Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid were the Sixers' two best players by a comfortable margin Thursday night in Portland. Ultimately, they required a smidge more support.
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Simmons' inbounds pass attempt with 3.1 seconds remaining and the Sixers down two points was intercepted, and Damian Lillard sealed a 118-114 Trail Blazers win with two free throws. Carmelo Anthony caught fire in the fourth period, scoring 24 points overall and making the go-ahead foul shots before the Sixers' failed final possession.
Embiid scored 35 points and Simmons recorded a season-high 23 points on 10-for-12 shooting. He also had 11 rebounds, nine assists, a steal and a block.
Lillard led the Blazers with 30 points and seven assists.
Portland was 17 for 38 from three-point territory, while the 18-8 Sixers were only 6 for 27.
The Sixers next play Saturday afternoon against the Suns. Here are observations on their loss to the Blazers:
Simmons shines against Lillard
After being sidelined by injury in the Sixers’ loss to the Blazers last week, both Simmons and Lillard were healthy and available Thursday night.
The Sixers hedged and blitzed Lillard often in the pick-and-roll, not a surprising approach against one of the league’s best scorers and playmakers. Like many teams, they saw early that Lillard has a variety of deft counters as he rejected screens, slithered between defenders and made long three-point shots. Portland started 7 of 8 from long range, and Lillard made four of his first five.
Simmons didn’t do much wrong defensively, but Lillard has stretches in which he appears impossible to guard. The two lead ball handlers were their teams’ top scorers in the opening period, with Lillard posting 19 points and Simmons 13. Lillard cooled off considerably, in large parts because of Simmons’ efforts, shooting 6 for 21 in the game.
Over the last two games, Simmons has started aggressively and been effective tossing in running hooks and push shots with his right hand. If he makes those shots with regularity, they’re theoretically among the tools that could enhance his offensive game outside of frequent jump shooting.
Simmons offers a lot more than scoring, to put it mildly. head coach Doc Rivers’ early-season insistence that there’s too much consternation about the 24-year-old’s points total is understandable given how Simmons has contributed to the Sixers’ strong start with his speed and skill in transition, defensive excellence and value kicking out to outside shooters. Still, the Sixers are a better team when Simmons is scoring efficiently to supplement all those other qualities.
Another big night from Embiid, but not enough
When the Sixers build a first-quarter free throw advantage, it’s usually thanks to Embiid. Against Portland, however, Tobias Harris was the somewhat unlikely early leader on the foul drawing front.
Though Harris has obviously started the season very well, he hasn’t yet made the improvement he was hoping to in terms of drawing fouls. He entered this game having been fouled on 7.1 percent of his shot attempts, per Cleaning the Glass, a rate that would’ve been a career low. Harris began well Thursday, shooting 7 for 7 from the foul line in the opening half and driving nicely through contact.
As for Embiid, he got rolling in the final few minutes of the half after starting 3 for 9 from the field. The question of whether or not he scores on a given possession almost always looks dependent on him, not a matter within the defender’s control.
By the end of the half, he had 23 points, including four in the final 2.3 seconds on a fadeaway jumper and buzzer-beating bank shot. Not as good as his 31 points in the first matchup against the Blazers, but not too shabby.
Embiid's second-half offensive output wasn't as prodigious, though he remained diligent in tracking Lillard on the perimeter and very difficult to stop one-on-one. Enes Kanter drew a crucial offensive foul on Embiid with 2:01 left in the game.
Maxey steps in for Milton
Shake Milton missed Thursday’s game with a left ankle sprain, leading to an opportunity for Tyrese Maxey to receive rotation minutes.
“I’ve learned as a coach, you can’t play everybody,” Rivers said pregame. “You just can’t. You pick your rotation and Maxey is right on the edge of that right now. Hopefully, by the end of the year, he’s in it, because I believe in him and I think he’s going to be a terrific player. I like Isaiah Joe, too. But again, you just can’t play everybody.”
Maxey didn’t boost his case for an uptick in playing time in the near future. He missed a contested mid-range jumper and an open three, had no success as a driver and generally had little positive impact on the game during his first stint.
That said, Maxey’s already had plenty of bright moments through an eventful first 25 games of his NBA career. It was inevitable that his minutes would fluctuate on a team that’s leading the Eastern Conference.
“Confidence comes with work, and I work extremely hard,” Maxey said after the Sixers’ shoootaround Thursday. “I’m always in the gym, so confidence will always be high. I have no lack of confidence at all.”
As an illustration of that self-belief, Maxey immediately converted an and-one after checking into the game in the third period. He finished with five points on 2-for-8 shooting in 13 minutes.