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That went a lot better than I thought it would. I didn’t have the Sixers hanging tough until the final minute of a one-possession game against a top-four Eastern Conference team.
The irony is that those backbreaking last-minute turnovers weren’t committed by rookies– they were committed by two of the team’s more experienced players.
And the further disappointment is that one of those players, Robert Covington, was absolutely fantastic for the prior 28 minutes he was on the court.
That’s what it came down to, a pair of brutal deflections that killed off a really nice Sixers comeback bid in an entertaining season opener.
There’s a lot to like about that game. They played tough against a quality team on the road. Ben Simmons didn’t look like a rookie. Markelle Fultz played better than I thought he would. Joel Embiid was on the floor in the fourth quarter. Covington shot the ball like the second coming of Jerry West.
Still, I think it’s legitimate to feel dissatisfaction with the way that game ended. Nobody expected this team to win in Washington, but they were in a position to do it. They blew a halftime lead with a sloppy third quarter, pulled level with a small ball fourth quarter lineup, then shot themselves in the foot with a combination of mediocre interior defense and a pair of momentous giveaways.
1) Don’t call it a minutes restriction
Embiid played 27 minutes in the loss, which is about 10 more than what we expected coming in.
Post-game quotes from Brett Brown poo-poo’d the idea of calling this thing a “restriction,” and that makes a lot of sense considering the fluid nature of how the big man was utilized Wednesday night.
“What I’ve said for the last few weeks is that the rigid, rote number of – pick whatever number you want – it’s a range. And it’s more of a plan that we have this year than a restriction. When you look at and feel the flow of the game, that’s where the variables come in. For instance, at the end of the third period, when I sat him in between the period where he came back in in the fourth, there was 24 minutes of, I’m told, real time rest. When you start judging the pace of the game and the rest in between, I’m always in consultation with the people behind the bench. At the end it produced this number. (It) doesn’t mean it’s going to be a regular number that we look at it. The game is fluid and there’s judgments within the range and plan. It’s not a rigid restriction number in the world we’re living in this year.”
Embiid has spoken ad nauseum about having a say in the decision-making process, and it seems like this is going to be a “play it by ear” type of two-way street situation. Eventually you just gotta take off the bubble wrap, roll the dice, and say, “screw it.” The Sixers did that Wednesday night.
That said, I think Joel tried to force it a bit. He finished with 18 and 13, but turned it over four times and missed four three-point attempts. It’s wonderful that he can do a variety of things at 7’2″, but I don’t want him passing the ball 23 feet from the rim. I want him in the low post using that rip-through move and getting to the foul line. He only shot four free-throws.
It almost felt like he was being a bit conservative and trying to pace himself so that he would be able to play in the fourth quarter. Nothing wrong with that, but there were some sequences where he was in a purgatory of wanting the ball but not necessarily needing it.
Case in point, a play like this where he doesn’t need to be bringing the ball up the court:
In that situation he was coming off a rebound, then ends up giving it away and scrambling to defend a game-tying three-pointer.
Again, it’s great that his game is so versatile, but he’s going to be at his best when he’s in the low post drawing fouls, beasting opponents, and mentally blocking out the entire “minutes plan” thing.
2) Playing “Small ball”
I put “small ball” in quotes because is it really a small lineup if it features 6’10” Dario Saric and 6’11” Ben Simmons?
I’m only half joking.
With Amir Johnson in fourth quarter foul trouble and Embiid resting, Brett Brown went with a Saric, Simmons, Covington, JJ Redick, and Jerryd Bayless lineup to start the final 12 minutes. That combination hit three straight three-pointers to turn an eight point hole into a one point lead.
This was one of those 3’s, a play where Simmons collected his own rebound and dished it out to Covington:
I froze the clip at the point of Simmons’ drive to the rim.
He has three defenders within two feet of him. Jodie Meeks and Kelly Oubre are also looking at him. Three capable shooters are all standing at the three point line. We’re talking black hole levels of gravity here:
My head tells me that the Sixers aren’t going to shoot the three-ball at this clip all season long, but one of Redick or Covington is always going to be an option. In this lineup, Saric and Bayless are also good for knocking one down. They should be able to quickly erase some deficits with this grouping out there, assuming they get enough stops on the defensive end without Embiid or Richaun Holmes or Johnson on the floor.
3) The final play
I thought they might go to Covington, but this is why you signed Redick.
It was nicely drawn up:
Redick –> Embiid –> Simmons –> screen for Redick
One of the wrinkles in this play is the fake backdoor screen that Bayless pretends to set for Redick.
When you rewind, you see Redick motion for his teammate in an attempt to sell the movement:
Credit to Bradley Beal for not biting on that misdirection and fighting through Embiid’s pick to contest Redick’s shot. He played it well.
One of the things I mentioned regarding Brett Brown in a season preview piece is that he’s going to have to prove himself in these close fourth quarter games. I think he got it right with the play design and decision to go to Redick. Should it have been Covington instead? I don’t think there’s a wrong answer.
4) Mid-range games, or lack thereof
A lot of preseason talk centered around Simmons’ and Fultz’s lack of mid-range shooting.
The entire team, by my count, was 4-13 outside of the paint in that 10 to 22 foot range:
Joel Embiid hit a couple of jumpers and T.J. McConnell had another. The team didn’t really need to knock down 15-footers last night because they were hitting from 23 feet with consistency. You see a clump of made shots down low, a bunch of three-pointers, and then no-man’s land in between. Modern analytics don’t value that two-point jump shot, but it wouldn’t hurt to knock down the ones you do take.
Simmons had 18 and 10 in his NBA debut without hitting a single shot outside of the paint:
The longest shot he attempted was a second quarter 13-footer.
It was the same thing for Fultz, who added 10 points off the bench.
He hit four shots at the rim and a sweet 11-foot floater in the fourth quarter. He missed an early layup and a 10-footer and had a pair of shots blocked by Beal and John Wall:
So that’s 28 combined points from your rookies on their NBA debuts. They did that with basically no mid-range game and a 4/8 line at the free throw stripe.
There’s obviously room to grow, but it looks like they’re going to be able to contribute right away with an already-elite ability to get to the rim and draw defenders.
5) Who gets the minutes?
Jahlil Okafor didn’t play a single minute in this game, so unless his Monday gastro-illness carried over to Wednesday night, I think he’s pretty much done in Philly.
Jah playing zero minutes is one thing, but Jah playing zero minutes while Embiid is limited and Holmes is injured is another thing. Okafor is a defensive liability, but I think he would have been able to eat up Washington’s second unit on the offensive end. The Sixers bench only scored 25 points last night. Johnson had only five on 2-7 shooting.
T.J. McConnell played 15 minutes and did not have his best game. Justin Anderson, who worked with the second unit earlier this week, didn’t even make an appearance. Nik Stauskas didn’t play. Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot was the preferred wing off the bench.
6) Hold that whistle
John Wall got a few calls last night, but he’s the star player on his home floor, so no surprises there.
This one got the most buzz online:
— FanDuel (@FanDuel) October 18, 2017
I think it’s both. Wall does force the contact, but McConnell sells it a little bit. Charging and embellishment aren’t mutually exclusive, and I’m not accusing McConnell of taking a dive here, but you don’t always need to blow the whistle on every play. This doesn’t have to be Syracuse vs. Georgetown in the old Big East tournament. Sometimes you can let it continue.
Like I said earlier, it’s probably warranted to feel some disappointment about that loss. The late Denny Green would have been annoyed with the game’s final minutes.
“If you wanna crown the Wizards, then crown their asses! We let ’em off the hook!”
But I think we’ll wrap it up with some glass-half-full perspective:
The last time they played in an NBA regular season game before tonight:
— Jessica Camerato (@JessicaCamerato) October 19, 2017