Sixers cough up late lead in Chicago

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

Chicago 117, Philadelphia 115 – Box Score

Heading into the season, one of these two young teams was expected to finally emerge from a tanking chrysalis and begin ascending up the Eastern Conference standings, while the other was, at long last, entering a rebuild season after a long period of hanging on to glory days of the past. Lately, the roles have been reversed. Chicago entered play Monday night riding a 5-game winning streak, while the Sixers had lost 5 of their past 6 games.

After 48 minutes of exciting play at the United Center, those recent trends held to form. A 13-0 Chicago run late in the fourth quarter turned an 8-point Sixers lead into a 5-point advantage for the Bulls. Nikola Mirotic (22 points, 13 rebounds) and Kris Dunn (22 points, 6 assists) were enormous down the stretch, scoring Chicago’s final 12 points of the game.

With Joel Embiid sitting this game out on the first night of a back-to-back, the Sixers turned to Ben Simmons on the game’s final play, trailing by two points. The Bulls defense did a nice job recognizing there was no chance Simmons would pull up for a jumper, and as he drove, forced him to throw up an awkward, sideways, over the shoulder shot that bounced off the backboard.

Not only did the play highlight the absence of Embiid, but it served as a reminder of the type of role Markelle Fultz was supposed to play this season. He was exactly the sort of pick-and-roll threat who could score from the outside or stress the defense by driving into the painted area. The Sixers lack someone on the current, healthy roster with that kind of dual capability when the ball is in his hands.

That’s not to say Simmons played poorly. The rookie got a fat statline of 19 points, 11 rebounds, 9 assists, and 4 blocks (the game broadcast had him as having a triple-double immediately after the game, but it looks like the league statisticians took one of the assists away). In addition to his usual “boulder rolling down a mountainside” drives to the rim, Simmons did a nice job cutting off the ball and establishing good post position down low, to either receive an entry pass and finish over the much smaller Kris Dunn, or be in prime position for an offensive rebound. That’s the best way for him to remain effective off the ball since he’s not a threat to space the floor.

One guy who probably benefits from Embiid resting is Dario Saric. The Homie went off for 27 points on 10-19 shooting, scoring 8 points in the final minute and a half to get the Sixers back to the brink of tying things up. Without Embiid, Saric wasn’t forced to play down a position at small forward nearly as much and could actually float down to the interior, where he’s most effective. He still had a nice game from the outside (3-6 shooting from three), but this performance was a good reminder that he’s being miscast as a floor spacer, a product of the Sixers somehow still having a roster heavily weighted toward the frontcourt.

The Sixers have to be very disappointed with this loss, as it was a prime opportunity to rest Embiid and still come away with a victory, essentially the best of both worlds. Fortunately, they won’t have any time to dwell on it, as they’ll be right back at it Tuesday night at home against Sacramento. Hopefully, this new “below .500” status won’t last more than a day.

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