One night in the NBA can seriously sour a team’s mood.
“A lot of us were saying this at the beginning of the season, but having brought on guys that are defensive-minded players, I think it tilted the culture in the direction of being more defensive-minded,” Thybulle said. “When James (Harden) is leading huddles and saying, 'Defense on three,' or when Tobias (Harris) is the self-proclaimed defensive stopper, I think all these things play a role in who we identify ourselves as.”
The Sixers then played the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Rivers and Joel Embiid both used the identical phrase after the game.
Rivers voiced his displeasure with how the Sixers approached the game against an opponent they’d easily handled on New Year’s Eve. The Sixers had been able to coast to victory Tuesday night against the shorthanded Pistons.
“Shai beat our best defenders tonight over and over again,” Rivers said. “We tried to tell them, ‘This team plays hard. They move the ball. This is not the team you just played; this team has players. Not just Shai, but (Josh) Giddey — all of them. And they play right. And if you’re not prepared to play this team, you’re going to lose to them.’ And I didn’t think we were ready for that.”
Embiid and Rivers both also emphasized the same failure for the Sixers: Inability to play passable on-ball defense.
“If you can’t guard your own men — all of us — if we can’t guard our own men, we’re not going to be good defensively,” Embiid said. “No matter how tight we are with our schemes and executing whatever we have to do with the game plan, it’s just not going to work out.”
While the Sixers’ defensive task grew tougher when Embiid picked up his third foul with seven minutes left until halftime, Rivers did not find that a valid excuse.
“I thought a lot of (the team's fouls) were because we were not down, we were not ready, we were not in help position,” he said. “This was just a bad effort on our team and we all — me, everybody — we have to take responsibility and be better next game.”
The Sixers actually took a three-point advantage in the third quarter and were nicely positioned to win their sixth game out of seven. The team’s defense was especially weak late in the third, however, and OKC needed less than three minutes to turn a five-point edge into a 19-point lead.
Thybulle was assigned to Gilgeous-Alexander, although the Sixers eventually threw a double team at the 24-year-old star. Mike Muscala got a clean pick-and-pop three-pointer when Shake Milton was preoccupied with Isaiah Joe off the ball and Georges Niang stunted at the stretch big man, then bought his pass fake.
About a minute later, Muscala popped out to the same spot after a ghost screen. Gilgeous-Alexander blew by Thybulle and made a driving layup.
“They got into the paint over and over again,” Rivers said. “That leads to offensive rebounds. That leads to helps that leave them wide open for threes. And I thought they got all that tonight. And honestly, I thought a lot of them were just straight-line, individual defensive drives. Our individual defense tonight was so poor that our team defense could not help.”
With 41 games down and 41 to go this regular season, the Sixers officially rank fourth in the league in defensive rating. They’ve often been strong on that end of the floor, and great offensive players — Zach LaVine, CJ McCollum, Gilgeous-Alexander — are sometimes bound to have great nights.
Still, though a Harden scoring flurry or all-world Embiid quarter can occasionally negate long stretches of mediocre defense, the Sixers don’t expect to win playoff games using that formula.
“I think it’s all about our defense,” Embiid said. “We’re still top-five in the league, but I don’t think we’ve reached our potential. I think we’ve still got a lot of breakdowns. We give up a lot of easy points, we don’t guard the ball the way we’re supposed to. So we’ve just got to take pride in it — all of us — doing a better job of stopping the ball first.”
It also likely wouldn’t hurt if the Sixers were a bit more talkative on their upcoming five-game West Coast trip, which begins Saturday night against the Jazz.
“(PJ Tucker) was saying this is one of the quietest games that we’ve played all year,” Tyrese Maxey said, “and that it can’t be that way, because you need your brothers. You don’t know what’s behind you when you’re guarding the ball, so we have to talk to people and try to help each other out.”
For Embiid, the keys to the trip are quite simple.
“We’ve got to stay together, obviously play better defense than we did tonight,” he said. “That’s where it starts for us. Offensively, I think we’re going to be fine. We’ve got to be able to guard the ball.”