3 observations after Sixers' defense has down night, Dwight Howard ejected again

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Noah Levick
·7 min read
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3 observations after Sixers' defense has down night, Howard ejected again originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

The Sixers’ defense was bound to have a down night at some point.

It came Saturday against head coach Doc Rivers’ former team. The Clippers shot 52.9 percent from the floor, received 28 points from Kawhi Leonard and 24 from Paul George and earned a 122-112 win at Staples Center.

Before Saturday, the Sixers had a 100.1 defensive rating since the All-Star break, per Cleaning the Glass, by far the NBA’s best. They’re now 32-14 on the season and will continue their road trip Tuesday night against the Nuggets.

Tobias Harris led the team with 29 points on 13-for-19 shooting, seven rebounds and six assists. Ben Simmons posted 15 points, seven rebounds and two assists before fouling out with 8:22 to play. Dwight Howard was ejected for a second consecutive game after recording nine points and 11 rebounds (more on that below).

Joel Embiid (left knee bone bruise) and new addition George Hill (right thumb surgery) both remain out. The Sixers have not given a definitive timeline for when either player will return but did provide an injury update before the game, saying Embiid has progressed well and resumed on-court basketball activities while ramping up his conditioning. The team said Hill will resume on-court activities in the coming days. Hill had surgery on Feb. 2 to address a mallet finger injury of his right thumb and hasn’t played since Jan. 24, while Embiid has been sidelined since suffering his knee injury on March 12. 

The Clippers were without Patrick Beverley (right knee soreness) and Serge Ibaka (lower back tightness). 

Here are observations on the Sixers' loss: 

Clippers target defensive weak spots 

George and Leonard aren’t easy to stop, and the Clippers got them desirable matchups with screens that forced the Sixers into suboptimal switches. 

The Sixers are hopeful that Hill, who’s 6-foot-4 with a 6-9 wingspan, can be an asset in those sorts of situations. For instance, they’d likely have felt more comfortable with Hill switched on to Leonard than with Furkan Korkmaz or Seth Curry. Even if a player who’s considered among a team’s weaker defenders doesn’t have a difficult individual assignment, good coaches often tailor their offense so that he’s asked to stay in front of stars, especially in the playoffs. Give Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue, Rivers’ mentee, credit for doing that. 

Transition defense was at times a problem for the Sixers before the All-Star break, and that issue resurfaced Saturday in the first half. Los Angeles scored the game’s only 12 fast-break points, all of which came before halftime.

The Clippers, who led the league with a 41.6 three-point shooting percentage heading into the game, made 11 of 26 Saturday night (42.3 percent).

“We just didn’t have enough physicality in the beginning of the game and I thought we let the offense kind of dictate our energy defensively," Harris said. “It was kind of a perfect storm for another team to really get their confidence. From there they made shots. They got the 50-50 basketballs, so that was also a key to us falling tonight to them.”

Mike Scott was the Sixers’ starting center for a second straight game and did not effectively protect the rim or rebound, which made the team’s overall defensive task more challenging. Scott also missed five of six three-point tries. 

Harris stays in a zone 

Harris was tremendous as a ball handler and passer in the first half, making the right reads on when to look for his shot out of the pick-and-roll, when to post up and when to find open teammates. 

In general, Harris’ expanded versatility has been key for the Sixers this season. Rivers’ coaching has played a role there, along with the improved spacing that’s coincided with more modern roster construction, but Harris’ individual development has been most important. Having a third star who can guard multiple positions capably and assume a variety of offensive roles better enables Rivers to put other players in positions to succeed. 

Harris is incredibly confident at the moment in his sweet spots, and for good reason.

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“When those opportunities come to get the ball in the mid-post, block area, it’s just time to operate down there," Harris said. “Anything that’s going to help our team and allow our team to win games and be efficient, that’s what I work on. I think it’s a good element of my game. ... Being able to create mismatches on the floor, it’s big to go to those types of moves.”

Simmons was used often in this game as a screener and post player. He had nice moments in both roles, including a layup off of a pick-and-roll with Harris and a cross-court one-handed pass from the post that set up a Scott corner three.  

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Turnovers were again an issue for Simmons, who committed six of the Sixers’ 16. 

“That’s trying to do too much with the ball," Rivers said of the Sixers' turnovers. “It’s funny, I thought it was a very poor offensive night, yet we had 112 (points) and we shot almost 51 percent, which means our standards are very high. I just didn’t like the way we looked offensively as far as our spacing, our rolling and our picking. Again, nothing to worry about, but we did have that tonight.”

When Hill is available, he’ll give the Sixers another ball handling option and perhaps another reason to use Simmons in more pick-and-rolls. 

Howard tossed again 

Rivers wasn’t pleased when Howard was ejected Thursday night against the Lakers.

“I just thought it was a very selfish play,” he said. “You have one tech, you can't get another one. ... I know it's an emotional game, but he's a veteran. We've got to have better discipline."

He spoke to the team as a whole about technical fouls after this loss.

“I think he is a pro," Rivers said of Howard. “He understands that. We always talk about technical fouls as a group. We just did right after the game. I didn’t single out Dwight, honestly, I just said, ‘As a team, we had (four)’ — which means more than one guy was frustrated. It means a lot of guys were frustrated tonight, and a good defense will do that to you at times.”

Howard received consecutive technicals with 10:35 left in the game. According to crew chief Tony Brothers, the second technical was called because Howard “said something derogatory to the official he was talking to about the official who called the first technical foul." 

Though it was indeed a frustrating, physical game interrupted by frequent whistles, the Sixers obviously can’t afford for Howard to pick up technicals or be ejected come the postseason. 

In other bench-related developments, Shake Milton had nine points in his first stint, playing aggressively and at a brisk pace. He ended with 16 on 6-for-11 shooting. 

However, Milton’s production did not give the Sixers’ second unit a major edge, since Terance Mann was excellent — nearly flawless, in fact — offensively. The Florida State product had 23 points on 10-for-12 shooting. 

The day after signing a standard NBA contract, Paul Reed played the final 3:50. The Athletic’s Derek Bodner reported Reed’s contract is a three-year deal at the NBA minimum, with the second and third years not guaranteed.