3 Observations: Sixers Struggle Defensively, Fall to Thunder

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The Philadelphia 76ers capped off a positive stretch of games with a disappointing clunker. They fell to the Oklahoma City Thunder 133-114 on Thursday night at Wells Fargo Center.

They put together one of their worst defensive performances of the season. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander led Oklahoma City with 37 points, eight rebounds and six assists.

Joel Embiid led the Sixers in the losing effort, scoring 30 points to go with 10 rebounds. James Harden added in 24 points, six rebounds and 15 assists.

The Thunder played without Chet Holmgren, Jeremiah Earl-Robinson, Aleksej Pokusevski and Ousmane Dieng.

The loss drops the Sixers to 25-16 on the season. They begin a five-game West Coast road trip on Saturday with a matchup against the Utah Jazz. Here are three observations from the loss:

Sixers’ defensive struggles

The Sixers came out of the gate attempting to play some zone defense against a young Thunder lineup. However, their attempts did not fare well. The Thunder opened up the game on fire from 3-point range, connecting on four of their first five attempts. They took advantage of the open looks the Sixers were giving them around the perimeter. The Thunder built up a quick 16-7 lead with 7:55 remaining in the first quarter, prompting head coach Doc Rivers to call a timeout.

The Thunder’s hot shooting early on opened things up on drives to the basket. Philadelphia’s defense on Jaylin Williams, who went into the game shooting 25% from 3-point range on 1.1 attempts per game, was confusing. The Sixers over-adjusted to defend Oklahoma City’s jumpers, making a concerted effort coming out of the timeout to run them off the 3-point line. Williams took particular advantage, getting around some wild closeout attempts to get to the basket for a pair of finishes around the rim.

The Sixers made some personnel changes in an attempt to counteract the Thunder’s hot start. De’Anthony Melton, coming off the bench due to the Sixers having their regular starting lineup fully healthy, checked onto the floor just 4:07 into the game. He had a solid seven-minute stint in the first quarter, although his attempts to slow down Gilgeous-Alexander did not prove fruitful. The young Thunder star used his athleticism and some at times downright poor team defense to score 13 points in the opening quarter.

Matisse Thybulle curiously played just five minutes in the first half, with less than a minute of them coming when Gilgeous-Alexander was on the floor. He had a lot of success defending him in the team’s previous meeting on New Year’s Eve. The decision not to attempt to utilize Thybulle more often as a defender against Gilgeous-Alexander in the first half was confounding. However, the Sixers made an adjustment as most of his minutes came with Gilgeous-Alexander on the floor. Despite it working in their previous matchup, the Thybulle minutes proved to be a major failure. He went scoreless in 11 minutes while committing three fouls and finishing as a minus-27.

Defending the 3-point line and handling the Thunder’s athleticism proved to be a problem with little to no solution for the Sixers. They allowed the Thunder to score 133 points while shooting 51.2% from the field and 43.8% from beyond the arc. It was a brutal night for the Sixers defensively, leaving a lot of things to be desired.

Harden’s offensive performance one of lone bright spots

For much of the night, the Sixers offense looked out of sync. Multiple players were in foul trouble, and nobody could buy a bucket from long distance. Tobias Harris exited the game in the second quarter after appearing to bang knees with a Thunder player. He would go on to return to the floor a few minutes later.

The lone exception was Harden, who did all he could to keep them in the game. He scored the team’s final eight points of the first half, including an and-one 3-pointer from the top of the key. The Sixers, after generating some momentum at the end of the opening half, came out of halftime on fire. They opened up the third quarter on a roaring 13-0 run, taking a 70-67 lead with 8:41 remaining in the third quarter. Harden played a large role in the run. He connected on a 3-pointer, stole a pass and dished out an assist to Embiid to help keep the momentum rolling in the Sixers favor.

However, the Thunder responded in force. They ended the third quarter on a 28-10 run and took a 101-85 lead into the final quarter. During what proved to be the defining moment of the game, the Sixers continued to struggle defensively while also committing a lot of turnovers. While Harden had a good game overall, he did commit seven turnovers, with a few of them due to sloppy play.

While the Sixers shot 11-of-36 (30.6%) from beyond the arc, outside shooting was not a problem for Harden. He connected on 5-of-10 attempts from 3-point range. Outside shooting and his ability to draw fouls accounted for the vast majority of his scoring production.

Embiid labored by foul trouble before finishing strong

The Sixers came into the game looking to take advantage of the size mismatch inside the paint. However, their strategy ran into some issues early on. Embiid picked up his second foul with 8:04 left in the first quarter. Rivers showed some trust in Embiid, keeping him on the floor for the next several minutes. Embiid started getting things going offensively, scoring eight points before exiting for the first time with 2:16 remaining in the opening quarter.

Montrezl Harrell, coming off a handful of strong performances, was the first to spell Embiid. He did not produce much, and Embiid came back into the game with 7:26 left in the second quarter. He made a layup but then immediately committed his third foul of the game on the other end. Darius Bazley used a pump fake to get Embiid into the air. Embiid sat the remainder of the half due to foul trouble, playing just 10 minutes in the first half.

Rivers then went to Paul Reed, who had some positive moments. He grabbed a pair of hustle offensive rebounds over multiple Thunder players on one play in the second quarter. Harrell did not see more time on the floor. Rivers perhaps went with Reed the remainder of the way due to his better defensive abilities. It was a bit of a rough night overall for Reed, with his biggest contribution coming on the glass (five rebounds in 12 minutes).

Embiid got back into rhythm in the third quarter, scoring eight points and generally having his way against a smaller Thunder lineup. He also recorded a monstrous block on a Gilgeous-Alexander dunk attempt in the third quarter. This was one of the better blocks he has had all season.

The Thunder had no answer for how to defend and slow down Embiid. When the big fella was not in foul trouble, he thoroughly dominated the action. He scored 12 points in the final frame, although it ultimately did not prove to be enough for the win.