Instant observations: Sixers short on depth and focus in loss to Grizzlies

The Sixers got 35 points and close to a triple-double from Joel Embiid against Memphis, but a poor night for the bench and a lack of focus during important stretches cost them in a 117-109 loss.

Here’s what I saw.

The Good

• Joel Embiid vs. Steven Adams is a matchup that harkens back to the old days of the NBA, when most starting centers were big, hulking bruisers who stayed in or around the paint. Well, except if one of those guys also had range out to three and the freedom to initiate the offense after a defensive rebound. So a bit different.

 There have been times when he has let Adams off of the hook (including in this game), trying to sledgehammer him in the post instead of capitalizing on his speed advantage. In the first half, Embiid and the Sixers did a good job finding a balance, getting Embiid touches at his spots while getting the guards going with a series of Embiid screens.

In dribble handoffs and pick-and-rolls, Embiid created plenty of real estate for their ballhandlers, putting Adams in a bind as he tried to sit back and prepare for a rolling Embiid. Shake Milton, Tobias Harris, and De’Anthony Melton all had some success attacking the Grizz in those situations, either by using the space to build momentum downhill or by pulling up for threes with Adams dropping. When they drew help, the Sixers had solid options around the perimeter, creating open threes by sucking attention toward the middle of the floor.

Embiid certainly had his moments of individual brilliance as well, using speed to go by Adams in space and find some easy looks at the rim. Anytime he played with pace and purpose, Embiid very clearly had the upper hand in this matchup, only needing Adams to make a mini leap in order to blow by him for a finish at the rim.

He was also damn near the only reason they had a chance to stop the Grizzlies on the other end. Philadelphia’s guards and wings spent a lot of this game getting pummeled, and Embiid showed the art of defending at the rim without fouling is not a lost one. When he was engaged, there were a lot of defensive highlights for Embiid, who broke up a few plays in transition and used his length to turn away Memphis drivers.

Unfortunately, as we’ll get to below, the level of engagement wasn’t consistent enough, and it cost them in a game that could have gone either way.

• It felt like this game was slowly slipping away in the third quarter, the Sixers mostly trading blows with the Grizzlies after Memphis severely outplayed them in the second period. In an instant, Tobias Harris seemed to turn the game with one of the best dunks I can remember from his career:

Maybe that moment alone was not enough to send a bolt of lightning through the team, but Harris wasn’t done yet. After a good contest from Embiid at the rim on the ensuing Memphis possession, Harris canned a confident wing three before the Grizzlies could get set. It’s the sort of shot you see from him when he has it rolling, and rarely any other time, so that alone was enough to make you raise an eyebrow and wonder what was to come.

Then the rest of the game happened. I believe the expression is, “It’s a game of runs.”

The Bad

• I was happy to excuse at least some of Philadelphia’s loss against Cleveland as a product of bad shooting luck. They helped make their bed with poor transition D in the first half of that game, but the Cavs also had a world-class game from deep, and without matching that pace, you’re basically always going to lose that game. It happens during a long season.

Friday night’s defensive performance was a lot more aggravating on several fronts. Ja Morant deserves a ton of respect for the stress he puts on defenses, and he hit some midrange shots that you’re going to have to live with if you don’t want to go under screens and dare him to make threes. But it felt like they spent too much of the game living in deeper drop coverage, giving him space to build up steam and send the Sixers into panic mode.

Once Morant got going, it felt like the defenders not involved in his actions got too swept up in how good Morant looks, completely losing sight of their own men. Morant and his teammates did an excellent job of punishing ball-watchers — the moment Embiid would step up a bit to try to contain Morant, his man in the weakside corner would scurry down the baseline and get ready for the lob. A number of guys got absolutely smoked on similar back cuts, including guys who are supposed to be defensive tone-setters like PJ Tucker.

This group has been much better on defense over the last month, but they don’t have such a talented group on defense that they can flip the switch on and off and out-talent teams on that end. The Grizzlies are as deep as it gets in the league, and they came at the Sixers in waves throughout the night. This group was not prepared to meet the challenge.

• Hoo boy, the bench’s first non-Embiid minutes in this game were a complete disaster. Pick a mistake they could have made and they managed it. Paul Reed picked up a pair of really bad fouls in a short shift after checking in, leaping into Grizzlies players with no concept of personal space or timing. Furkan Korkmaz was attempting behind-the-back passes in the middle of a Grizzlies run that stretched to 15-0, a head-scratcher even for a guy who regularly busts those passes out. Turnovers came fast and furious, the Sixers forcing passes to teammates with no real chance to catch the ball, and they did very little to get back in transition to make up for it.

By the time the first half was over, the Sixers were down 17-2 in fast-break points, a margin that felt like a fair reflection of Memphis’ superior tempo and ability to capitalize on turnovers. They did nothing well, struggling to make shots and doing nothing to stop the onslaught on the other end of the floor. And the plus/minus numbers, not always a fair indication of performance, were ugly for some of their big bench guys, with Niang, Reed, and Korkmaz all turning in howlers.

Really, this is the reason they lost the game, and we could probably end the discussion about the evening by saying they weren’t deep enough to beat a Memphis group with as much depth as any team in the league. But why stop there?

• This game was a glaring reminder to the best guy on the team that the example he sets is going to be followed by the rest of the group. During his moments of best engagement, they looked good, got stops, and were able to cut into Memphis leads. But the second he allowed himself to feel comfortable, he was punished by the bruising Kiwi matched up with him for most of the night.

There’s a difference between getting a lot of rebounds and actually being a good rebounder, and Embiid often skews toward the former. Matchups with Adams are a good reminder of what he lacks in play-to-play technique and focus. Adams has plenty of limitations, but he is going to make you feel him on just about every shot attempt, so you need to be prepared to hit back.

After their run that brought Memphis’ lead down to six points midway through the third, the game looked to be there for the taking. Almost singlehandedly, Adams swung the momentum right back in the Grizzlies’ favor, punking Embiid several times in a row. Two offensive rebounds on a single possession led to a three for John Konchar, and less than a minute later, another second-chance opportunity created by Adams led to a follow-up three from Konchar. Another minute went by, and a meandering possession out of a timeout left Embiid on an island to create against Adams, with Adams blocking a late-clock three from Embiid to really drive the point home.

The variety of attacks Embiid used to put Adams off-balance early in the game gave way to a stagnant, post-up-heavy attack that did its best to show why Adams bothers Embiid. This is a problem Embiid has often created for himself against bigger centers — he seems intent on proving he’s the biggest, baddest man instead of using the other physical (or skill) advantages he has to come out ahead. When he was still in the league, Embiid constantly let a guy like Enes Kanter out of jail by refusing to punish him in pick-and-rolls, and Adams is a much more rugged defender than Kanter ever was.

There are few people who appreciate everything Embiid brings to the table as much as I do. Even with an awful run in the middle of the game, the Sixers still ultimately ended up on the positive side of the ledger with him on the floor. And that’s mostly a credit to him on a night where he got little to nothing out of most of the supporting cast. 

But the bar is higher for Embiid, and he knows good and well that they don’t have the luxury of him floating through stretches of games right now. Every guy who is available to play needs to have their foot on the gas. His lackadaisical stretch cost them dearly, and that’s more bothersome than being short on firepower or a group of bench guys having an off night.

(To reiterate — when a 30+ point, near triple-double qualifies as a performance that can make you feel disappointed, you know a player is in rare territory.)

• De’Anthony Melton was a little too aware that this was a revenge game opportunity, and there have been a lot of examples recently of why you’d like to have him with a backcourt partner who can ground him. There were risky outlet passes, some chaotic dribbling moments, and turnovers that simply left you dumbfounded as to what he was trying to do on the possession.

He had some good moments in the second half, but the damage was mostly done by then.

The Ugly

• Always love hearing Three Six Mafia playing on the loudspeakers during Memphis games. “Tear da Club Up ’97” is an all-timer. 

• Strong case to be made that the best part of the night was Tyrese Maxey appearing on the Sixers’ pregame broadcast. Everything seems to be going smoothly on the recovery front, and they sure could use the extra firepower whenever he’s ready to return.

• The Sixers going small with Tucker at center is something I’m generally in favor of, and certainly made some sense with Reed stinking it up during his opening shift. But as much as you’d like to find minutes for Matisse Thybulle, playing him in a small-ball lineup defeats the reason you’d put it on the floor. If a team can just ignore him and leave somebody roaming in the paint with no consequences, you’ve effectively given up the advantage you’re trying to create by playing an undersized guy at center.

To make matters worse, we got to see some minutes with Thybulle and Tucker on the floor with Embiid in the first half. Coming into the year, it’s a concept you might have even been excited about but were certainly going to entertain at a minimum. Based on Tucker’s current shooting form and Thybulle making zero progress on that front, it’s just not a tenable combination for this team. And it’s especially bad to roll it out there after watching Cleveland ignore both guys whenever they were on the floor two nights prior.

The result of that lineup, Thybulle and Tucker each stationed in a corner on offense, was a disaster waiting to happen in transition defense. The Grizzlies were confident Steven Adams could come up with defensive rebounds and released early against it, getting some easy buckets and drawing fouls while most of Philadelphia’s lineup remained out of the frame.

I don’t think the Sixers had a ton of great options otherwise because the bench stunk out loud for most of Friday night’s game. These problems should begin to fade soon with James Harden returning to the lineup, pushing iffy rotation players further down the pecking order. But the resources they have were not used thoughtfully.

(Really, maybe we need to have a conversation about how critical Georges Niang’s shooting has been to the group this year. He had a down night again on Friday, and the bench looked horrific, which has been the case basically anytime he hasn’t shot it well. Sneaky important player, that Niang.)

• Additional Tucker-related point — set aside the lineup-related complaints and he just had way too many bad mistakes. He had the audacity to complain to the officials after stepping on the foot of Santi Aldama at midcourt and blowing his shoe off, unsure why it was a foul to take out a guy in the middle of a fast break. 

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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