By Connor Thomas
The Sixers season is not exactly going as planned to this point to put it lightly. The team currently sits at 11-11, good for 11th place in the Eastern Conference. We’re over a month into the NBA season, and the Sixers are out of playoff position, trailing teams like the Hornets, Cavaliers, and Wizards in the standings. It’s not time for the panic button yet, but it certainly is worth asking questions about why the team is having trouble. Over the past week or so, one of the main issues facing the team has been their end of game plays execution. Now, the Sixers should have never been in a close game with the Minnesota Timberwolves, and if they hadn’t shot bricks for a whole half, they probably wouldn’t have been in Boston against the Celtics. The fact is, though, that the Sixers had opportunities late to win both of those games, and their final plays left a lot to be desired. It’s a troubling showing considering Doc Rivers’ late game issues in the playoffs last year, and something the team will want to correct so that they’re more prepared for late game scenarios in games that matter.
So what are the issues with the plays Doc has drawn up and the way that the team has executed them? Let’s start with the final play against the Minnesota Timberwolves this past Saturday. In double overtime, the Sixers were down 1 point with a side out on Minnesota’s side of the court. Joel Embiid had already put up 42 points on the night in a dominant performance, so I have no issue with the play being drawn up for him. Even with it being his first game back from a bout with COVID-19, Embiid had been scoring at will throughout the 1st and 2nd overtimes, showing that he could deliver despite any fatigue. The play idea made sense, meaning Doc Rivers should not be faulted for this one. The issue on Saturday was that Joel Embiid did not execute the backup option properly once he received the ball. Embiid caught the ball with about 4 seconds remaining, and inbounder Georges Niang cleared to the back side of the lane with 2.5 seconds left. Embiid was a little bit lower than the wing on the left side, while Seth Curry sat all alone at the top of the key. There was no one within 15 feet of Curry, who owns the 2nd best 3 point percentage OF ALL TIME, and yet Embiid tried to force up a double-covered near 3 pointer of his own that was blocked.
Embiid fell short of what was needed on that specific play against Minnesota, but it didn’t mean the play design was wrong. That wasn’t the case for what happened against the Celtics in Boston on Wednesday night. In another 1 point game, this time the inbound went to Tobias Harris at the top of the key, rather than to Embiid. Harris caught the ball with 5.5 seconds while he was moving away from the basket, a poor design for a final play in that short of time. That forced Harris to instinctually put his head down and dribble to a position where he could shoot or pass, making him miss what should have been the focal point of the play to begin with. Joel Embiid spent the entirety of the play posted up a couple steps above the block with Jaylen Brown on his back. There are 8 inches between Embiid’s height and Brown’s, and there is no reason the ball should not have immediately been worked into the Sixers big man and best scorer. Instead, the inbounds play drawn up by Doc created a situation where Harris was not in a position to make that pass. Could Tobias still have made a better effort to get the ball to Embiid? Absolutely. But the play itself was not well designed from the start. The game ended, rather than with an Embiid post up on a smaller player, with a Georges Niang blocked 3 from the corner.
There are numerous issues with the Sixers right now. Their shooting stroke is off right now, their defense is uncharacteristically struggling, and it seems that many of their bench contributors are going to be very streaky this season. All of that has contributed to the rough start the team has experienced, but lately it has been enough to get them into late game scenarios where they could pull out the win. Unfortunately, they haven’t executed on those opportunities, both players and coach. There’s plenty of time left to correct the issues, but there are also plenty of issues to correct. The Sixers will need to figure them out before it’s too late.