INDIANAPOLIS — Ahead of Saturday’s 76ers-Pacers matchup, coach Doc Rivers said his team needs to “see how many games we can win while we’re going through” continuing to play without All-NBA center Joel Embiid and perimeter defensive stalwart Matisse Thybulle, who remain in the NBA’s health and safety protocols.
It’s becoming increasingly difficult for the Sixers to tread water. A sluggish defensive first half doomed Philly in its fourth consecutive loss, this time a 118-113 defeat at Gainbridge Fieldhouse.
The Sixers (8-6) trailed by as many as 22 points in the first half but nearly rallied all the way back. Tyrese Maxey cut the deficit to 107-102 with less than three minutes to play, before Malcolm Brogdon answered with a free throw and former Sixer T.J. McConell connected on three consecutive baskets to re-extend the lead to 114-104 and all but seal the Pacers victory.
Before that, Philly chipped away to get within seven in both the third and fourth quarters, including when Shake Milton hit a tough leaner to make the score 96-89 with 10 minutes to play. But the Pacers responded with six consecutive points, including two buckets by Kelan Martin and a Domantas Sabonis follow dunk, to push the lead back up to 102-89.
This Sixers’ four-game skid comes after an impressive six-game winning streak primarily played with an undermanned squad. And it’s a less-than-ideal start to the Sixers’ season-long six-game road trip, which continues Tuesday at Utah before hitting Denver (Thursday), Portland (Nov. 20), Sacramento (Nov. 22), and Golden State (Nov. 24).
“We just need to find a way to stop the bleeding,” center Andre Drummond said. “We’re gonna find it. We’re a great team. We’re building chemistry as we go. ... It’s just getting guys back now and just worrying about who’s here and just playing to the best of our ability and trying to string together some wins on this road trip.”
Basketball also became secondary in the Sixers’ postgame locker room, when assistant coach Dave Joerger shared that he had been diagnosed with head and neck cancer and would leave the team for several weeks to undergo chemotherapy and radiation treatment.
“It just puts things in perspective,” star forward Tobias Harris said. “We play basketball. We love it. But he’s going through something now that’s bigger than basketball. For us, as a group and a family, we just gotta be there to support him and encourage him through this process and keep him and his family in our prayers.”
Not having two NBA All-Defense performers in Embiid in the middle and Thybulle on the wing certainly hurts the Sixers’ defensive abilities. But Saturday’s first-half performance on that end of the floor was team’s poorest of the season
The Pacers made 69% of their shots, including a 9-of-15 mark from three-point distance. The Pacers dished out 24 assists on those 29 made field goals. All-Star Sabonis went a perfect 7-of-7 from the floor for 16 points, while fellow frontcourt standout Myles Turner went 7-of-9 also for 16 points.
“We gave them too much momentum,” Harris said. “ ... I just thought, for them, there were too many possessions where they were just too comfortable out there, getting to their spots, making shots. That was a huge key to the first half.”
Things started to unravel for the Sixers in the first quarter, when they allowed a 16-4 run out of a timeout to turn a 14-8 lead into a 24-18 deficit. Indiana extended its advantage to 43-25 on a Justin Holiday three-pointer early in the second period, pushed it to 20 on a Turner and-one finish with about four minutes to play before the half and then to 66-48 on a Turner three-pointer at the end of the shot clock near the two-minute mark.
For the game, the Pacers shot 57.3% from the floor, including 14-of-28 from beyond the arc and finished with 33 assists, 58 points in the paint, and 21 fastbreak points.
“Part of our success offensively was our ability to get stops,” Rivers said, “and now that we can’t get stops, they’re able to run. That’s just the way the game goes, so we have to find ourselves on this road trip for sure.”
Entering Saturday, the Sixers ranked 23rd in defensive efficiency, allowing 108.4 points allowed per 100 possessions. Rivers noted that deflections and steals numbers are down since Embiid and Thybulle exited the lineup. The Sixers are averaging 8.2 steals per game on the season, but 7.8 the past five games, and 16.3 deflections per game on the season, but 14.8 in November.
“Matisse and Joel, they’re like defensive bail-outs,” Maxey said. “When you make a mistake, they’ll cover it up because they’re just special guys. You can go for a gamble, miss it, Matisse will cover it up and get a block. Joel’s 7-foot at the rim, you get blown by, he’s blocking it or he’s challenging shots. It’s hard for offensive players to score on them. We’ve got to be collectively more solid without those guys.”
Turner, meanwhile, flashed his defensive prowess with six blocks and two steals to go along with his 20 points.
Harris stays hot
As Harris stepped to the free throw line in the second quarter, an upper-deck cheering section at Gainbridge Fieldhouse started chanting “overpaid!”
Yet the score would have been much uglier without Harris, who continues to impress in his return from a symptomatic bout with COVID-19. He finished with 32 points and 11 rebounds in 35 minutes to follow up his 19 points, seven rebounds, and seven assists in 36 minutes in Thursday’s loss to Toronto.
Harris started hot, scoring 17 first-quarter points on 7-of-10 shooting, including 3-of-4 from beyond the arc. He added seven points in the second quarter to finish with 24 before the break, tying the second-highest scoring half of Harris’ regular-season career. His highest was a 26-point first half against the Pacers in 2017 when he was a member of the Pistons.
Harris’ key bucket after intermission was a jumper with less than two minutes to play that cut Indiana’s lead to 110-104.
Yet Harris was self-critical of his effort. He said it was “frustrating” that he was not able to play any full 12-minute stretches, but that he will use the Sixers’ upcoming two days off to continue ramping up his conditioning.
He also called himself out for a “bad-body-language” moment when the Sixers could have had a two-for-one situation at the end of the third quarter. He argued with the official because he thought he was fouled on a missed pull-up, and Indiana’s Chris Duarte converted a putback on the ensuing possession to increase the Pacers’ lead to 94-82.
“Those are the moments I gotta keep my composure,” Harris said. “… Little things like that are a big shift.”
The Pacers largely built and later re-extended their lead with their bench production, paced by a season-high 27 points from Holiday, nine assists and eight points from McConnell, and 13 points, four rebounds, and two blocks from Martin. The Sixers’ reserves, meanwhile, scored just 21 points on 7-of-24 shooting.
Rivers went to his bench early to try to squash Indiana’s first-quarter surge, keeping Harris on the floor with Milton, Furkan Korkmaz, Georges Niang, and Paul Reed. Later, that group played with Maxey on the floor.
In the third quarter, Niang played some small-ball center with the rest of the starting group. Rookie Charles Bassey also got minutes at center to start the final period.
The Philly bench players have been asked to play heavy minutes — and different roles — during this stretch. But Reed and Bassey were the only player who saw the floor Saturday who would not be in the normal rotation, and Drummond the only starter who would normally be a reserve.
Reserve guard Isaiah Joe, who rejoined the team Saturday from health and safety protocols, did not play.
Those reserves now might be needed even more on this trip, as starting small forward Danny Green left the game in the second half with hamstring tightness. Recently, that injury kept him out of parts of four consecutive games. Rivers did not have an update on Green’s status following the game.