3 observations after Sixers' bench struggles again in loss to Suns


The Sixers will need a win over the Western Conference-leading Jazz Monday night to salvage a .500 West Coast road trip.

They dropped to 18-9 Saturday afternoon with a 120-111 loss to the Suns. Devin Booker posted 36 points, continuing his trend of success against the Sixers.

Joel Embiid scored 35 points, including 16 in the final quarter, and grabbed eight rebounds. Ben Simmons had 18 points, six rebounds and four assists, while Tobias Harris recorded 18 points on 7-for-9 shooting. 

Here are observations on the Sixers' loss to Phoenix:

Simmons strong in first half, Embiid gets his 

As is often the case, Simmons started Saturday’s game on the opponent’s top offensive weapon, Booker. 

“He is such a unique defender,” head coach Doc Rivers said pregame of Simmons, who thinks he’s the league’s best defensive player. “Most of the great defenders guard their position, and they do a great job there. Ben is a chameleon. Ben guards literally one through five, and we’re not scared to put him on one through five on needed possessions. The key for us is trying to keep him out of foul trouble early. Some games we have no choice — we have to start him on the best guy.”

Rivers named Dennis Rodman and Scottie Pippen as players comparable to Simmons defensively. He thought it was worth using Simmons on Booker from the opening tip, and that decision looked good early as Simmons again played strong defense with assistance from Embiid’s trapping in the pick-and-roll. Simmons earned five fast-break points in the first quarter and scored 16 total in the opening half, though he didn't sustain that level of impact after halftime. 

“I thought Ben was terrific overall in the game," Rivers said. "I thought he was aggressive when he needed to be and he was a passer when he needed to be. 

Danny Green and Matisse Thybulle also spent time on Booker throughout the game. Booker found a groove soon enough, remaining attack-minded despite the Sixers’ constant ball pressure and finding openings in transition. 

The Sixers limited his opportunities to take open three-pointers, but Booker has a diverse offensive game. Even with a new coaching staff, the Sixers haven’t yet settled on a great answer for how to stop him. 

“We let him get hot," Green said. "Partially my fault — let him get to the basket for a couple easy ones. We had him in a good spot to start. He wasn’t too comfortable, but once he got a couple to drop and got to the free throw line, then he got hot. They set some good screens for him. We didn’t get into their bodies like we were supposed to; we weren’t physical enough with those guys. We’ll fix those coverages.

"We allowed him to get to his left a lot — that left-hand layup, left-hand floater — and to get to the free throw line to get in a rhythm. Next thing you know,  he started to get into a rhythm and hit some tough ones over Ben. … A guy like that, he’s hard to stop, That’s why you don’t let him get hot.”

Embiid matched up against 2018 No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton, who had 11 points on 5-for-6 shooting. He was clearly the superior player when the two went 1-on-1, able to shoot mid-range jumpers with ease, and he exploited his obvious strength advantage when the Suns used Dario Saric at center. 

When Embiid, Simmons and Harris combine for an efficient 71 points, the Sixers should usually be able to win.

More three-point issues 

After allowing Portland to score 33 more points than them from beyond the arc, the Sixers only shot 7 for 17 from three-point territory and were 4 for 13 entering the final period. Phoenix was 10 for 25 from long range. 

The Sixers entered Saturday’s game 27th in the NBA in three-point frequency and 20th in three-point percentage, per Cleaning the Glass. Though 13 three-point makes over the last two games is especially low, the early-season trend is that the team has been below average from beyond the arc, especially in terms of volume.

The numbers could look a lot better in a week or two if Seth Curry, Green and a bench player or two get hot simultaneously, but we imagine president of basketball operations Daryl Morey will be more inclined to seek outside shooting the longer the Sixers' three-point problems persist.

"I think the game today is about getting those perimeter shots," Green said. "We don’t have to drastically change that, but I do think a lot changes when we move the ball. Our attempts on the perimeter are a result of our ball movement, or lack thereof. When we don’t get a lot of attempts (from) three, it’s because we’re moving it too slow or we’re not moving it at all. If we do what we’ve been doing earlier in the season ... we’ll get more attempts from the perimeter."

Lacking facilitation on the second unit 

Mike Scott, who’d been out since mid-January with a right knee injury, returned Saturday and was scoreless in 11 minutes. Shake Milton missed his second straight game because of a left ankle sprain, and Rivers said he doesn’t expect the 24-year-old will play Monday.

With Scott back, the Sixers used a 10-man rotation that featured an all-bench lineup early in the second period. That group didn’t fare well, experiencing familiar problems with offensive fluidity. 

“ … The ball has to move,” Rivers said pregame. “The ball didn’t move (against the Blazers), and that’s been one of the problems we’ve had with this unit throughout. They’re all scorers in that unit. Tyrese (Maxey) is really a scorer, Tobias, who we use (with the second unit), is a scorer. Shake’s a scorer, Furkan (Korkmaz) is a scorer.

"We need somebody to pass to each other. When they move the ball well, they have artificial ball movement that leads to good ball movement. And so we have to get them back to doing that more.”

It would make sense if the Sixers explored conventional backup ball handler options before the March 25 trade deadline. Of course, the second unit’s issues generating decent half-court offense are exacerbated when Milton is unavailable. While Milton isn’t a traditional point guard, he seems to have the best chance of any bench player at snapping a Sixers scoring drought by finding a good look for himself off the dribble.

The Sixers’ bench combined for 20 points and four assists against the Suns. Phoenix’s second unit scored 49 points, including 15 from Saric in his first game back after testing positive for COVID-19 and later spraining his ankle. 

"The bench hasn’t been bad this year, but they’ve been bad lately, probably going back about five games, in my opinion," Rivers said. "It’s a long season. I don’t ever overreact to a couple of games. But you still have to be better offensively, and that will help your defense a little bit. And if you’re going to be bad offensively, you’ve got to be great defensively. Right now that group has been bad on both (ends), so that’s something we have to address.”

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