It’s been nearly five months since Sixers basketball and I didn’t miss this at all. On one hand TJ Warren (?!?!) dropping 50 (50!!!) on us in the first game back was unpredictable, on the other hand maybe we just should’ve seen it coming—the Sixers stopped surprising me years ago.
While it’s only one game, leaking for 127 points against a Pacers team without Sabonis, Brogdon, and with a banged up Oladipo is tough to swallow no matter which way you cut it. Here’s five key notes from last night’s loss in the bubble:
1. TJ Warren dropped 53 points on 29 shots (9/12 from three)
Sometimes it’s just a guy’s night, though I don’t think anyone had TJ Warren as the first 50 point scorer in the bubble, and certainly not with Ben Simmons and Matisse Thybulle as his primary matchups.
Nobody can blame the defense for being blindsided by Warren’s performance, but Brett was keen to mention after the game that he was disappointed to see the team continue to give Warren space even after a few made shots. This is the NBA, and there are a lot of players who can do damage if given room to operate. The Sixers seem to give up this type of performance to players like Warren a lot, so hopefully Brett uses this 53-point gouging as an opportunity to teach Ben and Matisse about respecting their matchups regardless of reputation.
I understand there were plenty of ugly moments in this game—I’ll get to all of it in this piece—but if we take Warren’s performance out of the equation then we’re looking at an ugly Sixers win, instead of a brutal defeat. Let’s make sure we don’t overreact over one loss on the back of what is clearly an outlier 53-point performance from TJ Warren.
2. Joel Embiid was +21 in 34 minutes; the Sixers were -27 in the 14 minutes he was on the bench.
Major shades of the 2019 Raptors series here, though I think it’s important that blame is accurately assigned to poor team defense as a whole, instead of any one player.
I suspect the instinct from a lot of people will be to look at Horford for these +/- numbers, but the reality is the Sixers were getting beat off the dribble all night long, and help defense was consistently late or nonexistent altogether. It was a problem even with Embiid on the floor, and ballooned into a parade of buckets for Indiana every time he went to the bench.
On top of a breakdown of team defense, the offense lacked rhythm or flow for long stretches at a time, and Embiid in the post was the 41-point crutch that kept things upright. The team actually shot decent—121 points is plenty—but carelessness to the tune of 21 turnovers will balance out a night like that every time.
We can try to draw drastic conclusions from this, but last night’s +/- splits can be chalked up to Joel Embiid’s performance far outpacing the rest of the team, as opposed to any single player being a clear weak link. The whole system was a mess.
3. Scoreless Shake
“Not one of the better nights from Mr. Milton,” is how Ala Abdanaby summed up the night for the freshly minted starter. Shake was terrible from the jump, heavily featuring reckless passes, lazy (unfocused) defense, and unconfident shooting all headlined by him snapping at Embiid on the sideline at the end of the first quarter.
Quite literally the only way this game could’ve gone worse for Shake was is if he blew out his knee. I’m trying not to lean on him too much over one game, but it was disappointing to see him handle adversity so poorly, and as the starting “point guard” he completely failed to control pace and initiate offense. Brett was wise to bench him coming out of the half—though he did have 4 fouls—and when it’s not someone’s night BB has never been afraid to pull the plug on a guy.
I had mentioned prior to the season that based off the three scrimmages Shake appears to have picked up where he left off back in March. Tonight’s performance is a reminder that exhibitions don’t matter, and as exciting as the idea of Shake is when he’s on, his leash is much shorter than we’re currently admitting to ourselves. That said, let’s hope this is just a blip on the radar, not a sign of things to come.
4. Tobias Harris was excellent
Finally a little good news. Prior to the game I wrote that Tobias is growing more comfortable with the idea that he needs to be an Alpha on offense if this team is ever going to get over the top; embracing and flourishing in the role of go-to shot maker in important possessions is the final piece keeping him from perfectly complementing Joel and Ben, and he delivered on that front against Indiana.
30 points on 29 shots is somewhat skewed by having to force shots late in the game, but for four quarters Tobias was scoring at will, routinely using his size as an advantage against smaller defenders, and chipping in three makes from beyond the arc. The efficiency may not be ideal, but the headline for me is that he asserted himself on offense—a trend that hopefully continues.
5. You can anticipate changes to the rotation over the coming games
I’ll start with Korkmaz, since he’s been the first player off the bench with Horford through these first four games. Dating back to the first scrimmage, Furkan is shooting 2/19 from three. Considering he provides little to no value outside of shooting, that number is pretty concerning.
I never imagined Furkan would be apart of this rotation, and certainly not to the degree that he’s already been involved. We’ve heard Brett praise him for some time now, though it was always assumed that his leash was as short as the rest of the bunch. Mike Scott was the first sharpshooter to go from rotation mainstay to the doghouse, and if Korkmaz isn’t careful he’ll be next.
On the other hand, I do understand giving Raul Neto a little run—he’s not a long term rotation option in my opinion, but he’s a good situational piece to pull off the bench in moments like last night. Any time your offense is stagnating it’s wise to put more ball handlers in the game, and Neto plays more D than Furkan, spaces the floor better than Thybulle, and has the experience and a feel for the game that Milton still lacks.
With that said, I don’t want to live in a world with regular rotation minutes for Raul Neto, and I suspect this was just a reaction to Milton/Korkmaz/Burks’ struggles, and the absence of GRIII.
It should go without saying that when Glen Robinson is fully healthy he figures to slide right in the middle of things. It’s likely that had he been available he would’ve started the second half instead of Neto, and Raul was generally playing in the same lineups that GRIII had in the first two scrimmages. I strongly feel like he’s the bench piece that‘ll rise to the top of the rotation when these seeding games are said and done, and based off last night the Sixers definitely need his two-way ability off the bench.
It’s just one game, but with only seven more to get right before the playoffs the panic button isn’t too far away.