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Sixers head coach Doc Rivers thinks Tobias Harris should’ve been an All-Star this season and knows very well the various ways he’s highly valuable to the Sixers.
Harris’ absence with a right knee contusion wasn’t a valid excuse in his mind for Saturday night’s 112-109 overtime loss to the Cavaliers, and neither was the Sixers’ condensed schedule as the first half of the season nears its end.
“I don’t think it was the schedule,” Rivers said. “I just thought we came out flat. Zero energy tonight. Give (the Cavs) credit, they played so much harder than us. Through the game, I thought we had one quarter with energy, the third quarter. Other than that, they basically got the shots they wanted all game. If they didn’t, they got the offensive rebounds. … They ran their stuff today. I didn’t think we ran much of anything offensively. I thought we played in random all game, which shows you just a lack of discipline.”
With his team down 13 points in the second quarter and seemingly meandering into another offensive possession without a plan, a frustrated Rivers called a timeout. The essence of his message, apparently, wasn’t too complex: Start running some sets.
“We refused to get into anything,” he said. “We didn’t get into our early offense after early makes. We didn’t get into our sets with any speed or pace. It looked, honestly, like we were running our offense like it was a walkthrough today in the first half. I thought the third quarter, we picked it up a little bit and we had a sense of urgency. But we just didn’t handle a lot of stuff very well tonight. This is one of those games where my guess is you’ll watch the film and you show them lack of effort instead of lack of execution.”
Rivers later called the fact that the Sixers had a chance to beat Cleveland with a Joel Embiid baseline jumper on the final possession of regulation “a freaking miracle.”
Embiid was excellent, posting 42 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and two blocks. Ben Simmons also played like an All-Star, with 24 points on 11-for-17 shooting (including a meaningless three-pointer at the end of overtime), eight assists and seven rebounds. The duo totaled 66 of the Sixers’ 109 points, shooting 24 for 38 from the floor, and notched 14 of the team’s 25 assists. Their teammates only made 14 of 45 field goals (31.1 percent), a number heavily influenced by Seth Curry’s 1-for-13 performance.
Simmons said he’d need to review the film to identify what wrong wrong in half-court offense, though he agreed with the gist of Rivers’ comments.
“I think it’s multiple things,” he said. “The effort wasn’t there, I’d say that’s the main thing.”
Saturday was an especially poor night for the Sixers’ half-court offense, as anyone who watched the game could conclude. The team managed only 87.8 points per half-court play, per Cleaning the Glass. In truth, though, it wasn’t an outlier that can be chalked up fully to Harris’ absence and perhaps other, less palatable factors like underestimating a nine-man Cavs team or looking ahead to the All-Star break.
The Sixers’ 94.1 points per half-court play this season ranks 23rd in the league, according to Cleaning the Glass. Embiid, who was asked to score in the post, pass out of double teams, draw fouls and do just about everything on important possessions, thinks there are a few ways to address the issue.
“We’ve got to create for each other,” he said. “I think we still don’t shoot enough threes. I think we’ve just to create for each other and if you’re wide open, just let it fly. If you miss it, we’ve got a couple good offensive rebounders. If you make it, good.
“Offensively, it also gets better when you get stops. It always starts on defense. If you’re getting stops, we have one of the fastest players in the league in Ben, and then we can push it in transition. For me, it’s not about just offense. It’s about defense, because when you get stops you can run and you can get easy baskets.”
Indeed, even after putting up 75 three-pointers over their recent mini-series against the Raptors, the Sixers are still 28th in three-point frequency, per Cleaning the Glass. Of course, it doesn’t help when players expected to serve as sharpshooters like Curry and Furkan Korkmaz combine to shoot 1 for 12 from long distance.
Embiid also had a few thoughts on another persistent problem for the Sixers this season: transition defense. Cleveland scored 15 fast-break points within the game’s 15 minutes.
“I think we’re last in the league,” he said. “We’ve been terrible all season. We’re still trying to figure it out. Maybe it has something to do with a lot of guys going for offensive rebounds. But then again, we’ve got to make shots. ... We’ve just got to balance it out. But all season it’s been an issue. The more we get to half court, it’s hard for other teams to score against us. That’s been the main thing when it comes to our defense.”
Again, the statistics back up Embiid’s point and are likely not even necessary to confirm it — although last in the league is an exaggeration. The Sixers, per Cleaning the Glass, are allowing opponents to add 3.4 points per 100 transition plays, 25th in the NBA.
The uncontroversial consensus Saturday was that subpar effort contributed to all of the Sixers’ troubles, transition defense included. If anyone happens to disagree, it sounds like Rivers will be glad to show them the film.