3 observations after Simmons' career-high night not enough without Embiid

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Ben Simmons was extraordinary Monday night in Utah, appearing determined to guide the Sixers to a win over the Western Conference’s top team.

His task was made more difficult, however, by the absence of Joel Embiid, who was a late scratch because of back tightness. Despite Simmons' career-high 42 points (15 for 26 from the floor, 12 for 13 from the foul line), 12 assists and nine rebounds, the Sixers fell to the Jazz by a 134-123 score.

Tobias Harris was Simmons' main source of support offensively, scoring an impressive 36 points and grabbing 10 rebounds. 

"That’s who he has to be — straight line, aggressive and powerful," head coach Doc Rivers said. "When he plays like that, he’s hard to deal with. I thought he played a very decisive game. ... He’s really keeping the game simple, he’s playing with great force, he’s scoring from the three, off the dribble, in the post. He’s doing exactly what we believe he can do."

Jordan Clarkson bolstered his Sixth Man of the Year case by torching the Sixers for 40 points on 13-for-20 shooting.

The Sixers have lost three straight games but are still leading the Eastern Conference at 18-10. The team will fly back to Philadelphia and play the Rockets on Wednesday at Wells Fargo Center.

Here are observations on Monday’s game: 

A different approach without Embiid 

Though Embiid had been listed as questionable throughout the day, Rivers said pregame when asked about his status, “I didn’t know there was an issue. As far as I know, he’s going.”

Embiid was ruled out shortly before tip-off, though, the sixth game he’s sat out this season. Rivers doesn't believe Embiid isn't dealing with a serious injury. 

"I thought he would play, and then they came to me and told me his back was still stiff," Rivers said postgame. "I don’t think this is a long-term issue or anything like that. I think it’s just a game missed.”

Mike Scott started in Embiid's place and posted six points in 17 minutes, while Dwight Howard spelled Simmons at center and also played next to him at times. Tony Bradley, who’d started on Jan. 31 against the Pacers in the last game Embiid was sidelined, wasn’t part of Rivers’ rotation.

Howard’s physical, high-energy game mostly worked well against the Jazz. He set hard screens, fought for offensive rebounds and gave the Sixers 26 solid minutes, recording 14 points and 12 rebounds.

Rivers said Howard had a death in the family Monday.

"He didn’t come to shootaround, didn’t even show up to the arena until 5:30, 6 o’clock," Rivers said. "I assumed he wasn’t playing. I told him he didn’t have to play and he said, ‘Coach, I just want to get on the floor. It’s better than just sitting around in a room.’ I thought he was phenomenal.”

Simmons excellent as Sixers go small 

Simmons was guarded by two-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert to begin the game and saw that matchup as an invitation to attack. He scored the Sixers’ first eight points, converting two driving layups, slamming home a put-back dunk and drawing two free throws.

Derrick Favors didn’t have any more success in his initial stint on Simmons, who made his first seven field goals and five three throws, scored 19 first-quarter points and looked dangerous and explosive against Utah’s much less speedy big men.

His teammates were clicking offensively from the jump, too, as Seth Curry opened 3 for 3 and Harris started 4 for 6. Though their defense was certainly not stingy, this was by far the best the Sixers have played when they’ve turned to small ball. While Simmons’ production was perhaps enhanced because Utah decided to primarily defend him with centers — a development future Sixers opponents will note — Monday night illustrates the appeal of using lineups without a traditional big man when Embiid is on the bench.   

The Sixers’ offense was tailored to maximize Simmons’ talents as a driver, roll man and facilitator, and all of those abilities were evident in abundance.

Low three-point volume and a big bench disparity, again 

The Sixers conceded a sizable edge to their opponent in bench scoring, not for the first time on this road trip. After Utah’s 57-25 second-unit advantage, the Sixers’ bench has been outscored by 87 points over the team’s last three games without Shake Milton (left ankle sprain). Rookie Isaiah Joe notably replaced the struggling Furkan Korkmaz in the rotation for three fourth-quarter minutes.

"I’m not that concerned," Rivers said about his bench. "It’s way too early for me to be concerned. I always tell everyone, benches go up and down. It happens during the season. During the playoffs, you don’t play (bench players) as much anyway, so you’re not that concerned by it. But during the season, you need them. You really do. You don’t want to play (key) guys big minutes; you want to play your bench big minutes.

"So, we definitely have to figure it out. I do think Shake is one part of it but, being honest, I thought our bench was struggling a little bit before Shake went out. We have to definitely do something to fix it, for sure.”

Another recurring problem for the Sixers has been a low volume of three-point attempts. They shot 8 for 23 from behind the arc, compared to Utah’s 18 for 45 mark. 

From the start of the season through their Jan. 14 win over the Heat, 35.7 percent of the Sixers’ field goal attempts were three-pointers. From Jan. 15 through before tip-off Monday night, that number dropped to just 26.0 percent, per Cleaning the Glass, lowest in the NBA during that stretch. The team’s last game with 30 or more three-point attempts was Jan. 14. 

“It’s just ebbs and flows of the season,” Rivers said before the game. “Long season. I think, when our defense is really good, we tend to get more threes. When our defense is average, we tend to get less threes. A lot of our threes come in transition off of misses, so I would say that’s probably the reason.”

Indeed, the Sixers’ defense has not played well lately, and the Jazz limited open-floor opportunities by only turning the ball over 11 times and shooting 52.3 percent from the floor. The Sixers used a zone defense in the fourth period, the same strategy that had spurred their comeback win over the Pacers in their last game without Embiid, but it didn't have the desired impact. 

The Sixers’ modest number of three-point tries is a trend worth tracking and considering ahead of the March 25 trade deadline. President of basketball operations Daryl Morey said at his introductory press conference he didn’t think it was necessary to replicate what he did with the Rockets, but it’s obviously uncharacteristic for one of his teams to shoot so little from three-point range relative to the rest of the NBA.

Harris feels the Sixers need to take more threes, though he wants those long-range attempts to be high-quality looks.

"Simple math would tell you that," he said. "(The Jazz) do shoot a lot of threes. Even in their starting lineup, everybody but Gobert is shooting pretty much 40 percent from three. They have a lot of guys shooting it at a high clip; it’s kind of what their offense is based on — drive and kick and getting open threes. I think for us, more threes is definitely a thing that we’ll continue to try to look at.

"I think we’ve still been efficient with the twos that we’ve been making. It’s simple math — three is greater than two — but I think it’s about the looks we get from three. The threes that we’re getting, we want to get open looks and get threes over the course of a game. But I think that’s something we definitely want to get more of at some point.”

On a night when the Sixers scored 123 points against one of the league’s best defenses, offense clearly wasn’t the main issue. 

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