3 observations after Sixers can't come back in Memphis, drop to 0-2 on road trip

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The Sixers now have only one chance left to take a win from their road trip.

The team dropped its second straight away game Friday night, falling to a 117-109 loss to the Grizzlies at FedEx Forum.

Joel Embiid posted 35 points, 11 rebounds, eight assists and three blocks. Tobias Harris had 21 points and 11 boards.

Ja Morant (28 points) and Jaren Jackson Jr. (22) were Memphis' top scorers. Steven Adams notched nine points, 16 rebounds, six assists, three steals and three blocks. 

James Harden, Tyrese Maxey and Jaden Springer remained out with injuries for the Sixers. Memphis was down Desmond Bane, Jake LaRavia, Ziaire Williams and Danny Green.

The Sixers will finish their three-game trip Monday in Houston. Harden is targeting a return that night from his right foot tendon sprain, The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported earlier this week. The Sixers have gone 8-6 without him and are 12-11 overall.

Here are observations on their loss Friday: 

Mixed results against Morant 

Morant took almost zero time to be spectacular. On Memphis’ first possession, he drove into the paint, leaped into the air, and twisted his body before flipping the ball into the hoop. 

De’Anthony Melton of course required no scouting report against his former teammate. Still, Morant possesses rare creativity, elasticity and speed. Familiarity can’t help very much. After an Embiid turnover late in the first quarter, Morant shook Melton with a between-the-legs move and glided in for a lefty layup. A couple of minutes later, he created space with the shot clock winding down to sink a top-of-the-key three-pointer on Melton. It appears few players — if any — have a realistic chance to stop an in-the-zone Morant from doing what he wants. 

The Sixers also used Danuel House Jr. and Matisse Thybulle on Morant. Memphis’ star guard started leaning more on his mid-range game in the pick-and-roll during the second quarter. That was perfectly fine from the Sixers’ perspective, especially since Thybulle is skilled at bothering shots from behind and Embiid is comfortable in drop coverage. Thybulle picked up a back-tap steal and generally played good defense in his 13 minutes. 

When Melton subbed back in, Morant rediscovered his groove. He ran a pick-and-roll with Adams, slowed down to shield off Melton with his body, then accelerated again and scooted in for a layup. On the Grizzlies’ next play, he tossed an alley-oop assist to Santi Aldama. The 23-year-old threw another fruitful lob when Brandon Clarke smartly cut along the baseline and slammed home a dunk with 1.9 seconds left in the second quarter, giving the Grizzlies a 64-54 lead.

One defensive issue for the Sixers was that zone looked less viable than usual. They tried it out of a timeout in the third quarter, but Adams beat them to two rebounds and sharpshooter John Konchar eventually made a pivotal three. The Sixers played zone again with both Thybulle and Melton on the court to start the fourth. David Roddy, a rookie technically drafted by the Sixers who’s in Memphis because of the draft-night Melton deal, drained a three against the zone. 

Individual spurts of Morant brilliance ultimately did not play a gigantic role in the Sixers’ loss; he scored only eight points in the second half and shot 10 for 28 from the floor in the game. However, the Grizzlies held a 17-2 edge in fast-break points at halftime, out-hustled the Sixers in important moments, and received useful contributions from all members of their nine-man rotation. 

Struggles without Embiid, Adams' boards both big 

While Adams’ incredible physical strength is always a massive obstacle, Embiid was generally able to earn touches and get to his spots for mid-range jumpers. Adams did refuse to allow an Embiid post catch late in the second quarter, intercepting Shake Milton’s ill-advised entry pass and generating a wide-open Morant corner three. 

With Embiid on the bench, the Sixers began the second quarter badly. Head coach Doc Rivers called a timeout after just 41 seconds of action and two and-one layups (with Paul Reed fouls on both). A Furkan Korkmaz turnover fueled a Grizzlies fast break, Jackson scored inside and outside, and Rivers soon asked for another timeout. 

Thybulle and PJ Tucker subbed in, but Jackson nailed another three to extend Memphis’ run to 15-0. Finally, Milton drove to the hoop, drew a whistle, and stopped the bleeding.

The question of when to address problems within a game and when to allow players to figure out solutions themselves is always a difficult one for head coaches. Obviously, Rivers never wants to use two timeouts in quick succession because of his team’s inability to stem a run. Reed didn’t play well, but the Sixers’ play early in the second was poor across the board. They’ll expect Harden’s return to make them better at halting runs when Embiid is out. 

Adams’ all-night tenacity had a huge impact in the third quarter. In addition to grabbing a few of his 10 offensive boards, Adams intercepted a Milton inbounds pass intended for Embiid and sprinted the other way for a solo dunk. Out of a Sixers timeout, the team ran a confused half-court set that ended with Adams blocking an Embiid three.

Embiid played over 40 minutes in a losing effort, but the inclination to limit his time on the sidelines was somewhat understandable. The Sixers outscored Memphis by nine points with Embiid on the court. During Reed's six minutes of playing time, they were outscored by 16.

Harris hot early, not involved late 

After going 0 for 7 from the floor and playing through an illness in Wednesday's defeat to the Cavs, Harris was strong early. He scored the Sixers' first eight points, including two catch-and-shoot threes. 

For the night, Harris went 5 for 6 from long range. He and Embiid both connected early in the third quarter to cut the Sixers' deficit to 73-67. However, Sixers besides Harris weren't very effective beyond the arc for the majority of the game.

Three-point luck suddenly shifted in the Sixers' favor and made a fourth-quarter comeback not entirely impossible. Following a step-back House three, Embiid scored a layup through contact to trim Memphis' lead to 111-106 with 3:01 to go.

The Sixers still needed precise execution on almost every half-court possession to erase a deficit as high as 18 points, and they did not pull that off. Milton missed a tough layup, Melton couldn't hit a floater, and Embiid settled for a wayward fadeaway jumper. With about 25 seconds left, Jackson snuffed out a last-ditch Sixers push, swooping in to deny an Embiid dunk.

Meanwhile, Harris watched most of the offensive action down the stretch. In the fourth quarter, he was scoreless and attempted just one shot.

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