Sixers fall apart in third, concedes 37 points to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

3 observations after Sixers fall apart in third, lose to OKC at home originally appeared on NBC SportsPhiladelphia

Thursday night’s performance against the Thunder was absolutely not what the Sixers envisioned ahead of a five-game West Coast trip.

OKC star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (37 points, eight rebounds, six assists) was fantastic and the Thunder earned a 133-114 win over the Sixers at Wells Fargo Center.

Joel Embiid led the Sixers with 30 points and 10 rebounds. James Harden had 24 points and 15 assists.

Sitting 25-16 halfway through their season, the Sixers will begin their trip Saturday night against the Jazz. Here are observations on their loss to OKC:

Not so easy for Embiid, Sixers early

Unlike Tuesday night against the Pistonsthe Sixers saw immediately that their youthful opponent was capable of punishing subpar stretches.

In contrast to Embiid, OKC rookie Jaylin Williams had a bright start. The Arkansas product made his fourth NBA three-pointer on his first attempt Thursday night, and he also capitalized on a couple of unnecessarily hard closeouts to drive in for layups.

Embiid missed two early jumpers and wasn’t especially effective on defense either. OKC only had one first-quarter turnover. Williams, who’s developed a reputation as a frequent charge-taker, absorbed contact from Embiid with 8:04 left in the first, drawing the second foul on the Sixers’ star big man. Gilgeous-Alexander was smooth and skillful in the first, scoring at all three levels and opening 5 for 6 from the floor.

Moving to zone defense helped the Sixers stem the tide of nonstop Thunder trips into the paint. Behind a guard trio of Tyrese Maxey, De’Anthony Melton and Shake Milton, the team’s offense also began rolling, and a Georges Niang three on the Sixers’ final possession of the first tied the game at 35-all. The Sixers would’ve obviously preferred a sharper start from Embiid and the first unit, but their bench provided a solid initial response.

Strange second quarter

The second quarter was an odd and unsuccessful one for the Sixers.

With 8:52 left in the period, the whole team made its way to the corner of the court, where Tobias Harris was down with an apparent knee injury. The 30-year-old forward ultimately rose and walked slowly back to the locker room with head athletic trainer Kevin Johnson. He checked back in less than a minute and a half later.

However, Embiid soon headed to the bench; he picked up his third foul with seven minutes to go in the second quarter. Biting on a Darius Bazley pump fake was costly for Embiid, who watched Paul Reed handle the Sixers’ center minutes for the rest of the half.

As usual, Reed’s impact was not hard to miss. He had several negative plays, including a blown layup following an offensive rebound, and OKC went up 54-41 when Tre Mann rattled off seven straight points. The Thunder extended that lead to 15 after Harden wasn’t on the same page with Reed on how to counter Oklahoma City’s zone and committed one of his five first-half giveaways, which turned into a Jaylin Williams fast-break lay-in. To Reed’s credit, he never appears to dwell on moments that might frustrate or embarrass other players. His hustle and rebounding from him are reliable pluses at this point. A Reed lefty layup created by a nifty spin move was impressive, too.

Maxey joined Embiid in falling for a pump fake — this one by Gilgeous-Alexander — and getting his third foul in the second quarter. The Sixers clearly needed Harden to carry the offensive load late in the second with Embiid and Maxey out. He did exactly that.

In the second quarter’s final minute, Harden drilled a three-pointer, converted a four-point play, and at least put the Sixers in a more manageable position at halftime.

Steep slide downhill

The Sixers couldn’t have opened the second half any better.

The Harden-Embiid pick-and-roll was crisp, the team’s defensive focus was improved, and a Harris three wrapped up a 13-0 run that gave the Sixers a 70-67 lead.

Instead of gradually seizing control of the game, the Sixers then fell apart. Embiid had a limp with around 4:30 left in the third quarter, which was a concerning sight in context of the left foot injury that just sidelined him for three games, but he stayed in the game. His presence didn’t guarantee Sixers dominance, though.

The Sixers allowed a 14-0 run late in the third. Matisse Thybulle was on the floor for all of it and ended up being a minus-27 in his 11 minutes. OKC’s spurt obviously wasn’t all on Thybulle, but the Sixers subbed him in to effectively guard Gilgeous-Alexander and he certainly did not. Embiid had a casual pass intercepted by Isaiah Joe, who coasted in for a layup. Another former teammate, Mike Muscala, sunk a corner three. And, after scoring inside through Thybulle’s contact, Gilgeous-Alexander flexed his muscles.

He’s a tricky player for anyone to defend 1-on-1, as his 30.8 points per game average entering Thursday night illustrated. Though he was excellent in Philadelphia, the Sixers did make obvious mistakes against him. A blitz late in the third forced Gilgeous-Alexander to relinquish the ball, but the Sixers weren’t locked in on their responsibilities after that and conceded an inexcusably wide-open three to Muscala.

A comeback push still felt inevitable as long as Embiid avoided deeper foul trouble. Sure enough, he liked his matchup on Muscala in the fourth and carried the Sixers back with physical, no-nonsense scoring. Two Embiid free throws cut the Sixers’ deficit to 114-108.

embiid vs. Muscala remained very fruitful, but the Sixers’ defense wasn’t good enough to overcome all of their earlier miscues. Giddey hurt them with a driving layup and two free throws off of a pivotal offensive board.

Melton defended Gilgeous-Alexander tightly, but the Kentucky product drew crucial fouls and hit all 16 of his free throws. On a frustrating night for the Sixers, Gilgeous-Alexander and OKC clearly deserved the victory.

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