The Sixers took center stage on Christmas day, facing off with the conference leading Milwaukee Bucks. Philadelphia rolled in their best performance of the season, winning 121-109.
The game was not as close as the final score indicated. The Sixers broke the game open in the 2nd quarter, outscoring the Bucks 31-18 and finishing the half up 69-48. Joel Embiid dominated the league’s reigning MVP. Giannis Antetokounmpo, holding him to 18 points on just 8-27 shooting.
It was about as good a performance as the Sixers have had in the last three seasons. It left the feeling good about their place in the East. After the game they stood at 5-2 combined versus the Bucks, Celtics, and Heat.
The first two stops were in Florida to face off against Orlando and Miami. Against the Magic, the Sixers came out very sluggish, and needed to stage a late game comeback. Ben Simmons did come up with a timely steal and helped give Embiidt a decent look to win the game, but he missed
The next night in Miami, Simmons again had some late game heroics. With the team down by 2, and after Josh Richardson missed the first of two free throws with less than a second on the clock, Simmons crashed the intentional miss and put back the game tying bucket. The play was reviewed, confirmed, and sent the game to overtime.
The game stayed tight in the extra session, and with 2.3 seconds left, Tobias Harris had an open look in the corner for the winning shot.
Two nights, two close losses. On their own the defeats aren’t hugely important. Close games happen every night in the NBA, and sometimes the bounces don’t go your way. But there are some larger concerns highlighted in these games.
First, these are teams that the Sixers could face in the postseason. They are now 0-2 versus Orlando on the season. The Magic may not be contenders, but they present a potential first round matchup and they always seem to give the Sixers close games. Going back to 2016, neither team has won a matchup by more than 4 points. Either they matchup well (true, with players like Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac, and…um…Markelle Fultz) or the Sixers play down to their competition (also true, with this game being as much evidence as the Milwaukee game proves they bring their best in big games at home).
The Magic are more of a feisty pest in the grand scheme of things, but the Heat appear to be a legitimate contender and the Sixers can’t afford to lay duds against them. Jimmy Butler has turned them to into one of the league’s biggest surprises and they seem to be a very legitimate contender in the conference. They now hold a 2-1 advantage in the season series with Philadelphia. Home court is obviously important to the Sixers. They may have a better roster, but give homecourt to a team like the Heat and the odds become a lot more even.
Al Horford didn’t come to Philadelphia to be a number 1 scoring option. He didn’t come here to be the 2nd or even 3rd for that matter. So it’s important to remember his contributions that don’t appear in the box score; veteran leadership, knowledge of defensive strategy, and lineup flexibility. But even when you consider those intangible aspects, Horford has not been good lately. He hasn’t scored more than 13 points in a game since December 2nd, and has been held under 10 points in 5 of the last 6 losses. He especially struggled in the loss to Miami, where his -25 +/- was the worst among either team.
“It’s not as good as I want to be. I still haven’t been able to find my rhythm with the team,” Horford said of his play. “So all I have to do is make sure I’m there for the team, trying to do everything I can to help us win.”
It’s encouraging that Horford thinks the solution is a matter of when, not if. The team will absolutely need to figure out his rhythm by the playoffs, if not sooner.
Matisse Thybulle’s strong rookie season has taken a hiatus. The rookie is out with a knee sprain and will be re-evaluated. Thybulle collided with another player during the win over Washington on Dec. 21st. As of Dec. 27th, he was still very limited in mobility.
Thybulle has been a steady part of the rotation for most of the season, and he was really hitting a stride before getting hurt. The Sixers are hoping that the injury doesn’t linger and Thybulle can return to give them solid minutes.
All Star Voting Begins
Christmas day also marked the beginning of fan voting for the All Star game. The exhibition takes place in Chicago on Feb. 16th. The first round of voting results came out on Thursday. Embiid has the 2nd most votes among all Eastern Conference players. Simmons is sixth among guards. He could could potentially lose a spot to his teammate.