Instant observations: Lifeless Sixers punished in loss to Pistons

The Sixers took a half-hearted approach to their game against the Pistons and were punished by a younger, hungrier team, with Detroit racing to a 102-94 victory once James Harden unraveled in the second half.

Here’s what I saw.

The Good

• There were times in this game where I thought the box score overstated Joel Embiid’s performance and impact on the game. Posting up guards 20 feet away from the basket is something he’s typically smart enough to avoid, and he had some needless turnovers as a result of that approach. There were some defensive possessions where a tad more exertion would probably have saved them two points around the basket, and he’s better than he showed on that end.

Ultimately, though, it is hard to ignore that box score, the efficiency, and the ability to dominate an opponent even without his best stuff. The dude just ate the Pistons up and forced their smaller front line to take a lot of fouls to try to stop him. Some nights, Embiid lives at the line enough to wipe away any issues elsewhere. This was one of those games.

Broadly speaking, the James Harden/Joel Embiid pick-and-roll continues to be Philadelphia’s best source of offense, a fact that becomes less surprising the more these two play together. No matter what strategy teams decide to throw at it, the Sixers end up picking it apart, getting favorable matchups and open shots for their two best players.

Detroit opted to switch it, hoping that there wouldn’t be that much of a difference between Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart on Embiid in the post, and vice versa with Harden attacking from the perimeter. Early in the game, it was Harden who had more success, carving up starters and bench players alike in isolation. It took a bit longer for Embiid to find his footing him, but he looked down upon an inferior opponent all night, making defenders pay for every last reach, jump, and step in the wrong direction.

That is arguably Embiid’s greatest gift — his mind. He has occasionally compared himself to future Hall of Famer Chris Paul as a result of his willingness to exploit every last edge he can, and his understanding of the rules to help him do that. The handful of Pistons players who were forced to guard him on Thursday would make a mistake, Embiid would draw the foul, and after a moment of angst toward the officials, most of them ended up walking to their spot on the lane with resignation on their faces. It was the universal sign for, “Yeah, I screwed up.”

Weirdly enough, I thought there were some spots where Embiid should have tried less than he did. They do n’t need him going for chase-down blocks in an end-of-season game against the Pistons, and I would bet most in the organization would rather see him protect his body and health from him. Those plays make for great highlights when he pulls them off, but they’re simply not worth it.

In any case, Embiid was the best player on the floor by a comfortable margin even with spotty defensive effort and some issues with turnovers. It’ll help his push for the NBA scoring title. That’s the best I can say about this game.

• Yet another solid, understated performance from Tobias Harris during a run where he had a lot of those. If he ever finds the shooting touch on catch-and-shoot attempts and gets hot for a game, he might end up taking over the second half of a big game, because Embiid and Harden are creating open looks for him quite a bit.

Philadelphia’s offense was pretty disconnected in this one, owing to the iso-heavy style of their two co-stars (at least one mostly justified playing that way). Having Harris as an emergency option ended up being critical for Philadelphia because of how stagnant they were as a group, as he’s one of the few guys on this team who can create something out of nothing in a pinch.

The Bad

• Matisse Thybulle has dominated a lot of matchups on defense, but Cade Cunningham had him out on the floor seeing ghosts. The rookie dusted him pretty good.

• It feels like every night we are seeing some version of the tweet or on-screen graphic showing an opponent with a ton of bench points and the Sixers having little-to-nothing to show from their backups. And if you’re looking for someone who is going to stick up for their backups, I’m not the guy, and it feels like a front office mistake that they made the Harden deal and basically considered themselves done upgrading.

That being said, tonight was not the night to complain about a lack of scoring bench if you’re asking me. For long stretches of this game, Philadelphia’s offense was James Harden getting the switch he wanted and then methodically winding down the clock, waiting for his opportunity to attack. And that’s not a bad thing, provided he has it going. He had some three-point jumpers rim out on Thursday night, but Harden generally did a nice job of beating the first-level of defense and putting the Pistons in no-win territory for the first 24 minutes of the game. Do you foul a great free-throw shooter and put him on the line, or let him get to the basket with little-to-no resistance? They couldn’t figure out what to do. But that changed in a big way after halftime.

With the style of defense they choose to play, Detroit was basically asking for Harden to try to beat them straight up on the perimeter all night. That’s not an opportunity he has had a ton in Philadelphia, and the biggest burning question facing the Sixers is whether teams will choose to play it this way in the playoffs.

In previous recaps, I suggested that perhaps teams would just live with Harden in isolation in the playoffs based on how he looks physically, turning their attention toward Embiid and banking on Harden not killing them as a scorer. We look to be moving closer to that reality. As the game wore on, Harden struggled to create separation and ended up spearheading a lot of broken, aimless possessions. He tried to sell foul calls that never came, and the Pistons were able to get easy run-outs for buckets, ultimately putting this game away.

Who is the real James Harden? I’m not so sure we know yet. I don’t think a game against the Pistons means a lot relative to his breakout scoring night against the Milwaukee Bucks, but the swings in quality night-to-night are pretty typical for guys as they get older, even guys with his talent and production levels. Summoning 30-point games is not as easy as it used to be for Harden (understatement of the year), which is obvious based on his current output and based on watching him play. And this is a guy they brought in to help them win right now. Having to guess whether he will look decent on a half-to-half basis, let alone a game-to-game basis, is pretty brutal.

I’m just not going to sit here and complain about the bench not scoring in the first half when they struggled to simply get touches the entire half. Their job was to make sure Harden had space to operate, serving as targets to hit if he needed them, and the Sixers didn’t exactly struggle to score until Harden’s isolation success dried up. The bench is not the reason the Sixers had all five starters on the floor and got out-executed and outplayed by the Pistons in the final minutes of the game. The bench is not the reason the Sixers played a specific, disconnected style for most of this game. The second unit did not help, but they were not given many opportunities to help, and one of their stars was bad in a way that has become a bit too common early in his tenure.

(What the Sixers do need to figure out is who to use and how with their bench group. Nobody wants to see Furkan Korkmaz, but Shake Milton looks less than comfortable as a pure floor spacer next to Harden, and he’s not offering anywhere close to the same off-ball movement as Korkmaz. If any of these guys had shot well consistently all year, you’d have an easier time putting together a coherent rotation, but they’ve all been subpar in their own ways. It’s a real Sophie’s Choice.)

• If you’re looking for criticism to direct Doc Rivers and the coaching staff specifically, Philadelphia’s inability to understand their assignment(s) is absolutely infuriating to watch every night. The Sixers hug guys out to the perimeter who can’t shoot, leave good shooters to help on less dangerous offensive players, and make a lot of hare-brained decisions as a team that suggest they are not getting proper preparation from the people on the sidelines.

that’s the much bigger indictment of Doc Rivers than any of the rotation stuff, the backup big decisions, or basically anything else. Ostensibly smart players who have been part of high-level defenses, guys like Danny Green, are doing dumb-ass stuff game after game after game. I can only assume that means they are being awning to do wrong and bad things, because the opposite doesn’t make much sense.

• Georges Niang was straight-up terrible in this game. No more analysis to add beyond that.

• It was pretty obvious the Sixers didn’t really give a shit about this game, and if that’s how it’s going to go, they’d be better off just resting guys and not risking injuries to their best players.

The Ugly

• The NBC accounting team is so accustomed to Matisse Thybulle blocking jumpers that they are actively giving credit to him for plays made by the other guy. James Harden made an excellent defensive play to block a corner shooter early in Thursday night’s game, and Kate Scott credited Thybulle for the play despite him being nowhere near it. Not a dig at Scott, just a funny byproduct of expectations — Harden can make plays sometimes, too.

• I’m all for ripping DeAndre Jordan when he sucks, which is fairly often, but there were people piling on him in the first half for Detroit a scoring bunch of points at the kidney against the bench unit. On a lot of those, Jordan was guarding backup big and floor spacer Kelly Olynyk out to the three-point line, and the Pistons were absolutely mauling Philly’s guards and wings with back cuts, which Jordan has basically nothing to do with.

Pick your battles, it’s all I’m saying. There’s more than enough opportunities to kill Jordan, Rivers, and anybody else when they actually deserve it. The second half, for example, was a great example of how bad Jordan is.

• When we saw the Sixers play the Pistons earlier this season, Cade Cunningham had some brief flashes but still looked like a guy trying to find his footing and figure out the pace of an NBA game. He couldn’t have looked more assured of his spot in Thursday night’s game, controlling the tempo and the ball with the composure of a vet. Super impressive kid, and I’m curious how he looks as the Pistons presumably add some more talent alongside him in the years to come.


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