By Matt Gregan, Sports Talk Philly Staff Writer
The Philadelphia 76ers have had some brutal losses throughout this season, but the one tonight might come close to taking the cake as the team's worse loss of the season. The Sixers lost their third consecutive game, falling to the Detroit Pistons 102-94 on Thursday night at the Little Caesars Arena in Detroit.
Joel Embiid finished with 37 points on 11-of-19 shooting to go with 15 rebounds and three assists. His strong effort, however, was not enough to overcome both another collapse in the fourth quarter and the lack of bench production. The Sixers' bench was outscored 39-8.
James Harden added in 18 points on 4-of-15 shooting (2-of-9 from three-point range) to go with nine rebounds and seven assists.
The Sixers' chances at claiming the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference are now much slimmer. The loss tonight moved the Sixers to 46-30 this season. They now sit 2.5 games behind the first-place Miami Heat. Here are three observations from the loss to the Pistons:
Another fourth quarter collapse
The Sixers sleep walked against the Pistons, almost as if they had the attitude like their talent would automatically lead them to the win over the Pistons, who were 20-56 heading into the game. They were unable to pull away from a young, feisty Pistons squad in the first three quarters, and then they collapsed again in the fourth quarter.
The Pistons outscored the Sixers 29-15 in the final quarter, including going on the decisive 23-9 run over the game's final 7:43. Detroit connected on 11 of their 17 shots in the fourth quarter compared to the Sixers shooting 6 of 16.
Turnovers were also a huge issue, with the Sixers committing four turnovers in the final 5:21 of the game. They, at one point, committed a turnover on three consecutive possessions in the midst of Detroit's game deciding run. For as good of a game as Embiid put together (more on that below), he struggled controlling the basketball on his way to turning the ball over seven times.
Cade Cunningham put together an excellent game against the Sixers. The rookie finished with 27 points on 12-of-20 shooting to go along with six assists and four steals. The Sixers had defensive standout Matisse Thybulle tasked with attempting to cover Cunningham, but the rookie got his way for most of the night.
Embiid fills up the box score against outmatched Pistons' bigs
Embiid dominated the smaller Pistons' centers, consistently using his physicality to assert himself around the paint and control the Sixers' offense.
The Sixers have been getting a lot of success running the pick-and-roll, and Detroit's defensive strategy against it early on was to aggressively switch around the screen. The Sixers recognized this, attacking the switch and getting a lot of mismatches. Embiid at one point was posted up against Corey Joseph, a hilarious size advantage for the big fella. Harden got Pistons' center Isaiah Stewart on a switch and made him look helpless, connecting on a step-back three for his first points of the game with 6:34 remaining in the first quarter.
The Sixers did a good job attacking the Pistons' aggressive, switch-heavy strategy early on. However, their success against it wore off as the game went on.
Embiid did a good job attacking the paint throughout the night. He took just two attempts from beyond the arc, knocking one down on a crazy end-of-the-shot clock play in the second half. The Pistons' big men, whether it was Stewart, Marvin Bagley III or Kelly Olynyk, had their hands full attempting to defend Embiid in the paint. He had multiple strong slam dunks at the rim in addition to efficiently drawing fouls. He finished the game shooting 14-of-16 from the free-throw line.
DeAndre Jordan, after not playing against the Milwaukee Bucks, once again received the backup center minutes. He struggled, recording just two points, a rebound and a block while being a minus-9 in 10 minutes off the bench. However, the blame for this loss should be put on the starters who were out on the floor during the Pistons' big run in the fourth quarter.
Harden's disappointing night
The last few games have been a mixed bag in terms of both Harden's overall performance and his burst out on the court. He began the game in a secondary role to Embiid, scoring just three points in the first quarter.
Head coach Doc Rivers, who has been experimenting with the team's rotations the past couple games, went back to staggering Embiid's and Harden's minutes on the floor. Harden took control of the game for the Sixers in the second quarter when Embiid was off the floor, scoring 11 points (including a nice four-point play) and dishing out two assists in the first 5:14 of the quarter.
He slowed the game down and played at a methodical pace, something the Pistons' defense struggled against. The Sixers effectively worked to get Harden a mismatch with the ball, and he went to work.
However, the second half was a nightmare for Harden. His shot stopped falling and, despite continuing to hunt for mismatches, he found no success offensively. It is obvious and well known the level of talent Harden possesses, but perhaps one of the team's issues, especially in the fourth quarter, was the amount of time he had the ball in his hands despite being absolutely ice cold. There is nothing inherently wrong with the strategy of putting the ball in his hands and having him hunt the mismatch, but the offense needs more flexibility for nights when his shot is not falling.
Both Tobias Harris and Tyrese Maxey had good nights scoring the ball, but they combined to take just 19 shots. Harris finished with 14 points on 6-of-9 shooting (2-of-3 from three-point range) and Maxey scored 13 points on 5-of-10 shooting. The Sixers offense runs a lot around both Embiid and Harden, but it truly functions at an elite level when either Harris or Maxey are given the reigns to step up on any given night and be the team's third star.
In addition to his shooting struggles in the second half, he also lacked his usual burst and first-step explosiveness. One of Harden's best skills is his ability to get to the basket and either finish or draw a foul. He has shown flashes of having that burst since being traded to the Sixers, but more often than not he has looked a step slow while struggling to be able to get by his defender. Only time will tell if the lack of burst is caused by a lingering hamstring injury, him losing a step or him holding things back for when the games truly matter in the playoffs.
The Sixers will look to rebound from this brutal loss to the Pistons when they next take on the Charlotte Hornets on Saturday afternoon.