Brutal fourth quarter dooms Sixers in loss to Pacers: Likes and dislikes
The Sixers (8-1) hosted the Indiana Pacers (6-4) again on Tuesday. Both teams sought their second victory in the group play stage of the In-Season Tournament. Terrible fourth-quarter execution doomed the Sixers, 132-126.
Before we get to the action, some notes.
The Pacers were without Daniel Theis due to personal reasons.
Isaiah Wong, Oscar Tshiebwe, and Kendall Brown are on two-way assignments with Indiana's G-League affiliate and were out.
Rick Carlisle started Tyrese Haliburton, Bruce Brown, Bennedict Mathurin, Obi Toppin, and Myles Turner.
The Sixers were without Nico Batum, who missed the game due to personal reasons.
Kelly Oubre Jr. has a fractured rib and is out indefinitely.
Terquavion Smith, Javonte Smart, and Ricky Council IV are on two-way G-League assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats and were unavailable.
Nick Nurse started Tyrese Maxey, De'Anthony Melton, Robert Covington, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
- Listed "Questionable" with a sore hip leading up to the game, Embiid certainly didn't look like he was suffering any ill effects. He wasn't quite as aggressive in his attack as you'd have liked at the start, particularly after bending the Pacers' interior defense to his will just 48 hours prior.
All it took was a literal slap across the wrists from Turner after the play was whistled dead to wake the big fella up. A perimeter-centric approach that often ended possessions with forced jumpers was suddenly whisked away. Embiid was annoyed by the extra-curricular whack, to say the least.
For the remainder of the first half, Embiid simply decided that he was going to impose his will in the paint. He had a couple nice scores inside, backing as deep as he could before pivoting into a baby hook. But, he shot just 3-for-10 from the field before halftime.
That didn't matter, though. When push came to shove (literally), Embiid did all of his work from the free throw line. Not a soul on the Pacers roster had a prayer of stopping him. He knew it. They knew it. They had just experienced a similar beating a few days ago. But, in this game, dominance is having your way even when the opposition knows to prepare for it.
The Pacers sent Embiid to the stripe for 12 attempts in the first half, the reigning MVP wracking up a combined nine fouls across Indiana's center position. Embiid can't do that every night. Not only is it exhausting, but other teams will be better-equipped to defend him. But, the important thing is that Embiid is applying his physical advantages more in this regular season than he did in the three seasons under Doc Rivers.
(Let me be clear - that is not to say Rivers necessarily influenced Embiid's tilting towards the perimeter game instead of the interior game. Rather, those three seasons were when Embiid ascended into the MVP discussion, and that was largely because he elevated his midrange game towards the very top of the league.)
Anyway, many of Embiid's postseason woes have involved injury. And when you're injured, particularly in your lower half, you lose the lift you once had on your jumper. So, many of Embiid's ugliest playoff games have resulted from his having rough shooting nights.
Part of preparing Embiid more for the postseason is getting him ready to battle more in the paint. He's done that a lot in these first 10 games of the season.
- I thought it was wise of Nurse to have his team go to zone relatively early in the first quarter. It was clear Philadelphia did not have the horses to stop the younger Pacers from finding divots on the perimeter and attacking for dribble penetration. So, rather than risk his team get into foul trouble by having to make a bunch of help rotations, Nurse went with the zone to clog up the driving lanes.
- He's not the nightly story the way Embiid and Maxey have been this season, but Harris has been playing the best basketball of his career to start the campaign. He was the early spark Philadelphia seemed to need in this game, scoring the Sixers' first six points on a post-up and a couple drives. But, unlike in the past when he's faded into the background, the Sixers actually called on Harris again later in the affair.
This time, he pumped life into Philadelphia in the fourth quarter. And to everyone's - Harris, his teammates, and the coaching staff - credit, Harris didn't just execute on swing passes with swift drives to the rim.
The Sixers knew the Pacers were switching on defense, so they ran the empty-corner pick-and-roll that they've run between the big fella and Maxey over and over again - except with Harris in Embiid's stead. Nurse wants Harris bullying post-ups into the ground. So, on the switch, Maxey lofted passes to Harris around the short corner and let him go to work.
It wasn't something the Sixers weaponized over and over again. But, it was an attempt to empower Harris to be a co-pilot alongside Maxey. That's far different than sending the message that that is solely Maxey's time to cook, which is just another way of saying that Harris is a passenger in Maxey's car.
That isn't to say that Maxey can't be that guy. But, it diversifies what you present when Embiid is off the court. It's much more difficult to prepare for a multi-pronged attack than it is to simply load up when you know it's Maxey's time to go off.
- I've been quite high on what Nurse has done with this team so far. But, man, some of his lineups late in the first quarter and early in the second quarter look wrong. Surrounding Embiid with guys who cannot dribble or shoot. Putting multiple non-shooters on the court next to Maxey while Embiid is recharging. No bueno.
- Speaking of yucky lineups. Nurse threw out a lineup that featured only one good passer around Embiid. That was the group at a time when the Pacers were forced to go small with Toppin at center because their actual bigs were in foul trouble. Muy mal (very bad, for those who don't speak Spanish).
- If there was ever a flashing beacon that the league's officiating is a clown show, this crew mistakenly allowed the Pacers to choose who would shoot free throws after Harris - who was the one who was fouled - left the game as part of concussion protocol because the foul involved contact to his head and neck.
The problem is, because it was an exit related to concussion protocol, the Sixers should've been the ones to choose who shot the free throws. Indiana chose KJ Martin, who clanked both and stayed on the court for another possession or so. The officials went back to the play three minutes later, needed 10 minutes to review it, and then allowed the Sixers to send Maxey to the line for a pair of free throws to correct the mistake.
Outrageous. That crew ain't getting an invite to the next Mensa meeting.
(I should note - Harris ended up being fine. He briefly went to the locker room to enter the concussion protocol, ostensibly cleared it, and then checked back into the game within a couple of possessions.)
- The box score might tell you a different story. but Embiid's overall night gets discounted a bit because of his fourth quarter. It was obvious he was trying to force the issue a little bit, putting his head down and driving with the ball without surveying what his defender was doing. Embiid was sloppy as a ball-handler, too, committing a travel on the perimeter without the Pacers actually putting pressure on him and picking up his dribble with nowhere to go. Perhaps when the ball pops off the rim in what would've been a thunderous dunk, it's just not your night.
Embiid's defense in the fourth quarter wasn't much better. There were a couple of possessions in which the Pacers snuck behind him, lightly shoving layups past his outstretched arms at the last second.
- Maxey hit seven triples en route to a 50-point night against this same team on Sunday. Nurse should fine him each time he passes up an open three. You would've thought he'd come out guns blazing after Sunday night. Instead, he junked up a number of Philadelphia possessions by overthinking instead of chucking.
It's not about being a hero or calling your own number, it's about breaking up the flow of the play. When you pass up open shots, you inherently steer your team in the wrong direction. He's a great shooter. No excuse for ever passing up an open three.
- Would've saved people a lot of time if the Sixers just conceded the game with one minute left instead of going with the good ole' "go for two and then foul" strategy. Then again, with the way the Sixers pass up open threes, should I really be surprised?
The Sixers (8-2) will host the Boston Celtics (8-2) on Wednesday. Tip-off is scheduled for 7:30 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the action on ESPN.
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