The Sixers came out flat vs. the Washington Wizards in the first half of their 116-111 loss on Tuesday night.
Their defense was lackluster, and just like vs. the Clippers and Knicks, two games in which the Sixers eventually hunkered down came back and won, Philadelphia found themselves in an early hole in the Nation’s Capital. They nearly crawled out of it, but couldn’t tally their ninth consecutive win.
The frustrating part for Sixer fans was that the L spoiled a ruthless 48-point, 10-rebound, three-block game from Joel Embiid, and a monster 26-point, 13-dime performance from James Harden. Their star duo was dominating and playing well together despite rumors that Harden may be evaluating his long-term fit in Philly alongside The Process.
In that second half the 76ers outscored the Wiz by six, and their top gun Bradley Beal would have to leave the game with an injury, but the Sixers still couldn’t get the job done. Their eight-game win streak came to an end in disappointing — arguably unnecessary — fashion.
One play in particular proved especially pivotal. Down three with 1:05 remaining in the third, Embiid slid over to try to draw a charge on a penetrating Kyle Kuzma but was whistled for a block. You be the judge:
The play was close. You can see Jo spinning his finger right away, urging Doc Rivers and the coaching staff to challenge that one. But the team opted not to risk losing a potentially precious (I guess?) timeout.
In real time, before I saw the replay, I felt the team made a key mistake. Even if they felt that Embiid probably didn’t get there in time, it may have been worth burning a challenge.
You can see below the staff’s thought process, as Doc Rivers turns to an assistant sitting behind him on the bench, who appears to look down (I infer watching replays on a tablet) then signals “thumbs down.”
That we know means Doc shouldn’t use his challenge. You can see that go down, and then a couple angles of the play here:
You be the judge if Embiid was there in time, as he’s clearly outside the restricted area. Maybe it was a block. It probably wouldn’t have been overturned on the road.
But personally, given that it was his fourth foul, and meant a trip to the line for Kuz, I would have been comfortable using the challenge even if I felt there was merely a 25 percent chance they’d overturn it. I certainly didn’t need to feel confident. He was way out of the restricted area so it would have come down to a subjective interpretation of if he was still moving. It was worth the hail mary to keep your star (who sometimes gets MVP candidate calls in his favor) in that game.
Embiid doesn’t directly call out the coaching staff afterwards. But again, you can see from how passionately he spun his fingers during the live action he desperately wanted them to challenge.
Here’s what he said after the ballgame.
“I thought I got there in time,” Embiid told reporters in D.C. after the game. “That being my fourth foul … at that point of the game, we were down three after being down 15. That’s a big swing. You’ve got to take their chances. And just like that, they put their lead back up to nine to close the quarter. So there’s a lot we could’ve done better, but there’s always room for improvement.”
The part about “you’ve got to take their chances” certainly seems to imply the staff could have taken a shot at overturning such a crucial and close call.
I think Embiid was pretty gentle and diplomatic. Here’s how I put it, watching the action unfold:
Doc Rivers not challenging the block/charge on Embiid’s 4th, then running out a House-Trez-Shake-Niang-Harris lineup was a game sealing stretch wasn’t it ?— DaveEarly (@DavidEarly) December 28, 2022
The issue seemed to have a compounding effect. Doc should have challenged it, even if he wasn’t likely to win because of how much was at stake. And that initial error tempted him to sit Joel. And for whatever reason, Doc’s solution to these suddenly crucial no Embiid minutes was not to turn back to Harden, who’d been mostly stellar. Instead, he inserted both Montrezl Harrell (for Jo) and Danuel House Jr. (for De’Anthony Melton); both guys whose place in the rotation I find myself routinely questioning.
(You can’t buy a stop for your life and you don’t give Matisse Thybulle more of a shot alongside some starters where he mostly thrived last regular season?)
A couple needless turnovers and confused defensive possessions later, the Wizards lead was back to nine, a turning point if you will.
And it gets even worse. Harden, as he often does when Embiid is off the floor, went ham, and got the Sixers back into the game. But because Embiid had four fouls, Rivers made another classic error he’s made here before: he held out his star longer than he needed to. Embiid never fouled out! We’ll never know how much longer he could have played.
Embiid didn’t check back into the game until 7:23 remaining in the fourth. Sitting nearly six consecutive crucial minutes. This is an old flaw of Doc’s, being overly conservative, and not relying on analytics when they can help.
Embiid didn’t even pick up his fifth foul until 11 seconds remained, and he did so intentionally just to stop the clock!
Remember when PhillyVoice’s Kyle Neubeck wrote this stuff a couple seasons ago:
“Foul trouble” is only as dangerous as you allow it to be. With Joel Embiid already back in the locker room getting evaluated for a potential injury, leaving Simmons out of the game for a bunch of non-Embiid minutes with Mike Scott of all people at center is borderline irresponsible.”
This stuff is old news. It happened again. Swap in Harden for Simmons and House for Scott if you’d like.
Per the old (published in 2011) book “Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won” by L. Jon Wertheim and Toby Moskowitz:
“Leave a player with five fouls in the game and what happens? The average player with five fouls picks up his sixth foul out of the game only 21 percent of the time. A star is even less likely to pick up a sixth foul (only 16 percent of the time once he receives his fifth foul; remember Whistle Swallowing”?). Thus, leaving a player in the game with five fouls hardly guarantees that he’ll foul out.”
Bottom line: An NBA Coach is much better off leaving a star player with five fouls in a game. By our numbers, coaches are routinely giving up about 0.5 points per game by sitting a star player in foul trouble....”
But Joel didn’t even have five! He had four and still sat, allowing Rivers to trot out a few weird Hardenless lineups that got needlessly and predictably throttled (minus 4 in one minute). Sigh.
One of the reason’s I’ve been disappointed with Daryl Morey since he’s come to Philadelphia isn’t so much about the players and personnel. He drafted Tyrese Maxey, he somehow got De’Anthony Melton! He found Seth Curry for relative peanuts, and he got a true star in James Harden when many figured he’d have to settle for far less in the Simmons deal. But in Houston, his fingerprints were also on the game plans. The Rockets did smart things with analytics to back their decisions up and outfoxed more talented teams.
In Philly, the Sixers are still making age-old mistakes and limiting themselves with suboptimal in-game decision making and rotations.
It wasn’t just this. Yeah, they missed a lot of shots last night. Yeah, the defense came out flat. Yeah, the stars turned it over too much. But there was so much fruit left hanging on the lowest branches last night.
Onto the Pelicans....