Bassey finished with 13 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks in 22 minutes.
Those numbers are a generous reflection of his play because of the game's extended garbage time, but Bassey was a positive on an evening without many for the Sixers.
When Memphis used a Jackson-Anderson frontcourt, the Sixers went with Tobias Harris (12 points on 5-for-12 shooting) and Georges Niang. In a matchup between two players known more for craftiness than athleticism, Anderson outplayed Niang. The Grizzlies’ bench had a 57-36 scoring advantage over the Sixers’.
With Drummond, it’s difficult in these spots not to compare him to Embiid. He did some nice things, grabbing nine rebounds and notching three assists, but Embiid is much better in many areas. In a funny way, the MVP runner-up’s absence highlights how well-rounded he is for a 7-foot center.
Embiid-less offense needs much more than Maxey
Maxey scored nine first-quarter points with decisive, attacking play. He made a layup in the half court, another in transition, and a catch-and-shoot three-pointer.
Shake Milton (12 points, five assists) was also effective in the first half as a driver, scoring well through contact. However, he committed two bad turnovers by dribbling into traffic. Turnovers were a problem for the Sixers overall in the first period; they gave it away seven times, which led to 10 Grizzlies points and helped Memphis ensure the Sixers were in a hole the entire night.
In contrast to the Sixers, the Grizzlies played clean basketball while the game was still competitive. That limited the Sixers’ chances to score easy points in transition. The team was reliant on Maxey’s creation, Drummond’s passing and Harris’ post-ups.
It wasn’t a fruitful formula, in large part because the Sixers went 4 for 22 from three-point range. Korkmaz posted 10 points but dropped to 18.6 percent from long range over his last 17 games with an 0-for-3 three-point performance.
Memphis shot 52.8 percent from the field and made 10 more threes than the Sixers. Without Embiid, Maxey was the Sixers’ best run-stopping option. Though he exceeded 20 points for the first time since Nov 22, the lack of a player elite at drawing free throws hurt.
Even an excellent offensive game from Harris or an explosion from a bench player likely wouldn’t have been good enough to win given the Sixers’ defensive showing. The Grizzlies have played great basketball without Morant — this victory was their eighth in the last nine games — but the Sixers’ defensive drop-off without Embiid shouldn’t be so extreme. It was telling that head coach Doc Rivers turned to a zone defense late in the third quarter.
It’s obvious, but we’ll note Harris must be better, whether it’s as a No. 2 scorer when Embiid’s in the lineup or as someone the Sixers can count on for 20-plus points when their All-Star center is out. Since Harris came back from COVID-19, he’s missed time with left hip soreness and a non-COVID illness. Perhaps his play will improve a bit as he rediscovers rhythm and flow, which Harris has previously said is an important part of his game, although expecting anything dramatic wouldn’t be realistic.