3 Observations: Sixers Get Outworked in Loss to Grizzlies

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

The Philadelphia 76ers dropped their second consecutive game, falling to the Memphis Grizzlies 117-109 on Friday night.

Joel Embiid led the Sixers with 35 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists. Tobias Harris, who was questionable coming in with a non-COVID illness, added in 21 points and 11 rebounds. He connected on five of his six attempts from beyond the arc. De’Anthony Melton, in his first game against his old team, finished with 13 points, six rebounds and four assists.

James Harden (right foot tendon strain), Tyrese Maxey (left foot fracture) and Jaden Springer (right quad strain) remained out for the Sixers.

Memphis was led by Ja Morant’s 28 points and eight rebounds. Jaren Jackson Jr. added in 22 points, nine rebounds and four blocks.

The Grizzlies were without Desmond Bane (right big toe sprain), Ziaire Williams (right patellar tendinitis), Danny Green (left knee surgery recovery) and Jake LaRavia (left foot soreness).

The Sixers now sit at 12-11 on the season. Their next matchup is on Monday night on the road against the Houston Rockets. Here are three observations from the loss.

Harris’ strong game

The Sixers got off to a slow start offensively, missing their first four shots of the game. However, things picked back up beginning with a three-pointer from Harris. He would go on to score the team’s first eight points, showcasing his quick trigger from deep in the process. It was good to see him back in rhythm against the Grizzlies. He went scoreless, missing all seven of his shot attempts in the team’s blowout loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers earlier in the week.

After Harris kick-started the Sixers’ offense, Shake Milton started getting into rhythm. He finished multiple times around the rim. He has such a crafty ability to use his length to open up space to be able to finish around the basket. The 26-year-old has been impressive in the starting lineup since Maxey and Harden’s injuries. He finished with 17 points and five assists.

Harris had one of the stronger performances of the night for the Sixers. He was quick and decisive in his decision making as well as being incredibly efficient from 3-point range. The five 3-pointers he connected on were his season high. He also had a highlight dunk early in the second half. The Sixers will need him to continue playing aggressively and decisively moving forward. He is at his best when not hesitating and just playing with confidence like he did against the Grizzlies. His play was a large reason why the game was as close as it was.

Poor second quarter again dooms Sixers

The game was tight through the opening quarter, with Memphis leading 30-29. However, the Grizzlies had shown signs of beginning to pull away. Between the 1:28 mark of the first quarter and the 9:59 mark of the second quarter, Memphis went on a 20-2 run. That run completely swung the momentum away from the Sixers, who up to that point had battled and played some inspired basketball.

A lot of the damage on that large Memphis run came with the Sixers’ bench unit on the floor. In an example of how bad the bench unit played, Paul Reed finished the first half as a minus-13 in just three minutes off the bench in the first half. The team’s struggles in the non-Embiid minutes during this stretch might have reminded Sixers fans of the playoff series loss to the Toronto Raptors in the 2018-19 season. The collective efforts this season from Reed and Montrezl Harrell have mostly kept the team afloat in the minutes Embiid is off the floor. However, the Grizzlies were able to take advantage of it in a big way.

Embiid subbed back into the game with 9:12 remaining in the second quarter and the Sixers down 41-31. He went to work, leading the team’s charge to get back into the game. In the next five minutes of action, he scored seven points while also blocking a shot. However, it was not enough to give the Sixers the lead. They went into halftime down 64-54.

The Sixers have generally been a great defensive team this season. However, the wheels have fallen off in both their loss to the Cavaliers as well as the game against Memphis. The team’s defensive strategy against Morant was mostly successful. They forced Morant to take some tough shots, using drop coverage to hold him to a lot of mid-range shots while mostly keeping him away from the rim. He scored 20 points in the first half, but it took him 18 shots to do so.

While their defense on Morant was good for the most part, the Sixers struggled mightily defensively overall. Their transition defense, something the team has struggled with throughout this season, was brutal. The Grizzlies scored 17 fast-break points in the first half. The Sixers also gave up a ton of points in the paint, allowing Memphis to score 36 paint points in the first half. Their defense on dribble penetration was brutal, playing a large role in why Memphis was able to have a lot of success attacking in towards the basket.

Sixers get outworked, lose the physicality battle

The Sixers, outside of the first quarter, were thoroughly beaten in all facets of the game. Chief among the areas they struggled in was physicality, especially on the glass. The Sixers went on an 8-0 run early in the second half to pull the Grizzlies’ lead down to 73-67.

However, Steven Adams then proceeded to single-handedly halt the Sixers run. In the course of a two-minute stretch, Adams pulled down three offensive rebounds that effectively led to six Memphis points. He also recorded two steals, the second of which led to him dunking it in transition. The Sixers, who had cut the deficit down to six points, were now looking back up at a 14-point deficit.

The battle between Embiid and Adams was entertaining to watch throughout the game. Embiid found some success, but ultimately he was not physical enough with Adams consistently. Adams had a big edge on the glass, grabbing 10 offensive rebounds and 16 rebounds overall. The Sixers lost the rebounding battle 57-42 and 19-10 on the offensive glass. Embiid had a solid night overall, but his poor performance in the third quarter let the Sixers down and proved costly.

The Sixers, despite losing the physicality battle, had a shot in the final minutes. Embiid made a layup while getting fouled and knocked down the free throw to cut the deficit to six points with 1:00 minute remaining. After a Morant missed 3-pointer, Embiid had his dunk attempt blocked on the following possession which all but sealed the game. The Sixers were not able to take advantage of Morant scoring eight points on 1-of-10 shooting in the second half.