Sixers observations: Three starters sit, Joel Embiid can't carry Sixers over Suns

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Noah Levick
·7 min read
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3 observations after Sixers sit 3 starters, drop tight game to Suns originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

The Sixers were down two starters Monday night for their loss to the Warriors. They added a third on the sidelines Wednesday, which made the task of beating a team that's already reached 40 wins very difficult.

In addition to Ben Simmons (illness) and Tobias Harris (right knee soreness), Seth Curry (left hip flexor recovery) was out against the Suns. Furkan Korkmaz exited in the third quarter with an apparent right ankle injury but returned in the fourth. 

The Sixers were competitive despite those absences but fell to Phoenix, 116-113, dropping to 39-19 on the season. Joel Embiid had 38 points, 17 rebounds and four assists in the loss.

A full-court Embiid heave at the buzzer that would've sent the game to overtime nearly went in.

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The team will travel to Milwaukee for games Thursday night and Saturday afternoon. 

Head coach Doc Rivers was unsure whether Simmons, Harris and Curry would return.

“I have no idea," he said. “I wouldn’t comment on it today anyway, but I have no idea. I’m hoping a few are back. I don’t know if all of them will be back, honestly. It is what it is. You go through this. Unfortunately, we’re going through it at a key point. But it’s nothing you can control. If guys are not ready, they’re not ready. There’s nothing I can do about it.”

Another health-related note: Rivers said a “high percentage” of the Sixers have been vaccinated against COVID-19, though he knew of “two or three guys” that had not been. 

Here are three observations on the Sixers' loss to Phoenix: 

More positive Maxey minutes 

After Monday’s game, Rivers said he planned on playing four guards simultaneously “a lot” with George Hill now in the mix. Indeed, he started four perimeter players Wednesday, going with Shake Milton, Korkmaz, Danny Green and Matisse Thybulle next to Embiid. Milton, Thybulle, Hill and Tyrese Maxey was another four-guard lineup that featured in both games. 

Could Maxey factor into the playoff rotation, or is he bound to be a player only used when a star has foul trouble or suffers an injury? Substantial minutes every playoff game still doesn’t sound probable, though Maxey has played good basketball recently. His speed and dribble penetration have always been standout qualities, but he’s also changed gears well and looked solid overall at both ends of the floor.

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Maxey recorded 14 points on 5-for-11 shooting, three assists and two steals in 31 minutes. Even as a rookie, he has game-shifting potential in the postseason. We’ll see whether Rivers ever trusts the 20-year-old over more experienced options when the stakes are high. If another player is struggling or the Sixers’ game plan is ineffective, that might be Maxey’s time. 

He prides himself on his readiness and relentless work ethic, though it's not a solo effort. 

“The staff does a really good job of helping the young guys," he said. “And then of course we have, I say, the best vets in the league. We have a great variety. You have superstars like Ben and Jo, even Tobias, in my opinion. Tobias early in his career didn’t play much, and now he is where he is.

“You have Danny Green, who has the same kind of story and also has three rings; Dwight (Howard), who’s been a superstar and is now a role player on a really good team, won a championship. And then just player development guys — (skill development coach Tyler Lashbrook, skill development coach Spencer Rivers, assistant coach Eric Hughes) — everybody. It takes a village to raise a child, so that’s the motto that we can go with.”

In contrast to Maxey, Milton has been subpar as of late. He committed four of the Sixers’ 17 turnovers Wednesday and shot 2 for 10 from the floor. Indecisiveness and inability to create separation have been issues along with the missed jumpers. 

“He’s just got to play better," Rivers said. “And that happens. I think he was a minus-17. You have games like that; you have a couple games like that. We still trust him 100 percent. I believe in him. I know he’s going to help us out. But it’s a long season and when you’re struggling, we have other guys that can come in and help us, and that was tonight.”

Hill made both of his three-point tries and had more ball handling responsibilities than in his debut with the team. While getting fully acclimated to the Sixers’ system will be a gradual process, he’s shown encouraging signs in his first two games. 

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A backdoor cut and reverse layup off of a Howard pass was another highlight in Hill's 11-point night. 

Thybulle stellar on Booker

Devin Booker entered Wednesday’s contest averaging nearly 30 points per game in his career against the Sixers. He only managed 19, shooting 6 for 14 from the floor and dishing out seven assists.

Thybulle was scoreless in his 36 minutes, but he was very helpful to have against Booker with Simmons out. Though Thybulle fouled Booker on two jumpers (he vehemently disagreed with the second call), the 24-year-old also had plenty of excellent possessions. He had three crowd-pleasing blocks and two steals but was good even when he wasn't creating chaos.

These types of games lend credence to the idea that Thybulle deserves serious consideration for All-Defensive teams despite being a bench player.

“There’s not 10 better defenders in this league, I can tell you that," Rivers said. “There may not be five.”

The Sixers put Green on Chris Paul, who assumed a greater scoring role than usual. He played his typically patient, cunning game, posting 28 points and eight assists.

The Suns whipped the ball around the perimeter, turning down decent three-point looks in search of wide-open shots and forcing the Sixers’ defense to work. They put up 42 threes, making 15. Local kid (and Sixer for 20 minutes or so) Mikal Bridges scored 18 points and also had two blocks and two steals.

Embiid carrying a large load 

Embiid scored nine of the Sixers’ first 15 points, helping them take a quick double-digit lead for the third straight game. They’ve tended to be the more focused and energetic team at the start of games, which could perhaps be useful in the playoffs if they’re able to build early advantages and maintain them all night with strong defense. 

Of course, holding a wire-to-wire lead is far easier said than done in the NBA. Phoenix immediately scored 10 points in a row to tie the game at 15-all.

Almost everything positive that the Sixers did offensively in the first half centered around Embiid, which was unsurprising given the circumstances. He grabbed nine offensive rebounds.

Embiid said last week that, if officials had to call every game “honestly,” he would average 30 free throw attempts. The lack of foul calls visibly frustrated him on several occasions Wednesday, but he powered through contact well.

On a negative note, Embiid was sometimes sloppy with the ball, turning it over eight times. Two of those were within a 20-second stretch in the third period when he tossed the ball out of bounds, then was loose when he dribbled it up the floor on the Sixers’ next possession. 

Heading into the game, Embiid had been listed as questionable. He exited the court late in the third quarter holding his left knee and acknowledged he's not in an optimal place physically. Still, his plan is to play Thursday in Milwaukee.

“Yeah. We’re hurt," he said. “Even tonight, I wasn’t supposed to play. I’m not in the best physical shape at this point. We’ve got a bunch of guys out. It’s my job, like I always mention, just to go out and be a leader — just pushing every night. I can’t rest, even if I’m hurt. I’ve just to keep pushing because, at the end of the day … that No. 1 seed is important. Every single night, got to go out and fight. Hopefully, these guys get healthier, and they come back and can help us.”