Philadelphia 76ers

Joel Embiid Dominates But Undermanned Sixers Fall to the Phoenix Suns

Joel Embiid dominated and nearly hit a miracle 3 to send the game to OT, but without three starters, the undermanned Sixers fell to the Phoenix Suns 116-113.

3 observations after Sixers sit 3 starters, drop close game to Suns originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

The Sixers were down two starters Monday night for their loss to the Warriors. They added a third on the sidelines Wednesday, which made the task of beating a team that's already reached 40 wins very difficult.

In addition to Ben Simmons (illness) and Tobias Harris (right knee soreness), Seth Curry (left hip flexor recovery) was out against the Suns. Furkan Korkmaz exited in the third quarter with an apparent right ankle injury but returned in the fourth. 

The Sixers were competitive despite missing those absences but fell to Phoenix, 116-113, dropping to 39-19 on the season. Joel Embiid had 38 points, 17 rebounds and four assists in the loss. A full-court Embiid heave at the buzzer that would've sent the game to overtime nearly went in.

The team will travel to Milwaukee for games Thursday night and Saturday afternoon. 

Head coach Doc Rivers was asked pregame whether the Sixers had an incentive to be as ready (and healthy) as possible for the Bucks mini-series.

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“I would like to win so wherever you can get that win, you want to take the win,” he said. “I’m not saying we would win if we played everybody tonight or tomorrow. I guess the incentive, when you look at the Milwaukee situation, is if you win tomorrow you have a chance to play for the season series. But if guys are not healthy, there’s nothing you can do about it.” 

Another health-related note: Rivers said a “high percentage” of the Sixers have been vaccinated against COVID-19, though he knew of “two or three guys” that had not been. 

Here are three observations on the Sixers' loss to Phoenix: 

More positive Maxey minutes 

After Monday’s game, Rivers said he planned on playing four guards simultaneously “a lot” with George Hill now in the mix. Indeed, he started four perimeter players Wednesday, going with Shake Milton, Korkmaz, Danny Green and Matisse Thybulle next to Embiid. Milton, Thybulle, Hill and Tyrese Maxey was another four-guard lineup that featured in both games. 

Could Maxey factor into the playoff rotation, or is he bound to be a player only used when a star has foul trouble or suffers an injury? Substantial every playoff game still doesn’t sound probable, though Maxey has played good basketball recently. His speed and dribble penetration have always been standout qualities, but he’s also changed gears well and looked solid overall at both ends of the floor.

Maxey recorded 14 points on 5-for-11 shooting, three assists and two steals in 31 minutes. Even as a rookie, he has game-shifting potential in the postseason. We’ll see whether Rivers ever trusts the 20-year-old over more experienced options when the stakes are high. If another player is struggling or the Sixers’ game plan is ineffective, that might be Maxey’s time. 

In contrast to Maxey, Milton has been subpar as of late. He committed four of the Sixers’ 17 turnovers Wednesday and shot 2 for 10 from the floor. Indecisiveness and inability to create separation have been issues in addition to the missed jumpers. 

Hill made both of his three-point tries and had more ball handling responsibilities than in his debut with the team. While getting fully acclimated to the Sixers’ system will be a gradual process, he’s shown encouraging signs in his first two games. 

A backdoor cut and reverse layup off of a Dwight Howard pass was another highlight in Hill's 11-point night. 

Devin Booker entered Wednesday’s contest averaging nearly 30 points per game in his career against the Sixers. He only managed 19, shooting 6 for 14 from the floor and dishing out seven assists.

Thybulle was scoreless in his 36 minutes, but he was very helpful to have against Booker with Simmons out. Though Thybulle fouled Booker on two jumpers (he vehemently disagreed with the second call), the 24-year-old also had plenty of excellent possessions. He had three crowd-pleasing blocks and two steals but was good even when he wasn't creating chaos.

These types of games lend credence to the idea that Thybulle deserves serious consideration for All-Defensive teams despite being a bench player.

The Sixers put Green on Chris Paul, who assumed a greater scoring role than usual. He played his typically patient, cunning game, posting 28 points and eight assists

The Suns whipped the ball around the perimeter, turning down decent three-point looks in search of wide-open shots and forcing the Sixers’ defense to work. They put up 42 threes, making 15. Local kid (and Sixer for 20 minutes or so) Mikal Bridges scored 18 points and also had two blocks and two steals.

Embiid carrying a large load 

Embiid scored nine of the Sixers’ first 15 points, helping them take a quick double-digit lead for the third straight game. They’ve tended to be the more focused and energetic team at the start of games, which could perhaps be useful in the playoffs if they’re able to build early advantages and maintain them all night with strong defense. 

Of course, holding a wire-to-wire lead is far easier said than done in the NBA. Phoenix immediately scored 10 points in a row to tie the game at 15-all.

Almost everything positive that the Sixers did offensively in the first half centered around Embiid, which was unsurprising given the circumstances. He grabbed eight offensive rebounds.

Embiid said last week that, if officials had to call every game “honestly,” he would average 30 free throw attempts. The lack of foul calls visibly frustrated him on several occasions Wednesday, but he powered through contact well.

On a negative note, Embiid was sometimes sloppy with the ball, turning it over eight times. Two of those were within a 20-second stretch in the third period when he tossed the ball out of bounds, then was loose when he dribbled it up the floor on the Sixers’ next possession. 

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