The 76ers’ deficiencies have been exposed.
In consecutive home games, the Sixers showed national television audiences that they still lack an identity. They’ve shown that they don’t have an answer for zone defenses, and that it visibly frustrates them. And they’ve shown that, at the moment, last season’s squad was a better on-court fit.
Time will tell if the Sixers will be able to make the proper corrections against an elite team.
Saturday night at the Wells Fargo Center, the Sixers’ 125-108 defeated Washington to snap a three-game losing streak. On paper, the Sixers (21-10) were supposed to dominate the Wizards (8-20), losers of three straight and 10 of their last 12 games.
Let’s face it, Philly boasts the league’s tallest and one of the most talented starting lineups. Yet, the Sixers haven’t been able to rely on individual talent on the road, where they are 6-8 after losing by 20 last Sunday to a well-coached Brooklyn squad minus its starting backcourt.
Afterward, the Sixers were undone at home against two well-coached playoff caliber teams. Dallas defeated the Sixers, 117-98, on Friday. That came two nights after Miami prevailed, 108-104. The Sixers were 14-0 at home before the two losses.
The Mavericks (19-9) and Heat (21-8) were both able to defeat Philly with backup point guards and by employing zone defenses. The Sixers had no answers.
“We were much better against the zone in my opinion tonight,” Al Horford said Friday night. "I don’t feel offensively was the problem, even though we missed some shots. I just think defensively, giving up 117 points, that is way too many points.
“That is a good team over there, but they didn’t have Luka [Doncic], definitely a cause for concern for our group.”
It’s definitely a cause of concern.
After Monday’s game at Detroit, the Sixers will play the league’s top team, Milwaukee (Christmas at home); Miami (Dec. 28, road); and Indiana (Dec. 31, road) in three of the following four games.
Against Dallas, the Sixers showed very few signs of being a preseason favorite to contend with the Bucks for the Eastern Conference title. Sure, Joel Embiid had 33 points and 17 rebounds and just one turnover, but his teammates played with a deflated spirit.
Coach Brett Brown believes the struggles against the zone have gotten into the players’ head.
“I think that the influence that our inability lately -- to be put on our back heels because of the zone -- has crept into our defense, our psyche, our spirit, and I can’t stand it,” Brown said. “This is not who we are.”
So who are they?
It’s been hard to tell when it matters the most.
The Sixers have more individual talent than the Mavs and Heat. But those two squads have a defined pecking order. Former Sixer Jimmy Butler is the go-to guy for the Heat. Post player Bam Adebayo is their second option, and everyone else basically fulfills a role. With Doncic sidelined, Kristaps Porzingis and Tim Hardaway Jr. are Dallas’ 1-A and 1-B players. The other Mavs appear content with their “get-in-where-you-fit-in” role.
The Sixers, meanwhile, rely too much on “equal opportunity” basketball. It’s like they don’t always know who to go to when it matters the most.
It wasn’t like that at the end of last season, when Embiid always had his imprint on games. Back then, Tobias Harris would often get things started with solid first quarters. JJ Redick and Embiid would have success in dribble handoffs and Butler would close out games in the pick-and-roll.
The team’s sharpshooting floor spacer (Redick) and closer (Butler) were lost to free agency.
Now, the Sixers basically are two distinct teams.
They play an uptempo style that fit point guard Ben Simmons on the nights Embiid doesn’t play. However, things have been out of sync when Embiid, the franchise player, in available. That becomes obvious when the Sixers are searching for answers in tight fourth quarters.
“It’s a great challenge for our group to make sure we are more organized offensively,” Horford said. “At times, we are not necessarily in the right places that we need to be. That is something we have addressed and understand we need to get better at. And to get to those places, we just have to figure it out.”
It doesn’t help that Miami and Dallas successfully employed 2-3 and matchup zones to combat the Sixers’ towering lineup. The tactics were used to force them to shoot from the outside.
The problem for Sixers is that Simmons rarely shoots from the perimeter. Richardson, the shooting guard, is a capable three-point shooter, but he’s just not a three-point sniper like the team had in Redick the previous two seasons. No one on the team is.
And it was obvious the past two games, when the Sixers made just 22 of 73 threes (30.1%).
“Do you think we are not going to see a lot of zone?” Brown said of moving forward. "We’ve gotta get comfortable and organized; some of that is on me, in order to get through this.
“Once we sort of see daylight in relation to how to attack [the zone], I think it will be ‘eureka’ with the team and I think we are going to take off.”
But they also need to get back to playing solid defense.
The Nets (16-13) scored 64 points in the paint in Sunday’s lopsided victory. On Wednesday, the Heat made 9 of 16 three-pointers in the second half. And the Mavs made 14 of 33 (42.4%) of their three-pointers and shot 51.8% (43 of 83) overall on Friday.
“I feel like we can never forget that our bread is buttered through our defense," Brown said. “We have gone away from some of that lately. I think our competitive spirit has taken too deep of a dent, for me, because of some of the problems that we have had scoring and that’s not good enough.”