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Sixers Stumble in Loss to Pistons Without Joel Embiid

3 observations after Sixers stumble in Detroit without Embiid originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

The Sixers could’ve strutted into their game Wednesday night against the defending champion Lakers with a four-game winning streak.

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They’re still first in the Eastern Conference at 12-6 but not riding quite so high after a 119-104 defeat Monday to the Pistons at Little Caesars Arena. 

Joel Embiid (back tightness) and Derrick Rose (left knee soreness) were both sidelined. Mike Scott remained out with right knee swelling, while Vincent Poirier was out because of the NBA’s health and safety protocols.

Scott was called for a technical foul early in the fourth quarter as he intervened following an exchange of words between Ben Simmons and Josh Jackson, coming off the bench to get into Jackson’s face and characteristically showing no hesitation in standing up for one of his team’s stars. Jackson was ejected shortly after that altercation as he kept talking with Simmons, hit him in the face and earned a second technical foul.

Head coach Doc Rivers said he expects Embiid to play Wednesday but isn’t yet sure if he will.

“His back is stiff and obviously we went to get through the season with everyone healthy,” Rivers said before the game. “It’s the right thing to do.”

Here are observations on the Sixers’ loss Monday in Detroit: 

Late to the party

While one of Dwight Howard’s biggest strengths is his rebounding, the Sixers started out dismally in that department. Detroit grabbed 11 of the game’s first 13 rebounds and jumped out to a 26-11 lead. 

A little good fortune was involved in the extreme early rebounding differential, but the Sixers also were sluggish. Simmons’ being whistled for two fouls before five minutes had elapsed didn’t help. He was called for his third early in the second period, leading Rivers to keep him on the bench for the remainder of the first half. Simmons couldn’t shake his foul problems, biting on a Blake Griffin pump fake with 7:47 remaining in the third quarter. He finished the game with 11 points, four assists and four rebounds in 21 minutes.

With all due respect to the Pistons, the Sixers shouldn’t ever be 15 points behind a 3-13 team eight minutes into a game, regardless of Embiid’s status, Simmons’ foul trouble or disagreements about the officiating (Howard  picked up another technical foul, as he had Saturday).  

Matisse Thybulle’s activity level stood out from his teammates’ in the first half as he sniffed around for turnover opportunities and added necessary energy. 

Tony Bradley started the second half in place of Howard and did well. The 23-year-old recorded 12 points and nine rebounds in the game and boosted his case for playing time down the road.

The big picture without Embiid 

The Sixers are now 0-4 without Embiid this season.

That record doesn’t mean it’s necessary for the team to search desperately for a different backup center solution. Howard is a decent second-unit big man who hasn’t played near his best during the games Embiid has missed. An issue with Howard is that his game doesn’t naturally mesh with Simmons as well as Al Horford’s did, since he provides a lot less in terms of shooting, floor spacing and passing. That said, it was perfectly sensible for Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey to invest in a potential bargain at backup center, signing Howard to a veteran minimum contract the season after the Sixers gave Horford a four-year deal with $97 million guaranteed.

Perhaps the Sixers could explore creative internal options, like more small-ball lineups in games where Embiid is out, but Simmons at center certainly hasn’t looked like a panacea. 

If Embiid isn’t healthy for the playoffs, the Sixers’ odds of winning games and series decrease drastically. That’s no great revelation. 

We’ve seen, at least through their first nine games together, that the individual components of the Sixers’ first-choice starting lineup make each other better. The Sixers have yet to lose when Simmons, Embiid, Seth Curry, Danny Green and Tobias Harris start. Per Cleaning the Glass, that group has an excellent plus-18.9 net rating in 379 non-garbage time possessions together.

When a piece or two is missing — especially a player like Embiid, one of the league’s most valuable — the Sixers have been much easier to beat. 

On the wrong side of free throw disparity 

The Sixers entered the game second In the NBA in offensive free throw rate and 13th in defensive free throw rate, per Cleaning the Glass.

Embiid has been a huge factor in their success, of course, and the team lost the free throw battle badly Monday night without him. Detroit shot 32 for 38 from the foul line, while the Sixers were 15 for 20. In addition to the simple fact of Embiid’s absence, those numbers are also indicative of the Pistons driving into contact more (and with great effectiveness) than the Sixers.

Simmons, after making 10 of 12 free throws Saturday, converted only 1 of 3. Tobias Harris, who led the Sixers in scoring with 25 points, made 2 of 4 foul shots. 

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