In most blowouts at Wells Fargo Center, the Sixers are the team enjoying garbage time, with the stars watching little-used players in the final few minutes of a comfortable victory.
They reversed roles Sunday night in a 116-100 loss to the Grizzlies.
Isaiah Joe, Mason Jones, Rayjon Tucker, Ignas Brazdeikis and Paul Reed all checked into the game early in the fourth quarter. That unit played well, cutting into a Memphis lead as big as 28 points.
Any other positives?
“Not really," head coach Doc Rivers said. “We’re healthy. We got out of it healthy.”
The defeat drops the Sixers, who will begin a four-game road trip Tuesday against the Celtics, to 34-16.
Tobias Harris scored a team-high 21 points on 8-for-14 shooting. Ben Simmons had seven points, seven rebounds, four assists, a block and a steal. Seven Grizzlies scored in double figures, led by Dillon Brooks (17 points on 6-for-9 shooting).
Tyrese Maxey went through his usual pregame workout on the Wells Fargo Center court a couple of hours before tip-off. However, a Sixers official said at approximately 6:30 p.m. that he was out due to health and safety protocols. Rivers said after the game that Maxey had an inconclusive COVID-19 test. Both Maxey and Mike Scott missed the beginning of training camp this season after testing positive for COVID-19.
Joel Embiid (left knee recovery) and George Hill (right thumb surgery recovery) were also sidelined. Rivers said pregame that “it wasn’t a hard decision” to sit Embiid after he played 28 minutes Saturday night in his first game since March 12. The Sixers will assess upcoming back-to-backs for Embiid on a game-by-game basis, according to Rivers.
Here are three observations on the Sixers’ loss to Memphis:
Sixers put in a tough spot at center
Scott started and faced a difficult matchup against 7-foot Jonas Valanciunas. He picked up his second foul with 6:32 left in the first quarter and Valanciunas already having scored six points, leading to Dwight Howard’s entry.
We know Simmons-Howard lineups are rarely going to play beautiful offensive basketball, and that they’ve been decisively negative for the Sixers overall. In a broad sense, their best chance of success is a player like Harris or Shake Milton making plays under pressure, high-level defense and productive transition offense.
The Sixers couldn’t check those boxes. Harris went 1 for 3 with a turnover and an assist in his first stint with Simmons and Howard. Simmons scored on a fast-break dunk but also conceded an and-one leaner to Brooks.
We’ll have chances down the line to analyze when and how much it’s appropriate for Rivers to use Simmons-Howard units. It’s an easier exercise when everyone’s healthy and out of foul trouble. When that’s the case, it sure seems to be a duo the Sixers should play sparingly.
Sixers let Grizzlies light them up in third quarter
Grayson Allen broke the game open by hitting three three-pointers within the first two minutes of the second half, giving the Grizzlies a 20-point lead.
Though the Sixers were focused on not allowing Ja Morant (eight points on 3-for-8 shooting, 10 assists) to beat them, that doesn’t excuse their other defensive breakdowns. Valanciunas was predictably hard to handle without Embiid, but Allen’s third-quarter flurry, Brooks’ efficient scoring and De'Anthony Melton and Brandon Clarke’s 29 combined points off the bench all hurt.
Rivers on Saturday called the Sixers’ defensive fundamentals in the first half “horrendous.” Such an assessment of their defense in the opening half against Memphis would be harsh.
As for the third quarter? Some version of “not very good” would fit. Memphis scored 45 points in the period, three more than the Sixers had recorded in the first two quarters.
Lapses in effort and diminished attention to detail tend to happen once a game starts slipping from reach, and Rivers thought schedule-related fatigue was a key factor. The home fans booed his team at the end of the quarter.
“When we saw the schedule, we fought it to no avail," Rivers said. “This is a tough stretch, and I told our guys that. You could see it early. I told (assistant coach) Dave Joerger early, ‘This is going to be a tough one. You can just feel it.’ I felt it in our walkthrough this afternoon. They were tired. I do think the first unit started out the game with great energy and then the second unit came in and struggled.
“Unfortunately, once that happened, once we got down, we just didn’t have it. I made the decision early to get our guys off the floor. I wanted (Furkan Korkmaz) and Shake to play a little bit just to try to get some rhythm. But it was good to see the young guys come out and play hard, play aggressively. That’s what they should do, and that’s what they did.”
Offensive struggles outside of Harris
Simmons looked like the Sixers’ most threatening player in transition and Harris the most dangerous in the half court — nothing new in Embiid’s absence.
Sixers besides those two shot 9 for 31 from the floor (29.0 percent) in the first half. The Grizzlies have a top-10 defense and did a good job of closing out on shooters, throwing multiple bodies at the Sixers’ stars and guarding attentively throughout the entire shot clock.
Still, the Sixers have a well-known dearth of perimeter shot creators, and that was glaring in this game.
With Harris, the thought of "Just keep it close and he’ll give us a chance late” isn’t at all ludicrous this season. He never got the opportunity Sunday because of Rivers' decision to stick with his deep bench players even when the Grizzlies briefly brought their starters back.
Howard thought lack of energy affected all aspects of the game.
“I wasn’t too surprised," he said. “I thought last night would be the night where it seemed like we weren’t going to have our legs and stuff like that. You could tell tonight, as the game moved on, a lot of us were just a little winded. We were a step slow to a lot of plays — rebounds, loose balls, steals, even getting blown by. Some of that we haven’t had this season.
“Like I said, I don’t want to make any excuses, but I could tell we were all tired. Even me, being a young 35, I was a little winded tonight. We’ve just got to make sure we get our bodies right and get ready for the next one.
Reed played at power forward when the game was close and at center in the fourth, posting 10 points and six rebounds in 13 minutes. He’s adjusting to NBA spacing and defensive nuances but still constantly finding the ball.