Sixers Fall To Blazers 108-105, Losing Streak Reaches 8
Well, that was different.
If you’re looking at last night’s game as the outline to a plot, the basic gist of the game was one many Sixers fans have seen countless times before: 14 point first half deficit, which ballooned to as many as 16 points in the third quarter before a furious rally pulls the Sixers close, only to come up short in excruciating fashion.
When you start zooming in, however, the details of the Sixers’ 108-105 loss to the Blazers last night were as unique as you’ll find.
With 8:30 remaining the Sixers were down by 14, and the night seemed like just another ho-hum blowout loss to a superior Western Conference Opponent. Then Sixers head coach Brett Brown went to an ultra-small lineup, with Robert Covington at the power forward spot and Jerami Grant at center.
That lineup has found success, at least offensive success, in the past. While a lineup with Grant at the 5 and Covington at the 4, without the presence of Noel, Okafor, Holmes, Landry, or Brand also on the court, had played just 34 minutes together heading into last night’s game, per NBAWowy, those lineups had scored 107.8 points per 100 possessions.
The problem, somewhat predictably, is it has struggled on the glass, grabbing just 60.7 percent of their available defensive rebounds.
But last night was different. Last night the team went on an 18-1 run over a 5 minute stretch late in the 4th quarter, which included a 13-0 sprint with a lineup of Ish Smith, Kendall Marshall, Hollis Thompson, Covington, and Grant.
Thompson hit a pair of three-pointers during that stretch, the second of which gave the Sixers a three-point lead with 3:15 remaining. Thompson was huge for the Sixers on the night, finishing with 17 points on 6-13 shooting from the field.
The Blazers responded how you would expect a more talented opponent to: with an immediate 7-0 run to regain control of the lead. But the Sixers fought back. Hollis made another huge three, this one off of a dribble handoff from Ish Smith on a designed play out of a timeout. After former-Sixer Maurice Harkless went 1-of-2 from thre free-throw line, Smith drained an open step-back jumper at the foul line to tie up the score at 105 with 23 seconds remaining.
This is when the game became interesting.
Sixers head coach Brett Brown decided to employ the “anything but” rule, where he instructs his team to force the ball out of the opponents best player’s hand, to allow “anybody but” them to beat you. It’s something he did, to some controversy, in an, ironically, 108-105 loss to the Golden State Warriors on January 30th, a game which feels like a lifetime ago, but my calendar swears is less than 2 months in the past.
In that scenario, the Sixers trapped Steph Curry 35 feet away from the hoop, sending Nerlens Noel up to force the ball out of his hands. Draymond Green made the right read and found Harrison Barnes in the corner for the game-winning three.
The Blazers inbounded the ball to Damian Lillard, who finished the game shooting just 6-20 from the field. Brown once again trapped immediately, sending Ish Smith over to double 40 feet from the basket.
The move was, once again, success, at least from the prism of forcing the ball out of Lillard’s hands. Now the ball was in C.J. McCollum‘s possession with 18 seconds remaining.
In a normal scenario, McCollum would probably attack Robert Covington off the dribble right away. Covington, the power forward in this lineup, was forced to switch onto McCollum after Smith went to double Lillard, and besides the trouble Covington would have in keeping the quick guard in front of him 40’ from the hoop, the Blazers also had numbers around the rim because two players were now covering Lillard, who stood at halfcourt without the ball.
But with the game tied and the shot clock unplugged, the Blazers wanted to run clock, to give themselves a chance at a game winner as time expired and prevent the Sixers from having an opportunity to respond with any kind of a meaningful possession. With 17 seconds remaining, even a high probability score wasn’t something the Blazers wanted to take advantage of, something which undoubtedly influenced Brown’s decision to trap so far from the basket.
In a normal scenario, extending a double team 40 feet from the hoop is a recipe for disaster. This wasn’t a normal scenario.
So Brown and his team doubled once again. With T.J. McConnell face guarding Lillard 40 feet from the basket to deny him the ball, and Hollis Thompson extending himself to try to prevent Allen Crabbe from serving as an outlet for McCollum, who he thought was in trouble and desperate to find somebody to pass to, that left Jerami Grant as the only line of defense should McCollum break the double.
And break the weak double team is exactly what McCollum did. With Ed Davis effectively sealing off Grant from being able to rotate over, that forced Covington, who ended up fouling McCollum for the and-1, to try to recover.
(On a related note, the Blazers, who basically run a two point guard lineup out there for a majority of the game, are very hard to trap like that because of their abundance of ball handlers).
But that’s not even the odd part. Doubling that far from the basket, while risky, at least had some merit, and is something Brown has shown the desire to do in the past.
Up 3 with 7 seconds remaining, Portland head coach Terry Stotts, who for my money should be coach of the year (but who won’t, because in our peculiar voting rituals, only the coaches with the most wins are deemed to have performed the best), decided to send Jerami Grant to the free-throw line rather than allow the Sixers to run a play.
Having Grant, a 67 percent free-throw shooter, flash to the ball was an interesting decision, to say the least, although perhaps ad-libbed as Grant’s internal clock counted down to a five second violation, but the Blazers made the most of the Sixers’ head scratcher.
Grant missed the first one, something always on the table when a 67 percent free-throw shooter gets fouled. Knowing he had to miss, Grant then threw the ball off the backboard, an idea which is all well and good except by league rules the ball has to hit the rim. Violation. Portland ball.
Still, the Sixers were down just 3 with 7.2 seconds remaining. If Portland misses a free-throw, the Sixers hit a quick three, who knows. Unlikely, for sure, but the unlikely happens with alarming regularity in this wackadoo sport. Just look at Emmanuel Mudiay‘s game-winning shot just a few days ago for proof.
But the Sixers didn’t foul. McConnell gave what looked to be a half-hearted effort to foul, but when that failed, the Sixers just surrounded C.J. McCollum and let the game end in a whimper, with McCollum holding onto the ball as time expired. Did they think they could force an eight second backcourt violation? The Blazers inbounded the ball with 7.2 seconds remaining. That wasn’t going to work. Did they think they could force a steal? If so, the effort wasn’t there. Did they just give up?
It was all very odd. But at least it was new.
All in all it was a solid performance from the Sixers, and one that, who went on the road extremely short-handed against a vastly superior opponent and put up a fight. If the 9-64 Sixers weren’t staring ignominy in the face with 9 games remaining, it was a game you could take positives from. But with just 9 games remaining, including some very difficult ones in the next few days, the last two games have been heartwrenching.
Odds and Ends
The Sixers had six players in double figures, including 17 each from Hollis Thompson (6-13 from the field, 5-11 from three), Ish Smith, and Robert Covington.
Smith needed that offensive performance in the worst way, as he shot just 3-24 in his previous two games. Smith also finished with 14 rebounds and 9 assists.
Covington, meanwhile, struggled mightily from the perimeter, shooting just 1-9 from three-point range, but got to the free-throw line 5 times and contributed 11 rebounds, 10 defensive, in the process.
For the Blazers, C.J. McCollum finished with 25 points in 9-22 shooting. Al-Farouq Aminu added 20 points, a season high, and shot 3-8 from three-point range. Damian Lillard shot just 6-20 for his 16 points.
Noel missed the game, his second in a row, with a bruises right knee. He will not play tonight against the Warriors.
Richaun Holmes left the game in the second quarter with a strained right Achilles and did not return. Sonny Weems suffered a quad strain and also did not return to the game. Neither are expected to play against the Warriors.
T.J McConnell suffered a dislocated finger, but he did return to the game and is expected to play tonight in Golden State.
Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.