The Philadelphia 76ers drop another game in Joel Embiid’s absence.
The Tuesday night game at Detroit was a classic “trap” game for the Philadelphia 76ers. Riding a three game winning streak, playing without Joel Embiid against a 3-13 Pistons team, and looking ahead at a Wednesday night matchup against LeBron James and the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, the game began exactly the way you would expect.
The Sixers came out flat and the young, hungry Pistons came out loose and aggressive, jumping out to leads of 15- 4 and then 26-11. Slowly but surely the energy began to build and the Sixers began to dig in and fight. Strong play on both ends from Tobias Harris and an unexpected jolt off the bench from Tony Bradley helped them cut the lead to eleven after the first stanza.
Unlike the lethargic effort they showed against the Memphis Grizzlies the last time Joel Embiid sat out, this time the Sixers showed engagement and assertiveness on both ends. The aggressive energy carried into the second quarter as they began to chip away at that Pistons lead. Matisse Thybulle, giving up 40 pounds and 4 inches to Blake Griffin, defended him like a Pit Bull and the frustration began to wear on Griffin as the play became more physical and both teams clamped down on defense.
After cutting the lead to five behind some inspired defense the Sixers picked up a pair of technical fouls on Dwight Howard and Doc Rivers when the game turned chippy, and it seemed to take some of the air out of them. Simmons picked up his third personal foul and spent the rest of the half on the bench. The Pistons took advantage of the lapse in concentration and pushed their lead back out to 17.
It was apparent how much Philadelphia relies on Embiid as they were outrebounded by ten in the first 24 minutes and went to the free throw line 13 fewer times. Philly native Wayne Ellington and former Sixer Jerami Grant led the way for Detroit with 14 points each and they took a 14 point lead into the half.
Unlike last week’s Memphis game when none of the starters wanted to be a leader, Ben Simmons came out strong in the second half, taking (and missing) a corner three before getting a steal and runout, a Harris three point play, and Simmons grabbing a long board and kicking out for a Danny Green three pointer. He picked up a silly 4th foul biting on a bad fake from Griffin but stayed in the game and stayed assertive. Throughout the third quarter the 76ers battled and made runs, only to watch the Pistons have answers for every one. After cutting the lead to 7 it was back up to 13 at the end of the third. As the game wore on the Sixers began to fall apart, with the Pistons beating them to loose balls and outhustling them throughout the second half.
This was a game that cried out for a veteran like Seth Curry or Danny Green to take control but it never happened. None of the Sixers perimeter player besides Harris was able to do much of anything tonight. Milton seemed to want to take over but the shot wasn’t falling and he compounded it with a series of silly fouls. In the end, the Sixers simply had no one to turn to and the Pistons, smelling blood in the water, poured it on down the stretch.
For long periods of this game it felt like Tobias Harris was the only Sixer who could score the ball and this team will not be able to survive long if other players do not step up to accept more of a role in Embiid’s absences. Knowing that Joel will miss games here and there for rest or to care for his back, this team must prepare contingency plans. They need to know who the first, second, and third primary scoring options are without him and have plans in place to put those players in the best position to succeed. This team seems to have no identity without Joel and often appear to be confused about who the offense should run through. For now, the bright side is that Embiid should be back in the lineup for the next game on Wednesday.
Wednesday will be the real acid test for this Sixers team. Despite their strong start the critics have constantly reminded everyone that they haven’t played anyone good yet. Well, the Lakers are the best team in the NBA right now and the Sixers are still unbeaten when they have all of their starters so this will be the perfect opportunity to see where they really stand.