Wednesday, November 25, 2020
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Instant observations: Shorthanded Sixers fall to Lakers as Anthony Davis dominates Al Horford

The undermanned Sixers surged to an early lead over the West-leading Lakers, but they would fall apart and lose in the end, 120-107. 

Here’s what I saw on Tuesday evening.

The Good

• What does it say about Philadelphia’s second game in L.A. that they managed to play their best with Mike Scott at center? It runs counter to everything we’ve seen from Scott this year, everything we’ve seen from Scott in that spot over the last season-plus, and yet it worked anyway.

There is something to the idea, obviously, of just having as much shooting and ballhandling on the floor as possible, which I have been harping on in this space for years. “The system” takes a lot of heat in Philadelphia, but Philly didn’t have any trouble scoring out of these looks with a cast that is supposed to look completely overmatched, and they managed to hang tough on defense by using zone to make up for being undersized against a long Lakers frontline.

(“Hang tough” does not mean they were perfect, of course. Dwight Howard got some cheapies around the rim with Scott masquerading as a center, but you can live with the occasional layup if most of the looks you’re forcing on defense are tough shots and deep threes, which the Sixers succeeded at doing.)

Scott deserves at least some of the credit for that lineup working, and his defensive engagement was as good as it has been in a Sixers uniform. His doubles were well-timed when he sent help, and playing at the base of the defense seemed to simplify things for him, which allowed him to come up with some nice contests at the rim.

To hang in the game against a great team like the Lakers, the Sixers were going to have to do some unorthodox things, and Brown correctly abandoned Norvel Pelle as the backup center after he struggled mightily to find the pace of the game early. I don’t think this team plays zone particularly well, but every extra trick in the bag is impactful down the road.

• Congratulations to Glenn Robinson III for finally making his first three since joining the Sixers. I am being 100 percent earnest, it had to feel good to get that out of the way and move back into normal NBA territory. Once Robinson III got that first one to drop, the floodgates were open from there, and he managed to keep the good vibes rolling all the way through the fourth quarter. This was the first game where he looked like the 40 percent shooter from deep that he proved himself to be in Golden State.

And once those shots started falling, Robinson had an easier time taking advantage of Philadelphia’s improved spacing, scoring on some nice slashes and cuts to the basket. Beyond that, Robinson III was one of their biggest weapons in transition and scored a few easy baskets before the Lakers could get set on defense. More nights like these, and Robinson III will have no confusion over his role with the Sixers.

• Matisse Thybulle has quietly had somewhat of a rough go of it lately so it was good to see a return to form for him, at times in ways we aren’t used to seeing from him. Thybulle had an impact on the offensive glass that looked like a tribute to James Ennis III, creating several extra possessions as a “go guy” on Tuesday night, and that was a great addition to his usual brand of pesky, disruptive defense.

Thybulle even sprinkled in some flashes as a ballhandler, including his slickest dribble move of the year that he followed with a tough finish in traffic in the third quarter. Asking him to create his own offense shouldn’t be an all-the-time thing, but with their stars out, it’s a good opportunity to grow his game and get him ready for the playoffs.

• As with the last game, I think the Sixers should mostly be happy with that game despite the result. We will get to the reason I think they lost the game below, but they got good contributions from a scrappy group of backups, and that’s about all you can ask for from an undermanned team.

The Bad

• I think it is officially time to throw any remaining Al Horford optimism out the window if there was any left to begin with. The only thing stopping people from labeling his contract one of the worst in the league is a career of production that he hasn’t been able to replicate in Philadelphia and fit concerns that have been alleviated with Joel Embiid out. It increasingly looks like Al Horford just isn’t good anymore, and that is a reality the Sixers have to deal with sooner than later.

Brett Brown has absorbed a lot of blame for Horford’s poor play, and he has deserved plenty of criticism for the difficulties the team has had this season. But Tuesday night, the Sixers’ offense was humming and they were having success playing a small-ball lineup with Mike Scott of all people playing center, throwing heavy zone looks at L.A. and building a double-digit lead in the process. It was only once Horford came back into the game that the wheels fell off, with the Lakers closing the half on a crazy run.

Anthony Davis was the hub for L.A. during that run, and all throughout the first half, he made Horford look old and gassed. Horford took cheap, uncharacteristic fouls and otherwise looked like he couldn’t summon the strength to move, with Davis going over him or past him with ease. The offensive end wasn’t much better, and things bogged down with Horford and Tobias Harris trying to back guys down in the mid/low post areas.

Remember, this is the guy who is supposed to be part of a multi-pronged plan to deal with Giannis Antetokounmpo, one of the league’s most sensational athletes and players and a guy who has made Horford look just as bad as Davis did. At what point are we supposed to see the guy who is supposed to be part of that solution? He had the ball ripped right from his hands by Avery Bradley, for goodness’ sake.

It seems hard to believe this is the same guy who tortured the Sixers for years, and it’s especially confusing because Horford looked much more competent even within this season — including on guys like the aforementioned Antetokounmpo. His year has taken a nosedive, and unless there’s a health issue that is being hidden — noteworthy that Horford’s left knee was being checked on throughout the game on Tuesday — this is a total disaster for Philly.

• Harris was not the total disaster Horford was, but as I mentioned following the Clippers game on Sunday, you see in these moments why Harris can’t really be looked at as a go-to option when it counts. The difference between being a very good offensive player and a great one is significant, and there are moments when it shows up in both halfcourt and transition settings.

I’m an advocate for Harris to be more of a grab-and-go guy than he is when Ben Simmons is healthy, but there are possessions where you can feel the absence of Simmons right now — plays that should be open threes for teammates or looks at the rim against a defense that isn’t set turn into stalled-out plays, missed shots, or turnovers. The burst and/or craft that you need to get past the defense isn’t there for Harris, and pressure mounts as you go deeper into the shot clock.

Devil’s advocate — I don’t know what the Sixers were doing on some of the late-game possessions. He had Kyle Kuzma on him for a few of them, who Harris cooked big time the last time these teams met. You don’t need to send screens in his direction in those moments. 

• Alec Burks is a prolific shooter. 

The Ugly

• Zone defense was used in a big way by the Sixers, and as mentioned above, it worked fairly well. It is still for cowards.

• If you had the courage to bet Sixers +12.5, my condolences for a terrible beat in the game’s final moments. Gambling is not for people with weak stomachs.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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