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3 observations after shorthanded Sixers finish miserable back-to-back with loss to Jazz

3 observations after shorthanded Sixers finish miserable back-to-back with loss to Jazz originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

The shorthanded Sixers concluded a miserable, 0-2 back-to-back Saturday night by losing to the Jazz.

They dropped a 120-109 game at Wells Fargo Center, falling to 23-12 on the season.

Utah is now 17-20. Star Jazz forward Lauri Markkanen posted 33 points and 13 rebounds. Collin Sexton tallied 22 points and John Collins added 19.

For the Sixers, Tyrese Maxey had 25 points and nine assists. Kelly Oubre Jr. scored 24 points.

The Sixers were missing five players in Joel Embiid (left knee swelling), Tobias Harris (left ankle soreness), De’Anthony Melton (lumbar spine soreness), Robert Covington (illness) and Furkan Korkmaz (illness).

The Sixers’ next game will be Wednesday night in Atlanta against the Hawks. Here are observations on their loss to Utah:

Sixers find some scrappiness 

In starting Saturday, Paul Reed became the last remaining Sixer who can say he’s played in every game this season.

Maxey, Oubre, Nicolas Batum and Morris Morris Sr. joined him to open the night. Embiid’s absence was glaring and the Sixers did not begin like a team desperate to avoid dropping both games of their back-to-back.

Markkanen drove by Batum and scored a lefty layup on Utah’s first possession. The Jazz took an 8-2 lead when Markkanen intercepted a Maxey inbounds pass and cruised in for a fast-break slam. Sixers head coach Nick Nurse called timeout under two minutes into the game. Utah ultimately made its first five field goals and had lots of early success in the paint with no Embiid to deter drivers and negate perimeter mistakes.

“We gave up a ton of layups and a ton of dunks,” Nurse said. “It’s part of some of the stuff I’ve been talking about; we’re going to have to figure out some better schemes just initially at the point of attack. Maybe it changes personnel-wise … but we’ve certainly got to guard the ball better, guard the pick-and-roll better, challenge at the rim better. Even though you’re undersized or you don’t have great rim protection or whatever it is, you’ve got to figure it out.”

The Sixers eventually got cooking a bit against the Jazz, who have been a bottom-10 defensive team this year. A Morris three knotted the game at 12-all.

Utah committed 13 of the game’s first 14 turnovers. Some of those giveaways were sloppy and self-inflicted, but the Sixers defended scrappily in the first half and competed well on the glass. The Sixers’ low-turnover start also was helpful as far as leaving their transition defense less vulnerable in a shorthanded situation.

Still, the Jazz burned them with several easy fast-break buckets and the Sixers often failed to capitalize on the turnovers they created.

“I thought they got a bunch of leak-out buckets after we missed a lot of long threes,” Nurse said. “Just not a good enough job of us getting back, if we’re taking a three and it doesn’t go in. ... Once your three-ball misses start piling up, you can’t let that take your energy getting back in transition. I thought we let that happen a few times.

“We turned them over 24 times and we didn’t get enough out of it. Twenty-four (forced) turnovers and 24 points (off turnovers). It’s got to be closer to double that. So we didn’t do a good enough job of scoring in transition either.”

Not much marksmanship at all

Since the Sixers started 2 for 14 from three-point range, their sizable possession advantage did not translate to a comfortable lead.

The majority of those long-distance misses were decent looks, including three wide-open Jaden Springer tries in the first quarter. Springer had an encouraging preseason as a shooter, sinking 7 of his 8 threes, but he hasn’t been able to carry that success over to the regular season. He went 0 for 8 on the Sixers' three-game homestand and is now 5 for 25 in the regular season. Batum’s 0-for-5 three-point performance contributed to the Sixers’ collective shooting woes, too.

“I believe, even though you’re missing five guys, that those guys (available) can collectively play together better than that,” Nurse said. “They can execute better, they can defend better, they can make those open shots. And there were plenty of shots to step into and make in that game.”

Fortunately for the Sixers, the Jazz also weren’t remotely sharp from three-point territory, shooting 2 of 12 in the first half.

The Sixers used a makeshift four-man bench of Springer, Patrick Beverley, KJ Martin and Mo Bamba. Beverley had a 12-point, seven-assist night, but Utah's second unit finished with a 39-27 scoring advantage over the Sixers'.

On his 23rd birthday, Martin thew down a couple of slams and showed solid instincts operating from the dunker spot against the Jazz’s zone. However, he and Bamba both picked up three first-half fouls. With both teams wrapping up back-to-backs and struggling to shoot, it was certainly not the world’s prettiest game.

Maxey, Sixers can't turn things around

Maxey was often guarded tightly and effectively by Kris Dunn. He had a hard time finishing and getting the whistles he wanted for much of the night.

As Maxey noted postgame, Utah's unusual and varied defenses also made his work more challenging.

“It would be easy if they ran just normal NBA man (defense). But they were in some box-and-ones. They denied me up the court sometimes,” Maxey said. “So once I got the ball, then it was kind of hard to see. Now they’re in a box-and-one; now they’re in a 2-3. If they were in normal man, it would’ve been easier for me to put guys in the right spots.”

Markkanen was on his game throughout the evening. He drained 5 of his team's 8 threes, had several graceful, long-striding slams in transition, and kept the Sixers from stringing together the stops they needed.

To mount a comeback, the Sixers required a strong start to the fourth quarter. While the Jazz opened with a big Kelly Olynyk-Walker Kessler frontcourt, the Sixers countered with an especially small lineup — three guards, Martin and Batum. Utah scored freely at the rim and went up 96-81 on a Jordan Clarkson and-one leaner.

Maxey increased his aggression early in the fourth and had slightly better luck on his drives downhill, but the Sixers never seriously threatened the Jazz.

They'll now have to wait until Wednesday for another chance to get back on track.

“We’re going to get in there and it’ll be a physical practice on Monday,” Nurse said.