PHOENIX — Doc Rivers told the 76ers before Sunday’s game that the Phoenix Suns are a very good team that they could beat. The coach added that his players had to be competitive throughout the game and avoid wasted possessions.
So what happened?
“We had 17 wasted possessions tonight,” Rivers said following the Sixers’ 114-104 loss at Footprint Center. “Against any good team, you are not going to win that game. And on the other end, we probably had that many mistakes on our switches.”
For the Sixers (46-28), this was both a glass half-full and a glass half-empty result. The good thing is that they were competitive against the NBA’s best team — the Suns are 61-14. That shows they can play with anyone. But simply playing with anyone wasn’t and shouldn’t be satisfying to them.
“These are winnable games,” Rivers said. “Tonight, we didn’t win.”
The loss bumped the Sixers out of the top spot in the Eastern Conference standings. They dropped three spots, to fourth place. But they’re still in contention for the conference’s top postseason seed. The Sixers are a half-game behind the first-place Boston Celtics with eight games remaining in a jam-packed race. The Celtics and Miami Heat both are 47-28, and the Sixers and Milwaukee Bucks are 46-28.
The Sixers’ next matchup is against the Bucks on Tuesday at the Wells Fargo. This will be much more than another barometer game for the Sixers. This game could have seeding implications, as the Bucks are in third place by virtue of the tiebreaker.
Sunday’s game was another example of the Sixers being right there, yet so far away in regard to being a NBA title contender.
Joel Embiid showed why he’s the MVP front-runner, finishing with game-highs of 37 points, 15 rebounds, and three steals to go with a team-high two blocks.
Tobias Harris was the lone Sixer who gave Embiid any support. Harris scored eight of the Sixers’ 13 points during a key second-quarter stretch with Embiid and James Harden on the bench. However, the Sixers stopped going to him after the two All-Stars returned.
That led to Harris getting out of rhythm and disappearing after intermission. He scored 15 points on 7-for-9 shooting in the first half. He followed that up with two points on 1-for-5 shooting in the second half.
The Sixers need to do a better job of identifying the hot hand and keeping that person involved, especially with Harden shooting 2-for-11.
Meanwhile, Matisse Thybulle was benched in the fourth quarter after being in foul trouble and creating offensive-spacing issues due to not being a shooting threat. Tyrese Maxey struggled to make shots (7-for-21) and was a defensive liability, finishing a game-worst minus-25. And the Sixers’ bench was nonexistent.
If the Sixers had gotten anything from their bench — especially with Suns keying on Maxey and Harden — they could have had a chance to pull off a thrilling victory. That in itself is a positive in regard to where the Sixers stand.
“We are [right there],” Rivers said. “But I’m not going to have a parade, either. I mean, we lost the game. We came to win the game. We know we are [right there]. But we need to know that we are not ready yet.
“We need to do work, and we need to get in there and want to do the work, but we can be really good. It was all over the game, you could see it. Then you could see the other side of it.”
The Sixers made a lot of mistakes that could have changed the outcome. Costly turnovers and horrid defense are two things that doomed them.
The Suns scored 26 points off their 12 turnovers, and the Sixers’ defense was a no-show. Phoenix scored frequently on its stack action. The Suns shot 51.7% from the field, including 13-for-27 on three-pointers.
The Sixers need to work on defensive switching and other little details. Embiid thinks those can be fixed in the final eight games before the playoffs.
“It’s about everybody being committed and being on the same page,” he said. “Everybody buying in. But we have a long way to go.”
That was obvious here against the team favored to represent the Western Conference in the Finals. The Suns are light-years ahead of the Sixers as far as being connected offensively and defensively. And they don’t get rattled.
“That’s why they’re the best team in the league,” Embiid said. “And for us, like I say, we have a long way to go to get to that level. We don’t have a lot of games left, but we made a lot of mistakes that could have changed the game.”