There are suboptimal shots, and then there is Joel Embiid fading away off a step back corner three. If you want to know how the first three quarters of their 109-104 win over the Knicks went for the Sixers, all you needed to do was watch Embiid early in that period holding his follow-through as the shot clock ticked down to its final tenths and his shot clanked off of the rim to jump-start a Knicks break the other way.
It was not pretty. Again.
Of particular concern were possessions like this, which the Sixers have seen all too frequently since their 5-0 start. It’s not just that the Sixers are missing shots. It’s that they are going 24 seconds with out getting a high-percentage look. Their worst possession of the night came not long after Embiid’s three-point attempt. The Knicks had taken a 15-point lead with just under five minutes remaining in the third period, and Brett Brown responded with a timeout, giving the Sixers a chance to catch their breath while drawing up a play to get them into some semblance of an offense. Whatever the whiteboard said, it did not translate to real life: the Sixers spent the first 20 seconds of the shot clock searching for an opening before the possession ended on an errant pass by Shake Milton while pinned underneath the basket.
At practice on Tuesday, Brown talked about the sleepless nights that his team’s offensive struggles were causing. Right now, though, it looks like the night isn’t long enough. Against the Knicks, they were bailed out by a blistering second half shooting performance from Mike Scott, whose transition three with just over a minute remaining made it a two-possession game and finally enabled the Sixers to take a breath. But the possession before had ended with a turnover as the shot clock ticked toward zero. The Sixers survived, but, man, are they making it tough to feel good about their wins.
Three other takeaways. . .
1) Compounding the Sixers’ problems with their half-court offense is the fact that the defense has been a shadow of its advertised self. That’s not cause for too much concern — defense is as much a team game as offense, perhaps even moreso, so it is going to take some time for everybody to get on the same page. As concerned as Brown has been in his public comments about the offense, he’s that unfazed by his team’s relatively lackluster performance on the opposite end of the court.
That being said, the Sixers spent much of the third quarter getting dusted by Frank Ntilikina, who entered the night shooting .361 from the field while averaging 5.2 points per night. Against the Sixers, he had 16 points by the start of the fourth quarter, on 6-of-7 shooting. On the one hand, there are nights where guys are going to hit shots, and the Knicks were hitting them on Wednesday. Even Taj Gibson knocked down a threes — he’s got exactly 22 of those in 11 NBA seasons. On the other hand, this is the sort of opponent that the Sixers are supposed to win handily based on athletic advantage alone.
The offense is supposed to flow from the defense on this team, but the Sixers had very little opportunity to play in transition.
Fun fact: the Sixers entered the night forcing just 12.7 turnovers per game over their last seven games. Compare that to their first six games of the season, when they forced an average of 18.7 turnovers per night.
2) Ben Simmons’ best play of the night wasn’t the first NBA three-pointer of his career (although I just double-checked and that did indeed happen). It was an assist, and it came when play was stopped. With under two minutes remaining in the first half, Marcus Morris dragged Joel Embiid to the court after a textbook box out by the Sixers big man. Embiid took exception, and Morris took exception to him taking exception, and things looked as if they might quickly escalate. But after Embiid raced to his feet, Simmons grabbed his teammate by the hips and pulled him away from Morris, then put himself between the two players, pushing Embiid to the aside of the court. Morris was assessed a Flagarant 1, and both players received technical fouls, but there will be no two-game suspension like the one Embiid drew for his altercation with Karl-Anthony Towns earlier this season. That’s a good thing. Because the Sixers clearly need this starting five to spend some quality time together.