Richardson thinks 'heart' is biggest thing Sixers must fix

 nbcsports.com  02/27/2020 10:57:33 

The Sixers, now 9-21 on the road this season after a 108-94 loss Wednesday night to the Cavaliers in which Joel Embiid sprained his left shoulder, clearly have many areas they need to address away from Wells Fargo Center.

But, when asked the biggest thing the team needs to correct before playing the Knicks on Thursday at home, Josh Richardson only needed one word.

Heart, he told reporters in Cleveland.

The 17-win Cavs shot 52.6 percent from the field and, at one point, had a 30-6 advantage in points in the paint. 

Shake Milton started again in place of Ben Simmons, whos out with a nerve impingement in his lower back, and he was probably the Sixers best player, with a team-high 20 points, four rebounds, four assists and no turnovers.

Tobias Harris, Al Horford and Josh Richardson combined to shoot 12 for 35. Against a Cleveland team led by 21-year-old Collin Sexton (28 points), any one of those three players performing well in the absence of the Sixers two All-Stars might have been enough to help the team snap a six-game road losing streak.

I think just our defense and just physicality was a C-minus, Brett Brown said. I think it was a C-minus. & I feel like when you dont have Joel and you dont have Ben, its an opportunity for others to put their hand[s] up and declare, This is who we are. And it is who we are, its who we have been. Tonight was not one of them. I really felt from that sort of physical standpoint, we were a C-minus.

After the Sixers' last home loss, way back in December, Richardson had named effort as an issue. Hes been willing to call out concerns publicly in his first year with the team, and he initiated a players-only meeting earlier this month.

I think it just starts with playing harder &  I think thats a good problem to have to fix  there could be a lot worse things, hed said on Dec. 20. I think if it starts there, then well be working with something at that point.

Good problems dont exist anymore for the Sixers, who are fifth in the Eastern Conference with 23 regular-season games left and, just four games after the All-Star break, have seen both of their All-Stars suffer injuries.

Defensive execution and intensity have been common issues on the road, and they were exacerbated when Embiid left the game. 

[Not] having such a big presence at the rim on defense to protect us whenever us guards make mistakes was kind of tough for us to deal with, Milton said. We didn't do a very good job of making the adjustments.

Even when fully healthy, this was a team that often admitted they were still trying to figure things out and looking for answers. They didnt have any without Embiid and Simmons in Cleveland. 

I think it had a big impact, Horford said of Embiid's injury. Obviously we plan on playing through him and leaning on him a lot. Once he was out, I felt like we didnt really know what next for our group.

Heart is, of course, impossible to measure. The nagging, tangible concerns the Sixers do have   injuries chief among them at the moment  are plenty to worry about by themselves. 

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Someone in the Sixers organization mustve stepped on a broken mirror while walking under a ladder and petting a black cat.

This is fine.

Were just watching the Sixers 2019-20 season crumble right before our eyes.

Some of this is horrendous luck. Some of this is of their own doing. In some cases, its a little of both.

Just a day after we found out Ben Simmons would be out for at least two weeks with nerve impingement in his lower back, Joel Embid was forced to leave Wednesdays game in Cleveland with a shoulder sprain.

The team then went on to lose to a Cavs team that had won 16 games coming in, putting the Sixers at 9-21 on the road this season.

While we dont know the full extent of Embiids injury, it doesnt bode well. With Simmons already out, the Sixers need Embiid to be the dominant player that put up a career-high 49 points on Monday. If both players are on the shelf for an extended period, who knows how far this team could fall.

This is fine.

Thanks to the Miami Heats recent swoon, the Sixers remain just a half game out of the fourth spot with 23 games remaining. 

The fourth spot. The fourth spot.

This team was supposedly built for the playoffs and to conceivably win a championship. Their head coach boldly claimed he wanted the No. 1 seed. Instead, they may end up a fifth seed, meaning theyd start the playoffs on the road, where Im sure their woes away from home will get sorted out  because that's the time you sort these things out, right?

Wheres the smash mouth offense and bully ball defense Brett Brown promised? The Sixers instead got smacked in the mouth away from the Wells Fargo Center yet again by a team playing out the string. 

This is fine.

The players who were supposed to complement Embiid and Simmons and pick up the slack for them when they were off the floor have not done so. The trio of Tobias Harris, Josh Richardson and Al Horford  that will make over $70 million combined this season  shot 12 of 35 Wednesday.

Second-year guard and 2018 second-round pick Shake Milton outplayed Harris and Richardson. Kyle OQuinn, who makes the veteran minimum and hasnt played meaningful minutes since Jan. 20, outplayed Horford. That cant happen. That especially cant happen when youre missing your two All-Stars and playing the Cleveland Cavaliers.

In his first season here, Richardson has questioned his team's lack of effort, accountability and on Wednesday, its heart.

This is fine.

Maybe Embiids injury wont be serious. Maybe Simmons absence wont extend for too long beyond the two weeks. Maybe the five starters can figure it out and Harris, Richardson and Horford will be able to space the floor like GM Elton Brand thought they would. Maybe they can become a defensive bully yet.

Maybe.

"That still is my goal  keeping the boys in the boat, landing the plane, keeping our form, our health all that stuff  [keeping] our spirit the way that it needs to be," Brown said to reporters postgame. "We will move on from this. Its a good thing were in the NBA. In 24 hours youve got a chance to move this aside and go try to find a way."

You figure the Sixers luck has to change at some point, but time is running out. This season is getting away from them.

This is fine.

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Updated: 10:16 p.m. 

The Sixers havent won a road game since Jan. 20, both of their All-Stars are injured and, if the playoffs started tonight, they would not have home court advantage. In short, things could be going much better.

Joel Embiid sustained a left shoulder sprain Wednesday night and the Sixers dropped to 36-23 with a 108-94 loss to the Cavaliers. They play the Knicks tomorrow night at Wells Fargo Center.

Here are observations on the loss: 

First Simmons, now Embiid 

Embiid grimaced after a collision off the ball with Ante Zizic late in the first quarter, feeling at the area around his left shoulder. He took and missed both free throws after the foul call, seemingly in significant pain, then left the game and went back to the locker room. 

Early in the second quarter, Embiid briefly returned to the bench before again heading to the locker room. After a short conversation with head athletic trainer Kevin Johnson, he appeared to have a discussion in the tunnel with GM Elton Brand, who said before the season that hed be more a part of it with the players in a partnership for their care.

The team announced at halftime that Embiid was out for the game. 

Embiids injury is bad news for the Sixers regardless of the circumstances, but its obviously even worse in the context of Ben Simmons being sidelined with a nerve impingement in his lower back. 

It was certainly possible to picture an Embiid-centric team thriving without Simmons, especially given that the Sixers have the third-easiest remaining schedule in the league. If both their All-Stars are out for an extended period of time, though, it would be a massive hit.

There are a heap of fair criticisms one can have about the Sixers this season  Brands decision to spend as much money as he did on Horford and Harris, other complementary pieces not doing enough, abysmal efforts on the road, you name it. However, having your second All-Star get hurt two days after he scored a career-high 49 points and the day after announcing the diagnosis of your other All-Stars injury is just very bad luck. 

After the game, Embiid told The Inquirer's Keith Pompey that he will have an MRI tomorrow. 

Secondary options not close to good enough 

With Embiid out, the Sixers needed Harris and Horford to carry a bigger load.

Neither player was up for the task. 

Harris, whose status changed from doubtful to questionable to available for Mondays game with a right knee contusion, did not look explosive and shot 4 of 13.

Horford made a few nice passes, had three steals and hit two threes, but he wasnt nearly as good as the Sixers needed him to be, with 10 points in 34 minutes. 

It wasnt a strong night for Josh Richardson (nine points on 4 of 12 shooting), either.

Norvel Pelle was out for a second straight game with an upper respiratory illness, which led the Sixers to play Kyle OQuinn as their backup center. In his first action during a close game since Jan. 20, Quinn had six points, four blocks and two rebounds. 

OQuinn reportedly wanted to be waived, but perhaps Embiids injury will shift his thinking. Players must be waived by March 1 in order to retain playoff eligibility in the event theyre picked up by another team that season. We looked at available guards that might be interest the Sixers today (see story).

Milton starts again 

Shake Milton was the Sixers starting point guard, as he had been Monday vs. the Hawks.

The 23-year-old didnt start the game well, allowing Darius Garland to hit his first three shots. Though the defensive drop-off from Simmons to Milton is substantial, Milton was a bright spot offensively, picking the right spots to attack and knocking down 4 of 6 threes. 

He finished with 20 points, four rebounds, four assists and no turnovers. If youd like a positive in a situation that currently looks rather bleak, Milton is a good choice. 

Richardson and Alec Burks (13 points on 6 of 12 shooting) split up backup ball handling duties. 

A terrible 1st half 

The Cavs scored 30 of the games first 36 points in the paint. The Sixers missed a handful of open looks inside early, including a very easy fast break Horford layup attempt off a long pass from Milton. They made just 11 of their first 36 field goals and 2 of their first 12 threes. 

No Sixer played especially well in the first half, and yet the team only trailed by 11 points. With all due respect to the 17-win Cavs, who did beat the Heat on Monday, the deficit would surely have been worse if the Sixers were playing a decent opponent. 

Embiids injury played a part in these particular early road struggles, but a team that is 27-2 at home should simply not be 9-21 on the road.

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