The Indiana Pacers’ T.J. Warren was lighting up the 76ers at will. He lit them up early and late and sometimes in between and the only thing that didn’t change very much was the Sixers defensive approach.
As the seeding games began with Saturday’s 127-121 loss to the Pacers at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex in Kissimmee, Fla., there many reasons that the Sixers lost to the outmanned, undersized Pacers, but the inability to get key stops was at the forefront, especially on Warren.
The 6-foot-8 former North Carolina State standout shredded the Sixers for 53 points, including 19 in the fourth quarter when he shot 7 of 8 from the field, making all four threes.
“We took advantage of them trying to stay with T.J.,” Pacers coach Nate McMillan said in his postgame Zoom conference.
That’s a nice way of saying the Sixers didn’t bother to double-team Warren that much. The Sixers used different defenders on him, including Ben Simmons, considered a first-team all-defensive candidate, but some nights even he needs help.
When asked if he was surprised he wasn’t double-teamed more, Warren didn’t hesitate.
“Yeah, I was pretty surprised,” Warren said.
Coach Brett Brown was shell-shocked, especially, with the Sixers being outscored by 46-34 in the fourth quarter, with the Pacers making 16 of 20 shots, including 6 of 7 threes.
“In that fourth period, it is far too large of a number…” Brown said. “I thought especially our pick-and-roll defense was poor.”
Warren wasn’t the only one benefiting from the Sixers’ lackluster pick-and-roll defense.
On this play, Pacers guard Victor Oladipo broke a 61-61 tie after receiving a pick from former Sixer JaKarr Sampson on Josh Richardson. That allowed Oladipo a wide-open three. Notice there is no Sixer anywhere near Oladipo when he shot.
The Sixers have been practicing in Florida since July 11. Defending a basic pick-and-roll play has to be done with better execution.
Maybe the Sixers looked at Warren’s stats, that he entered the game averaging just 1.1 made three-point field goals per game, and didn’t think he would fire up so many from beyond the arc. The Sixers should know better. This year alone, he averaged 23.7 points in his first three games against them, hitting 6 of 8 threes.
On Saturday, Warren took it to another level, going 9 for 12 from downtown, which equaled the Sixers total (in 25 attempts).
The Sixers offense also appeared to lack cohesion despite scoring 121 points. They had such an overwhelming height advantage, especially with Pacers all-star center-forward Domantas Sabonis out due to left foot plantar fasciitis.
The Sixers outrebounded the Pacers, 55-34, and outscored Indiana by 23-14 on second-chance points, but the winners showed more grit.
“We lost the boards but we just hung in there, continued to work…” McMillan said.
There will be doomsayers who will pronounce the Sixers as done, suggesting that the Shake Milton point guard experiment should end and that Furkan Korkmaz shouldn’t get minutes off the bench because the two combined for three points (all by Korkmaz) and three turnovers (all by Milton) in more than 33 minutes.
This is one game and too early to overreact, but squandering a 10-point lead with under nine minutes remaining to a banged-up team that was also without starting point guard Malcolm Brogdon (neck injury) and dangerous wing Jeremy Lamb (out for the year with an ACL injury) is not the most encouraging way to begin the NBA restart.
Not only that, but the Sixers wasted a 41-point, 21-rebound effort by Joel Embiid, and they didn’t appear to play with fire.
This play demonstrates that. Former Sixer T.J. McConnell, who had 10 points and eight assists off the bench, scored on this offensive rebound, outhustling Embiid to the ball.
The Sixers will miss shots, but they have the type of length and athletes to be a good defensive team. There are seven seeding games to go and no matter where the Sixers are seeded, they will play a talented team.
They should use the next seven games to gain some cohesion that we thought was there and to play defense with more urgency.
Sure, Warren was great, but the Sixers never made him feel uncomfortable.
“We are too good defensively where we have too many great defensive players for that to happen,” Embiid said. “We have to do a better job adjusting as the game goes on.”