Phoenix Suns

Sixers need to get Ben Simmons going, incorporate Tobias Harris, Al Horford with Joel Embiid

Sixers need to get Ben Simmons going, incorporate Tobias Harris, Al Horford with Joel Embiid

The Sixers weren’t going 82-0. We all knew that.

Their first defeat came in a 114-109 loss to the Suns Monday night and they still have two games remaining on a tough West Coast swing.

But what their first loss of the season did was expose a few of the warts on what is still an extremely talented basketball team.

Still playing without Joel Embiid, who was serving the final game of a two-game suspension, the Sixers needed the supporting cast to step up.

Al Horford (32 points) and Tobias Harris (24 points) did just that.

While he was strong defensively, Ben Simmons just couldn’t get it going on offense. The All-Star point guard scored just six points on 2 of 8 from the field.

Former Sixers assistant and current Suns head coach Monty Williams had a plan in place that worked to perfection. Williams decided to match up center Aron Baynes on Simmons. Unconventional, but with Simmons still unwilling to take shots outside the paint — he hasn’t made a basket outside of seven feet this season — it clogged things up. 

Five games in, the Sixers had the highest percentage of points in the paint in the league. On Saturday night in Portland, they scored 84 of their 129 points in the restricted area. Against the Suns, they were outscored 48-32 in that department. The 32 points were by far their lowest output.

Brett Brown ran more pick-and-rolls than we’ve seen this season. He used Harris as the ball handler and Simmons as a screener a few times. While it worked in helping Harris shake loose for a few good looks, the Suns’ strategy worked better than Brown’s counter.

“I think putting [Simmons] in pick-and-rolls and trying to roll him out of it was sort of our mission,” Brown said to reporters postgame. “I think letting the ball handler be involved with Baynes so far back. Maybe there's some things we could've done on some elbow isolations but Baynes is good now. Like he moves his feet. He's physical. It's not like a blatant area that stands out as much as you might think.”

It’s fair to point out that Baynes, who has always seemed to be a thorn in the Sixers’ side, is having an excellent season and has looked like an absolute steal for Phoenix.

But should he be able to guard Simmons? To put it bluntly, no.

Simmons seemed to have a different recollection of what happened during a brief postgame availability.

“He allowed me to get my teammates open and get great looks,” Simmons, who had six assists and four turnovers, said of being guarded by Baynes.

Simmons isn’t the only big picture issue for the Sixers’ offense — though he's the biggest.

Horford and Harris were outstanding, but what happens when Embiid, the team’s “crown jewel,” returns to the lineup Wednesday night in Utah?

With Horford, the adjustment will be easy. He’s the type of player that can alter his role. He knows he won’t be asked to carry as much of a scoring load with Embiid back in the lineup and contributing at the center position.

But with the way he’s played in Embiid’s absence, he’s easing a lot of minds.

“Well, the last couple games, obviously, Joel being out, I felt like I've had to step up a little more and be more aggressive looking to score,” Horford said. “Tonight, the way that they were playing, it was kind of giving me a lot of looks and I took advantage of that.”

Harris is the trickier situation. 

His best two games this season have been against the Pistons and the Suns — two of the three games the Sixers have played without Embiid. Embiid is the team’s franchise player and Harris just signed a five-year, $180 million contract this past offseason. Something has to give.

The aforementioned pick-and-rolls did work out quite well for Harris. It’s an action he ran a ton of with the Clippers last season when he was playing at a near All-Star level.

You got glimpses of that player Monday night.

“I think just putting them in some of the action and the mindset,” Brown said. “The guys have been great. They really have been. I think Al and Tobias especially were great tonight. We probably would want that foul back when we cut it to three with 30 seconds left. That isn't something that we would do. Short of that mental mistake, I thought Tobias was exceptional. I really thought he carried us offensively.”

All of this and we haven’t even mentioned Josh Richardson, who had arguably his roughest game as a Sixer. He seems to be dealing with what Harris dealt with last year. He doesn’t quite know where he fits offensively.

The good news is, unlike last season, they still have 76 games to figure out how to get Simmons going and where all the new pieces fit.

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Sixers waste brilliant Al Horford performance and get torched by Devin Booker and the Suns

Sixers waste brilliant Al Horford performance and get torched by Devin Booker and the Suns

BOX SCORE 

Devin Booker and the Phoenix Suns ended the Sixers’ run as the lone unbeaten team in the NBA Monday night.

The Suns’ guard torched the Sixers for 40 points on 15 for 19 shooting and the Sixers fell to Phoenix, 114-109, dropping to 5-1 on the season.

The Sixers wasted an excellent game from Al Horford, who had 32 points on 13 for 20 shooting, and another strong offensive performance from Tobias Harris (24 points and 10 rebounds). 

They’ll play the Utah Jazz next, on Wednesday at 9 p.m. (NBCSP). 

No answers for Booker

The Sixers just couldn’t stop Booker. Josh Richardson, the primary defender on him, had a frustrating game overall, with eight points on 3 for 11 shooting, five assists and four turnovers.

Brett Brown sees Richardson as the Sixers’ “mortar,” which sounds ideal in theory. In practice, Richardson doesn’t seem to have completely found his spots yet offensively. That’s not a reason for panic — Richardson and the Sixers have 76 more games to figure it out and have lost just one of their first six. 

Ricky Rubio, not renowned for his three-point shooting, made 3 of 5 behind the arc for Phoenix. 

An interesting offensive shift 

The Sixers entered the game running the fewest pick-and-rolls in the NBA, but Brown ran several in the first quarter with Harris as the ball handler and Ben Simmons as the screener. Brown later ran a pick-and-roll with Simmons as the screener later in the quarter, this time with Richardson as the ball handler, and the Sixers’ guard converted an open three off it. Simmons commands plenty of respect as a roller, and set good, physical, legal screens Monday. 

As a team, the Sixers will most likely finish the season with the most post-ups in the NBA — the Lakers are the only team who might end up in the same ballpark — and that makes sense for many reasons. They’ll have size advantages just about every night, Embiid is hard to handle when he gets deep position, and Horford and Simmons are excellent passers from the post. 

Still, a bit more pick-and-roll isn’t a bad idea, especially on nights without Embiid. Harris has historically been an efficient pick-and-roll player and he thrived in that setting Monday. He’s very good at shielding off his defender once he gains a step, then taking his time to get the shot he wants. 

Horford is also skilled both as a roller and in the pick-and-pop, with the ability to knock down open threes and to make plays for his teammates when the jumper isn’t available.

The best “backup center” in the league

At the moment, Horford is playing like the best “backup center” in the NBA. He totaled 57 points and 11 assists during Embiid’s suspension.

In addition to the stats, Horford has been valuable as usual outside of the box score in setting strong screens, defending the pick-and-roll well and just playing smart basketball. 

And, at 33 years old, he can still elevate. His 32 points Monday were more than he ever scored as a Celtic, and just two shy of his career high.

Brilliant on one end, stymied on the other 

There have been lapses here and there, but Simmons has been a more engaged defensive player this season.

He was ready to go right from the opening tip in Phoenix.

Simmons tied a career high with seven steals on an excellent defensive night. 

Offensively, he was stymied by the Suns, who dropped deep into the paint and gave him a ton of space to shoot jumpers, which he did not. Simmons’ longest made field goal through six games is from seven feet out. He posted six points on 2 for 8 shooting, six assists, five rebounds and four turnovers. 

Will Neto stay in the rotation? 

When Embiid returns, Brown will have a number of decisions to make, among them whether Raul Neto stays in the rotation.

The Brazilian point guard helped turn the game Saturday against the Trail Blazers, and he played well in his first-half stint Monday.

Neto hit Horford in the corner with a nice pass at the end of the first quarter.

And Horford didn’t need any help at the conclusion of the first half, nailing a very long three. 

However, Neto wasn’t as good in the second half, committing a turnover that led to a Mikal Bridges dunk near the end of the third quarter and getting scored on by Tyler Johnson a couple of times early in the fourth.

While there haven’t been many exceptional plays in which Neto is at the center of the highlight, the Sixers have mostly been better when he’s on the floor. That would certainly seem to merit playing time.

Korkmaz gets the nod, sets a career high

Furkan Korkmaz took Embiid’s spot in the starting lineup, and he had no hesitation in taking his first shot since his game-winner Saturday in Portland. It looked like he’d sunk it, too … but his three-pointer from the left wing went in and out.

He couldn’t retain all of the magic of that moment vs. the Blazers, though he did score a career-high 20 points. On the night, Korkmaz shot 6 for 13. 

Korkmaz got the nod over Matisse Thybulle, who didn’t have a great night and only played four minutes. The rookie isn’t playing with much decisiveness or confidence on offense, and the fact that he isn’t hitting shots is surely connected. Thybulle shot 1 for 3 Monday and is now 7 for 27 through six games (25.9 percent) 

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Sixers at Suns: Live stream, storylines, game time and more

Sixers at Suns: Live stream, storylines, game time and more

How long can this last? 

The Sixers are in Phoenix Monday night to play the surprising 4-2 Suns, seeking to move to 6-0 after an incredible comeback win Saturday over the Trail Blazers

Here are the essentials for tonight’s game:

When: 9 p.m. ET with Sixers Pregame Live at 8:30 p.m.
Where: Talking Stick Resort Arena
Broadcast: NBC Sports Philadelphia
Live stream: NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com and the NBC Sports MyTeams app

And here are three storylines to watch:

It’s not all about Booker 

The Sixers are focused on stopping Devin Booker, and that’s very understandable. Booker went for 37 points in both of the meetings between the teams last season.

“Devin Booker is one of the best scorers this league has,” Josh Richardson told reporters Saturday night in Portland. “We’ve gotta make it tough on him, try to get the ball out of his hands. They’ve been rolling, so we can’t come out flat or they’re going to make us pay for it. I think just asserting ourselves in the first half is going to be huge for us.” 

Booker’s scoring average is actually slightly down from last year through the Suns’ first six games, at 23.8 points per game. He’s been more efficient, though, and is 16 of 34 (47.1 percent) from three-point range.

Phoenix is sharing the ball well, with a league-best 68.8 assist percentage. New addition Ricky Rubio is a big part of that, averaging 8.2 assists per game along with 11.0 points, 6.4 rebounds and 2.2 steals.

A reunion for Horford  

The Al Horford-Aron Baynes frontcourt helped kick the Sixers out of the playoffs in 2017-18. Those two will be playing against each other tonight.

Baynes has taken over as the Suns’ starting center following DeAndre Ayton’s 25-game suspension for a positive test for a diuretic. The Australian big man has had an excellent start to the season, knocking down 12 of 26 threes (46.2 percent) and averaging 15.0 points in a little over 23 minutes per game. 

Horford has been everything the Sixers have asked for through five games and will start again at center with Joel Embiid serving the second game of a two-game suspension for his fight Wednesday with the Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns. 

Familiar faces 

The Suns have a couple of familiar faces in head coach Monty Williams, Brett Brown’s assistant last season, and forward Dario Saric.

After being shipped to Minnesota last November as part of the Sixers’ trade for Jimmy Butler, Saric was dealt from the Timberwolves to Phoenix this July in a draft-night deal. Embiid, Ben Simmons, Jonah Bolden and Furkan Korkmaz are the only players on the Sixers’ current roster that he played with during his time in Philadelphia, which puts the volume of moves general manager Elton Brand has made into context. 



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