To no one’s surprise, the Sixers will not end the 2022-23 season undefeated in games without Joel Embiid.
The team fell to 2-1 in Embiid-less contests and 4-5 overall Wednesday night at Wells Fargo Center with a 121-11 loss to the Wizards.
Embiid missed a second consecutive game with a non-COVID illness. Sixers head coach Doc Rivers said pregame that Embiid has the flu and has been away from the team.
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De’Anthony Melton was officially ruled out about 30 minutes before tip-off because of left lower back stiffness.
Tyrese Maxey's 32 points led the Sixers. James Harden had 24 points and 10 assists.
Kristaps Porzingis scored 30 for Washington and Bradley Beal posted 29.
The Sixers will host the Knicks on Friday. Here are observations on their loss to the Wizards:
Thybulle in first five
Matisse Thybulle started for the first time since last year’s regular-season finale.
He began the night guarding Beal and made a strong defensive play early. Thybulle jumped into a passing lane and dished to Maxey for a fast-break layup. The two-time All-Defensive selection also got a lay-in of his own in the first quarter after Tobias Harris (16 points, nine rebounds) threaded a pass through to him from the baseline.
The Sixers used Thybulle often as a screener for Harden, a look that was promising last regular season. On a fundamental level, it was positive to force Porzingis to play pick-and-roll defense and do something defensively besides help off of Thybulle.
However, Thybulle had an attempt at the rim blocked and also fumbled a pass from Harden. It makes sense to have plenty of non-big men set screens for Harden, but Thybulle clearly isn’t the best Sixer in that area once he receives the ball. Melton has impressed in that way thus far by making floaters and mid-range jumpers, seeing open passes right away, and generally being self-assured and multi-skilled with the ball.
Thybulle checked out early in the third quarter and went back to the Sixers' locker room with head athletic trainer Kevin Johnson. Though he returned to the bench, he never came back into the game. Georges Niang (13 points, 3 for 6 from three-point range) was part of the Sixers' closing lineup instead.
Rivers said postgame that he believed Thybulle sprained his ankle, though he was unsure. He called the 25-year-old's performance "not great tonight."
“They put Porzingis on him, and that’s what teams do," Rivers said. “That’s something he just has to keep working on. They put a five on you or their worst defender on you, try to be more of a pick-setter — pass and roll. That clearly affects us. When we set picks, (usually) we have De’Anthony or Tyrese rolling. Matisse rolling is what they wanted.”
Stops in short supply
Coming off of a 32-point night Monday in the Wizards’ home loss to the Sixers, Porzingis scored 11 in the first quarter on 4-for-5 shooting.
While the matchup was again favorable for the 7-foot-3 Porzingis, some of his early success came too easily. When P.J. Tucker fell for a fake handoff, Porzingis drove into the lane and threw down an unguarded dunk that tied the game at 12-all. Tucker was called for his second foul with 2:48 left in the first quarter for off-ball contact on Porzinigs. He objected to the call vociferously.
Montrezl Harrell replaced Tucker and the Sixers’ defense struggled late in the first quarter. Monte Morris made a jumper as the shot clock expired and got fouled by Harrell in the process. Will Barton went on an individual 5-0 run, hitting a pull-up three-pointer and converting a reverse layup around Harrell that gave Washington a 31-20 lead. As the Sixers have known for a while, perimeter mistakes are bound to be more costly when Embiid isn’t at center.
The size disparity stood out on almost every possession and was difficult for the Sixers to avoid. Backup Wizards big man Daniel Gafford had eight points early in the second period. On one play, Shake Milton rose both arms to contest Gafford inside, but it was obvious he could do nothing to bother a much taller player once Gafford caught the ball that close to the hoop. Milton picked up his third foul with 7:35 to go in the second on a moving screen. Tucker then entered … and was whistled for his third foul nine seconds later on a Deni Avdija layup attempt.
The Sixers' defensive frustrations never ended, though the Wizards didn't hurt them from long distance. While the Sixers made 14 more threes than Washington (19-5), they ultimately lost because the Wizards shot 57.7 percent from the floor and drew 12 more free throws (32-20).
“Communication, and then boxing out — defensive rebounds," Maxey said. “With switching, you’ve got cross-matches. Everybody in the league is doing it now. When we switch, we’ve got to remember who we’re guarding.
“Sometimes guys are crashing, sometimes you can help off guys.. ... Know who we’re guarding after we switch — if they’re a crasher, if they’re a red guy, a hot guy, or a green guy — it depends. So I think that’s one of our biggest things we need to improve at right now.”
Backcourt firepower not quite enough
Harden scored seven straight points late in the second quarter, getting the Sixers back on track soon after their deficit hit double digits. That stretch was fueled in part by Paul Reed, who checked in because of Tucker’s foul trouble. Reed created three quick points by tapping an offensive rebound out to Harden behind the arc. He also effectively contested a Beal layup and scored inside. Still, Rivers stuck with Harrell as his backup center in the second half.
“I thought Paul was OK," Rivers said. “I thought offensively, same struggle with Matisse in a lot of ways. They start playing off of Paul, and that’s something that he’s going to get better at. I thought he gave us energy, though. … But offensively, I thought we struggled to score because of the same thing.
“Him and Trez ... it’s funny, when Trez plays well, I don’t hear the question. They’re going to push each other, and that’s what we want. And the second thing with Paul, hopefully we can move him to the four at times. Tonight wasn’t the night, because they were just helping off of any non-shooter. But we do believe that’s going to happen at some point.”
On two occasions, there seemed to be reason for concern with Harden’s health. After falling to the ground on a first-quarter drive, he stayed down and flexed his left leg. The 33-year-old remained in the game.
Late in the third quarter, Harden came up limping after a missed layup and went back to the locker room. He returned to the action with 7:15 to go in the fourth. Given Harden’s history over the past couple of seasons with hamstring injuries, the Sixers will of course want to be cautious this year with any potential tweaks.
To begin the second half, Maxey fired off seven consecutive Sixers points on a three-pointer, layup and mid-range jumper. Tucker’s corner three off of a Harden drive-and-kick knotted the game at 63-63.
Maxey’s jumpers continued to look very pure — and from very far out. He made two deep threes in the first quarter, then missed two more in quick succession. Those are shots we imagine Embiid wouldn’t have minded at all if he was watching from home.
Maxey’s eighth three-point try was a right-wing attempt after he drew Kyle Kuzma on a switch. He drilled it to tie the score at 95 apiece. Maxey has become a “pick your poison” player; if a defender doesn’t give him a cushion, he appears guaranteed to blow past them. But open Maxey jumpers out to 27 or 28 feet are certainly not shots many opponents will be fine conceding.
“I worked on it a lot this summer just because I knew, with me taking catch-and-shoot threes last year, defenses were going to try to be there and arrive on the catch," Maxey said. “But if I can extend them a little bit further, then I get opportunities to drive and kick out to my teammates or finish at the rim for myself. That just being a weapon is better for us as a team, I think.”
While both Maxey and Harden kept things interesting down the stretch, neither could overcome the Sixers' lack of stops.
“You watch the game down there (on Monday), our switches were really physical," Rivers said. “They didn’t get any slips, they didn’t turn the corner a lot. Tonight, our switches were really soft. I said it at halftime: ‘Guys, we’re not pushing up into switches, we’re not up to touch. They’re going downhill and they’re slipping on us.’ Not very physical.”