The Sixers' fourth-quarter comeback effort Saturday night in Memphis came up just short.
Trailing by 12 points entering the final period, the Sixers fought back and eventually had a chance to win the game after a Ja Morant missed free throw with 5.9 seconds to go. Ben Simmons pushed the ball up the floor and passed to Tyrese Maxey at the top of the key, and the rookie couldn't convert an off-balance attempt from long range.
Joel Embiid (right knee pain) and Mike Scott (right knee soreness) didn’t travel with the Sixers for this road trip. Seth Curry, Vincent Poirier (healthy and safety protocols) and Furkan Korkmaz (left adductor strain) remained out. Memphis got a star back in Morant, who played his first game since suffering a Grade 2 left ankle sprain on Dec. 28 and had 17 points and six assists.
“I’m not letting our guys use excuses," head coach Doc Rivers said. "We’ve got to get away from that. This is going to be an extraordinary year with COVID, injuries. Get over it and win the game. ... We can’t accept, ‘Well, we’ll be good when everybody’s here.’ That’s unacceptable.”
As for Embiid, Rivers emphasized pregame that the Sixers are being cautious with their All-Star center’s health.
“There’s no concern. … But when something does pop up, we’re going to jump on it and we’re going to be very smart this early in the season,” he said.
The Sixers’ fourth back-to-back of the season will conclude Sunday night against the Thunder. Here are observations on their loss to Memphis:
What to make of Simmons' night
As was the case in the past two games, Simmons didn’t create much for himself in half-court offense, missing his first five field goal attempts and not scoring until an and-one layup with 7:45 left in the second period.
He also gave the ball away a couple of times when he looked for transition opportunities and had seven of the Sixers’ 22 turnovers. In three of their losses, the team has turned it over 20 or more times.
“It’s not who played tonight, for me, it’s how we played," Rivers said. "I thought we were a sloppy basketball team and when you play that way, you deserve to lose the game. On the road, 22 turnovers is unacceptable.
"I would say of the 22, 15 were unforced — just sloppy, driving into traffic, cross-court passes, interior passes where they should have gone out. And then I also thought we had a stretch where there was no ball movement tonight, as well. I just didn’t like how we played.”
On a more positive note with Simmons, he continued to contribute in ways besides scoring, among them rebounding and facilitating. Any player who is seemingly near a triple-double in every game he plays is obviously valuable and versatile, but the Sixers needed Simmons to be better with their best offensive player out. He tends to set the tone on these nights when Embiid is sidelined, and his turnovers set the wrong tone.
“Every night’s different," Simmons said. "The game prior I had a triple-double; guys were loading the paint and I was able to find my teammates. Tonight, they were very handsy — a lot of hands and deflections, which caused turnovers. That’s on me just to slow it down and not leave my feet.”
Simmons attempted a three-pointer for a second consecutive game, air balling one long-distance try at the end of the first quarter and one in the fourth period.
After again being listed as probable on Friday night's injury report with left knee swelling, Simmons said his knee is not adversely impacting his performance.
"No, I feel good," he said. "At times it’s trying to get my legs under me. We’ve got a back-to-back tomorrow so we’ll see how I feel. But overall, I feel solid.”
Rivers said before the game that the Sixers have introduced a “low percentage” of the plays they’d like to eventually install, though the team seems to have a couple of actions it likes when Simmons and Maxey share the floor. This was the third consecutive game those two have started together, and the Sixers will hope increased familiarity coincides with increased effectiveness.
One look we’ve seen on several occasions begins with Maxey making an “Iverson cut,” which flows into a side pick-and-roll. Simmons is often then open on the weak side to receive the ball and attack the paint with a head of steam. He missed a layup off of that action in the first quarter. The team has had that play in the mix since the preseason, and it appears Rivers is especially inclined to run it with the Maxey-Simmons tandem.
In general, the Sixers’ best offense this season has involved Embiid as the central figure. Without him drawing double teams, finding shooters and forcing the defense to scramble, the Sixers shot 7 for 25 from three-point range.
Milton keeps thriving as a sixth man
Asked after the Sixers’ shootaround Saturday whether he aspired to become an NBA starter, Shake Milton paused for a few seconds before giving this answer:
“I’d say I just want to do whatever is best for the team, whatever helps the team wins. It doesn’t really matter if I’m starting or not. It’s an opportunity thing and I have a really good opportunity coming off the bench right now. If Coach asks me to move to starting, then I’ll start and I’ll have no problem with it. If he asks me to come off the bench, I’m going to continue to do what I do. It’s as easy as that.”
There’s no good reason to change anything about Milton’s role at the moment. The mature 24-year-old has the freedom to run the Sixers’ second unit and has been excellent at that job. He scored 28 points on 10-for-18 shooting Monday and has now totaled 102 points and shot 63.6 percent from the floor over his last four games.
Milton drew seven more free throws Saturday. Entering the game, he’d been fouled on 15 percent of his shot attempts, per Cleaning the Glass, in the 98th percentile among combo guards.
Rivers wants him to play with constant aggression.
“It’s funny for Shake, I thought it was a great example early on, because he had a great game (Thursday), it was almost like he tried to come into the game to get everybody else going," Rivers said. “And I told him, ‘Shake, keep it on. Keep the foot on the gas. Don’t hold yourself back.’
"I thought he held himself back in the first half. I thought in the second half, he went for it again. And I want Shake to be that way every night no matter who’s on the floor, in all situations, because that’s his ability, and I’m trying to get him to see that. Every night that can be Shake Milton. Tonight, late, he was.”
Howard steps in
Dwight Howard started Saturday night for the 1,048th time in his NBA career and the third time as a Sixer. He should start again Sunday against a Thunder team expected to be without Al Horford because of personal reasons.
The 35-year-old had some nice moments, including a put-back dunk off of a missed Simmons free throw and a hustling block on rookie Xavier Tillman, but the Sixers inevitably lose a lot on both ends of the floor whenever Embiid is sidelined. Howard’s calling cards offensively at this stage of his career are rebounding and screening and rolling. To Howard’s credit, he does those things at a high level and with enthusiasm, and was a bargain on a veteran minimum contract.
Like in the Sixers’ loss to the Cavs last month, Rivers used Tony Bradley for a first-half stint and then turned to Simmons as a small-ball center when Howard sat in the third quarter. Bradley did get minutes late in the third period and early in the fourth, and he’ll likely have a chance to earn more of his new coach’s confidence Sunday.