3 observations after Sixers drop to 0-3 with a home loss to young Spurs


Jalen Hurts, the quarterback of the 6-0 Philadelphia Eagles, rang the Sixers' ceremonial pregame bell Saturday night.

The fans at Wells Fargo Center were thrilled late in the fourth quarter ... when an update on the Phillies' NLCS game against the Padres appeared on the jumbotron.

The Sixers, meanwhile, dropped to 0-3, and were booed at the final buzzer of a 114-105 loss to the Spurs.

Joel Embiid had 40 points and 13 rebounds.

San Antonio was led by Devin Vassell (22 points) and Keldon Johnson (21 points). 

The Sixers will finish their three-game homestand Monday night against the Pacers. Here are observations on a poor loss in a season that's yet to include a win:

Sixers turn to new rotations 

As he’d suggested he would the day prior, Sixers head coach Doc Rivers adjusted the Sixers’ rotation to compensate for the fact that Embiid’s conditioning is a work in progress. 

Instead of a full quarter, Embiid’s first stint only lasted 6:56. Montrezl Harrell replaced him, and Embiid then returned to the action a little over four minutes later. The pattern was similar in the second half. 

Rivers mixed up his lineups plenty and also added Matisse Thybulle to the mix for three second-quarter minutes. Thybulle, who missed an open corner three and didn’t do much else of note, briefly spent time in P.J. Tucker’s spot alongside the Sixers’ four other starters. Rivers said Friday that Thybulle would “get a chance to earn minutes at some point for sure.” Knocking down outside jumpers is surely one way Thybulle can do that, though his opportunities have been very sparse thus far. 

In the middle of the second quarter, Danuel House Jr. was the second-unit Sixer on the floor with four starters as Tucker played center. Small ball was a lot less successful for the Sixers than on Thursday night vs. the Bucks. After the Sixers concluded a possession against zone defense by House air balling a three long, San Antonio got big man Jakob Poeltl an easy hoop inside on Tucker to go up 46-41. Boos from the home fans were back after a Josh Primo three, and Embiid soon rose to re-enter. 

Rivers’ experimentation was generally understandable given the need to work around Embiid’s conditioning, but it enhanced the impression that the Sixers still have a long ways to go in terms of cohesion and team identity. Eventually, the aim will be to find something a lot more stable — and the expectation is that will involve longer stints for Embiid.

For now, what feels most important is just winning a game. 

Issues aplenty, but Embiid back on track 

Embiid’s night did not begin auspiciously. Seeking a close-range bucket after his 6-for-21 outing against Milwaukee, he tried a dunk and missed it. 

Overall, the teams combined to miss the game’s first eight field-goal attempts. Poeltl’s free throw with 9:39 left in the first quarter was the night’s first point.

The Sixers' offense continued to look awkward at times around Embiid’s touches in the post or at the elbow, though one bright exception was a nice Embiid dish to a cutting House for a dunk early in the second quarter. Still, there were quite a few plays when Embiid caught the ball, a double team arrived, and he kept it for at least another second or two. While some of that specific issue can be attributed simply to Embiid not making brisk decisions, it’s seemed the new Sixers are still picking up some fundamentals about playing next to a star center. 

“Not role clarity, just spacing,” Rivers said Friday. “Joel, we have the iso play on the elbow where it should just be one guy in the corner and three guys on the weak side. Both times down the stretch of the game (against the Bucks), two guys are on the strong side of where he wanted to go, so he had to settle. … New team, new guys, but as a coach you get frustrated with that because we’ve only run that play 50 times already. Then another guy did it. But both of them were new guys, and they were both in the wrong spot. Those are the things early on where you build and you get better at it.”

Along those lines, the Sixers had a bad defensive breakdown in the third quarter when Gorgui Dieng found himself alone for a dunk that put the Spurs up 70-68. Rivers called timeout and Harrell and Tyrese Maxey had an animated dialogue about what went wrong. Later in the third, De’Anthony Melton fouled former Sixer Josh Richardson as he sunk a corner three. Richardson’s free throw extended San Antonio’s lead to seven points. A fortunate bounce on a Doug McDermott jumper grew that advantage to double digits. 

Embiid’s performance was clearly a more positive development for the Sixers. He drew nine first-half foul shots, passing Wilt Chamberlain for 10th on the Sixers’ all-time free throw attempts list in the process. This was a much better game than the first two for Embiid as a roller and aggressive player in the paint. He threw down two alley-oop dunks off Maxey feeds in the third and also scored a layup off of a fast-break James Harden dish. 

Failures with the fundamentals

Maxey (25 points, six assists) provided the Sixers a bit of sorely needed energy early on. 

He made a wing three and, less than a minute later, did well defensively to sink down and intercept an interior Jeremy Sochan pass. The Sixers sprinted out in transition and finished the play with a Maxey layup.

However, neither Maxey (8 for 18) nor Harden (4 for 18) had good shooting nights. Harden did nail a timely three in the fourth quarter after House snagged an offensive board and kicked the ball out. Those three points were the only ones not scored by Embiid during an 11-0 run that gave the Sixers an 86-85 edge. 

The young Spurs played well, of course — Vassell was especially excellent in an 18-point first half — but the Sixers have made too many unacceptable mistakes through three games.

A shooter with a reputation like McDermott shouldn't have been able to catch fire as easily as he did in the second half. House was twice beaten on cuts for layups. Poeltl got two second-chance layups in the fourth. The team obviously has lost for reasons beyond effort and attention to basic details, but they haven't been strong at all in either department. 

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