3 observations after Embiid-less Sixers lose dramatic game to Hawks in OT originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia
ATLANTA — Despite five minutes of extra effort, the Sixers‘ losing streak reached three games for the first time this season Wednesday night.
They fell to a 139-132 overtime defeat at State Farm Arena, dropping to 23-13 overall. Atlanta moved to 15-21.
Nurse noted Covington has experienced on-and-off swelling, but he said that issue now “seems to be under control.” As for Embiid, Nurse said he was “hoping” the superstar center would play Friday when the Sixers host the Kings.
“He’s progressing good. … We’re still kind of going day to day,” Nurse said. “We thought he was close to making this trip and playing today. So I would assume a few more days would get him even closer.”
Here are observations on the Sixers’ OT loss in Atlanta:
Two key returns, Oubre off the bench
Harris returned after missing the Sixers’ loss to the Jazz with a left ankle injury. De’Anthony Melton came back from a three-game absence because of lumbar spine soreness.
Melton scored the Sixers’ first points by drilling a corner three-pointer. He also ran a few early pick-and-rolls with Paul Reed, including one that resulted in an and-one hoop for the Sixers’ big man. Immediately, it was clear that Melton’s offensive variety is nice to have again alongside Maxey. While self-aware role players who focus on catch-and-shoot threes are great, it’s also nice to have non-stars capable of handling the ball and making productive plays off the dribble.
Limited to 21 minutes Wednesday, Melton recorded 10 points, three rebounds and two assists.
Heading into the game, Nurse wanted Harris to assume heightened offensive responsibility with Embiid sidelined.
“He’s got to be a little bit more involved as a handler and a decision-maker on offense,” Nurse said. “A lot of times you’ll see Joel with the ball in the middle of the floor. You’ll see that more with Tobias tonight. He’ll be quarterbacking a little bit more than usual, and it’s good. I think he needs more reps at it. I think he really likes doing it … and it keeps him involved in other areas. And it also gives him a kind of primary opportunity to score, too. I think he’s looking forward to that.”
Harris was a tad off early, missing a layup and losing control of the ball after storming ahead in transition. As the night wore on, however, he gained a better rhythm and played a physical, aggressive game.
With Harris and Melton back, Kelly Oubre Jr. came off the bench for the first time since Dec. 18. He didn’t excel in that role, scoring seven points on 3-for-11 shooting. And though the Sixers gave Oubre and Nicolas Batum significant minutes together on Atlanta’s starting backcourt of Murray and Young, that duo unsurprisingly looks less promising overall without Embiid.
Springer still shining vs. Young
Reed started again in Embiid’s spot, though he came out after fouling Onyeka Okongwu for the second time with 6:35 left in the first. Okongwu piled up 11 quick points for the Hawks. Mo Bamba served as the Sixers’ backup center, but it didn’t take long for him to pick up two fouls as well.
Reed looked set to close the first half, but Nurse wasn’t happy when he went on an adventurous, coast-to-coast drive and missed a wild layup attempt. The Sixers’ coach looked down his bench and immediately asked Bamba to sub in.
Amid the fouls and the chaos, Reed and Bamba both had some good moments. Reed posted nine points, nine rebounds and and two blocks. Bamba, who got the nod in overtime, had five points, six rebounds and three blocks.
“I did just go with (Bamba) to try to win the jump ball,” Nurse said. “Every possession’s critical. And then he had a couple of blocks, had an offensive rebound and kick-out to a three. He just had a good run going there. You know me: If you’re playing well … I’m probably going to leave you in there.”
Under nine minutes in, the Sixers had used 11 players. The young bench pairing of Jaden Springer and KJ Martin entered late in the first quarter as Nurse opted for all-second unit minutes.
For the third time in his short career, Springer did impressive work on Young in Atlanta. His only first-half statistic was a single steal, but that belies Springer’s impact.
On several occasions, he bothered Young far beyond the three-point arc, stalling the Hawks’ offense and leaving their star point guard asking for fouls calls he didn’t get.
“That’s a part of the game,” Springer told NBC Sports Philadelphia. “Especially for a young guy coming up, I feel like they’re a little quicker to blow the whistle. So just learning when to be physical and when not to. I feel like that’s been helping me a lot with the more reps I get.”
Credit to Nurse for recognizing Springer’s (brief) track record of success in the matchup, and well done by the 21-year-old to palpably change the game and frustrate Atlanta’s best player. Springer’s magic finally expired when Bogdan Bogdanovic beat him backdoor and scored an and-one layup, but he’d earned the extended stint.
“Trae Young, he’s a great player, so he’s somebody that I’ve watched a lot and gotten to see his game. … I’m just going out there and competing, trying to help my team in whatever way I can,” Springer said.
Marcus Morris Sr.’s shooting was also a major bench boost for the Sixers in the first half. After Young air-balled a three long over Springer, Morris drained a triple to give the Sixers a 39-36 lead. The proud Philadelphia native racked up 13 important first-half points and the Sixers led by three at intermission.
Late in the third quarter, Springer stopped short as he pursued Young on a drive and appeared to grimace and limp a bit over the next minute or two. The Sixers kept Springer in the game, but he didn’t look 100 percent physically. He’ll hope there’s no sort of lingering problem and that he can remain in the rotation mix. (Springer said postgame he had a “little tweak” but will be good moving forward.)
Maxey-centric drama late
The Sixers grabbed an 83-75 lead when Harris found Maxey for a layup, but Murray then answered with a four-point play. Neither team managed to sustain defensive success in the third quarter.
That said, the Sixers certainly improved upon the effort-related fundamentals that Nurse had emphasized over the last two days of practice. Their more diligent transition defense was especially noticeable for most of the night.
However, Atlanta surged into top gear at the beginning of the fourth quarter. Following five straight Hawks fast-break points, Johnson hit a corner three to give his team a 105-98 edge.
The Sixers’ late luck was mixed and their execution was uneven. There’s no doubt they badly wanted a win, though.
A Harris transition layup trimmed the Sixers’ deficit to one, and Maxey was gigantic over the next few minutes. He defended grittily and delivered clutch buckets, among them an audacious slam after he exploded past Murray and a step-back three that put the Sixers up 125-121.
The Sixers struggled to seal victory. Johnson threw down an and-one dunk, Maxey narrowly missed another three, and Young split two foul shots with 12.1 seconds left to knot the contest up.
Maxey attacked Murray on the Sixers’ final possession of the fourth and couldn’t win the game in regulation. He and Nurse were incensed that the officials didn’t call a foul on his drive.
In overtime, Maxey sunk a second-chance three that gave the Sixers a one-point edge. Young ended Maxey’s game with 1:44 remaining in OT, though, leaning into the fourth-year guard and drawing his sixth foul.
Johnson scored five points in a row and the Sixers found themselves behind by three. Okongwu swatted away Harris’ driving layup try and the final buzzer was ultimately bitter for the Sixers.
“We got shots that we like,” Maxey said. “We got guys in position to score the ball or make a play. It (got) difficult after I fouled out, because I kind of have the ball in my hands a lot. Kudos to those guys. They still went out there, fought and almost got us a win.”