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Why, despite the losses, there are positives from the Sixers’ late-game possessions

The last two times the Sixers had a chance to win or tie a game on the final possession they came up short. The positive: they got great looks both times.

Chicago Bulls v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

On paper, Monday night’s game against the Bulls was one the Sixers absolutely should’ve won. Coming off six straight wins against woefully bad opponents, a mediocre one gave them issues.

While Joel Embiid (40 points) and Tyrese Maxey (29 points) did what they were supposed to, the Sixers got little from their supporting cast. Sixers not named Embiid or Maxey combined to shoot just 14-of-37 from the floor.

Still, with 16 seconds left, they found themselves with the ball down 106-104 after Chicago’s DeMar DeRozan split a pair of free throws. The Sixers got into the action they wanted, but the ball slipped out of Embiid’s hands and the Bulls pulled out a 108-104 win.

While the game was lost much earlier — and Embiid can hardly be blamed after he carried the offense for 75% of the night — a made bucket there and the Sixers are in a great position to win. It was similar to the overtime loss to the Cavaliers on Nov. 21. The Sixers didn’t deserve to win that game either, but they nearly did.

The biggest thing those endings have in common: the team got great looks from its star players that simply did not go down. If you’re looking for a positive, it’s that the shots were there in both situations.

Let’s start with the loss to the Cavs.

Much like Monday’s game, the Sixers found themselves down early and needed a late rally to make the game close. The pick-and-roll duo of Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen gouged them repeatedly. The Sixers then used a great fourth quarter to tie the game. After Embiid missed an iso midrange jumper, the game headed to overtime.

With 18 seconds left, the Sixers found themselves down 120-119 with the ball and a chance to win the game. Unlike the straight iso that ended regulation, the Sixers ran a designed play. Maxey was at the other end of the floor while Embiid was set up at the top of the key. The action is pretty simple: Maxey runs full speed and then Nicolas Batum gets it in to Embiid who delivers a quick bounce pass that leads Maxey to the rim.

This is outstanding design by Nurse. The play utilizes Maxey’s obvious speed advantage over Max Strus. Both Batum and Embiid time their passes perfectly. It’s a look Maxey makes 99 times out of a 100. The ball simply spun off the rim. Great design and great execution (until the ball rims out).

Monday’s circumstances were a little different. After DeRozan made the second free throw, Nurse opted not to use a timeout and let his team play it out. The Sixers get into the exact action they want: empty side pick-and-roll with Maxey and Embiid.

What a huge sign of growth for Maxey’s evolution as a point guard. He’s going against Caruso, one of the best perimeter defenders in the NBA. Caruso “ices” Embiid’s screen (which is a fancy way of saying he’s forcing Maxey baseline to the big). Nikola Vucevic is in drop coverage, conceding an Embiid three and looking to protect the rim. Maxey recognizes that, drives hard enough to the basket to suck Vucevic away from Embiid, then delivers a perfect pocket pass between the defenders.

Coby White does a nice job rotating, but you’ll take Embiid shooting over the 6-foot-5 guard all day. Instead of going to his feathery jumper, Embiid attempts a floater and loses the ball on the way up.

It’s a great look. You’ve got the reigning MVP, who is 7-foot and has been on an absolute tear from the midrange, with a chance to hit a nine-footer over a guard. Embiid simply missed.

“I thought we got to a good set,” Embiid said postgame. “We got a pretty good shot out of it. The ball just slipped out of my hands. If I had to do it again, I would’ve probably just gone with my shot — stepped back and taken that short jumper, like I’ve always done. But I tried to go to the floater and the ball just slipped out. It happens. The spacing could’ve been better, too, but good execution and I just missed it.”

It’s a fair note from Embiid about the spacing.

Batum was dealing with hamstring tightness, so Kelly Oubre, Jr. closed the game out. It feels like Oubre should be in the dunker — because of his ability to offensive rebound and be there for a put-back attempt — and Harris should be spotting up in the corner. Instead they’re both kind of hanging around the paint, making it easy for their defenders to help on Embiid. Regardless, it’s a basket Embiid needs to make.

The most encouraging sign though is the way Maxey got the team into its bread-and-butter action and the read he made.

“They ran drop. I was able to drag Vucevic off his line. As soon as I was able to drag him off his line, I had a pocket pass to Jo,” Maxey said. “And Joel said he feels like he just missed it. He’ll probably say he feels like he could’ve shot a jump shot, but the ball slipped out of his hands. It happens. We’ve done that same sequence, that same play probably a thousand times and he’s made a thousand jumpers, a thousand layups. It happens that way sometimes; the ball slipped out of his hand.”

Both games are losses. That’s the bottom line.

But with how much trouble the Sixers always seemed to have in situations like this under Doc Rivers, it’s encouraging to see them have good late-game possessions.

They simply need to finish them.

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