7 for 6: Cracks in the Armor?

| Joel Embiid is fighting through fatigue, and the Sixers are dropping key games to possible playoff opponents. Is there cause for concern during the team’s final stretch? |

Concern for Playoff Matchups?

By now the NBA Eastern Conference playoffs are just about locked in. The top two seeds will be Toronto or Boston, with Cleveland, Indiana, Washington, Milwaukee, Miami, and Philly all jockeying for positioning. If the Sixers can avoid falling to 7 or 8 they wouldn’t have to play Boston or Toronto. And frankly they would have a reasonable fighting chance to win a series against any other team. Despite having the league’s easiest remaining schedule, Philly has a few games left against potential first round opponents. The results have…not been encouraging.

Feb. 25th @ Washington: L (109-94)

Feb. 27th @ Miami: L (102-101)

Mar. 4th @ Milwaukee: L (119-110)

Mar. 8th @ Miami: L (108-99)

Mar. 13th vs Indiana: L (101-98)

There are a few trends in these games that are concerning. For one, they were fresh displays of the team’s worst habit: turnovers. They had over 20 in three of those games (23 in the first matchup with Miami, 26 against the Bucks and 21 against the Pacers).

These are all frustrating results, especially when they’re scattered in between strong wins. On Mar. 1st, they went into Cleveland and won (and limited themselves to just 9 turnovers) on national television. Later that week they handily beat the lowly Charlotte Hornets twice (not wins with huge implications in the standings, but against a lowly opponent that you expect to beat).

Ersan and Marco filling their roles

The Sixers two newest acquisitions have played in a few games and we’re now able to see what kind of impact that they have on the team. Both Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli are playing over 20 minutes each night, a clear indication that they have a place in the rotation.

Belinelli has provided bench scoring that the team desperately needed. He’s scored double digits in 9 of 12 games since coming to Philadelphia. There are a few things that really stand out about his game. The first is his shooting, which is excellent. He’s a knock down 3 point shooter when open, and really good at shooting off the dribble, even when contested or forced to a spot by his defender.

Long, contested two pointers aren’t exactly ideal shots in the modern NBA, but it doesn’t matter to pure shooters like Redick and Belinelli. Now the Sixers can essentially always have someone on the floor who can make them.

Belinelli is also a great cutter, which fits perfectly in the Sixers’ pass heavy scheme (they’re first in the league with 347 per game). Add in some nice passing and dribbling skills, and Belinelli rounds out the team’s guard rotation nicely. He’s not much of a defender, but the Sixers are strong enough as a unit to cover for him.

“Man, I feel great,” Belinelli said over the weekend. “I just try to be better every practice, every game, try to understand offense and defense, but I feel great. I’m happy.”

Fans are already familiar with Ersan Ilyasova’s game. His shooting provides provides and obvious boost but he’s also crafty and creative with the ball, something that Amir Johnson and Richaun Holmes can’t quite offer.

And he’s no slouch on defense either. It seems like at least once a game, Ilyasova will take a charge and draw the offensive foul. Seriously, watch for this. Ersan is one of the best at doing pulling it off (2nd most in the league).

Fultz Steps Back

All that we see of Markelle Fultz now-a-days are short twitter videos of him taking warm up shots. It’s not much, but for Sixers fans who suffered through the prolonged absences of Embiid and Simmons, these short clips of Fultz are like an addicting drug. The latest of these clips show Fultz shooting from beyond the arc; one very casually, and one closer to game speed.

The shot still isn’t perfect; there’s still a bit of a pushing motion towards the end, but it looks much smoother and cleaner than before. It doesn’t seem like Fultz is coming back soon, and it remains to be seen if he’ll play again this season, but there’s no doubt that he’s making progress.

Covington Bounces Back

In my last 7 for 6 I briefly wrote about Robert Covington’s shooting slump in February. Since then, he’s found his shot for some moments. When the Sixers blitzed the Hornets last week, Covington scored 22 points (his most since December 2nd!), 2 steals, and 2 blocks on 7/11 shooting, 5/9 from deep. He also scored 19 against Brooklyn on 6/10, 3/7 from deep. But what keeps him in the starting lineup every night is his stellar defense, which has also stood out lately. In his last six games, opponents are only shooting 36% when Covington is the primary defender.

Defense is the foundation for his game, and ideally this is the beginning of a turnaround for Covington. If he comes close to replicating his red-hot shooting that began the season, it propels the Sixers to the next level. But falling short of that the team will need his high level defense, which shouldn’t be forgotten.

Embiid wearing down?

Joel Embiid has had an eventful season. He was an All Star, and just recently played in his 82nd professional game. He now officially has a full season of NBA experience on his resume. It’s good to see Embiid display some durability, but this is still uncharted territory for him; he never even played a full season in college. And in his first truly healthy NBA season we’re starting to see his play dip from it’s usual high level. Some of his recent performances look like this:

Mar. 4th @ Milwaukee (L): 19 points (6/12 shooting, 0/3 from deep), 7 turnovers, 5 fouls

Mar. 6th @ Charlotte (W) 18 points (8/16 FG/ 0/3 from deep) 5 rebounds, 3 turnovers, 4 fouls

Mar. 8th @ Miami (L) : 17 points (5/18 shooting) 7 rebounds, no steals or blocks, 5 fouls

Mar. 12th vs Indiana (L): 29 points (11/22, 0/5 from deep), 12 rebounds, 8 turnovers, 4 fouls

In a vacuum these aren’t terrible performances, but they aren’t very efficient. In the game against Charlotte Embiid only scored 4 points in the first half. Against the Bucks, the Sixers absolutely imploded during the 2nd half, getting outscored by 20 points, including 33-14 in the 3rd quarter where they turned it over 9 times, 2 of those coming from Embiid.

Even after a rough loss, Embiid has worked through the slump. It probably helped that a large group of Sixers fans made the trip to Milwaukee to cheer on their team.

Brett Brown has also recently urged Embiid to shoot more threes, and when they aren’t falling it can make the box score look worse than it seems. When asked directly about possible fatigue, Embiid suggested that he had since recovered.

“I had more energy tonight,” Embiid said after Sunday’s victory in Brooklyn. “I played harder than I been playing for the past three of four games, and I felt better today. I wanted to come out and be aggressive.”

With that quote it seems like this stretch will be more of a learning experience than a legitimate cause for concern. The 82 game NBA season is a grind, and seeing Embiid recognize and respond to that so well is good to see. I’m sure getting in even better shape will be an offseason priority. As it pertains to this season, getting Embiid some rest as the regular season winds down will be important. Not just for the team’s chances for winning games in the playoffs, but for the big guy’s long term health. It might not come until the Sixers clinch a playoff spot, but keep an eye out for Embiid to sit out a game or two in the coming weeks.

With/Without Embiid

Speaking on Embiid’s importance to the Sixers, Zach Lowe had a great podcast this week that broke down the likely Eastern Conference playoff teams. Lowe made the point that the Sixers’ performance in recent months hasn’t dropped off so dramatically when Joel Embiid is out of the game, unlike earlier in the season. Since January, the Sixers net rating without Embiid in the game is only -1.4 (meaning they score about 2 less points than their opponents per 100 posessions). They were 7 points worse than their opponents from October until the calendar turned to 2018. It’s  pretty noticeable turnaround. They no longer crater and hemorrhage points when The Process exits the game.

“We have to grow our bench,” Brett Brown said in February. “We have to give those guys confidence that they can close out games.”

Since Embiid might be looking at some rest in the coming weeks, solidifying this trend of stronger bench play is sure to be an area of focus for the Sixers. Although rotations normally get shorter in the playoffs and Embiid will be playing as much as his body allows him to, maintaining stability and keeping the pressure up on opposing defenses without Embiid in the game will benefit Philly’s chances.

Easy Schedule

With 16 games remaining, the Sixers are inching closer to their first postseason appearance since 2012. After surviving the league’s toughest first half schedule, Philly gets the easiest remaining schedule. Of those final 16 games, they’ll only play 4 teams with a winning record (Cleveland, Denver, Minnesota, and Milwaukee). They’ll get multiple teams that are actively tanking to get a better draft pick (Memphis, Dallas, Orlando, and Atlanta twice). As of Thursday, the Sixers are only two and a half games behind the the Cavs for the 4th seed.

And oh yeah, 9 of their final 16 games are at home, where until Tuesday’s loss to Indiana, they hadn’t lost since Dec. 21st. Overall they have a 21-10 record at home. With an easy schedule, it’s entirely up to Philadelphia how far they can rise in the standings.

All Stats are up to date as of Thursday, March 15th

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