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Philadelphia 76ers

Joel Embiid looks great but still needs to learn to close

AP Photo/Chris Szagola
AP Photo/Chris Szagola

In Joel Embiid, the Philadelphia 76ers have a dynamic rookie who’s probably on his way to becoming one of the best players in the league, but so far the youngster has yet to navigate the team through some early season high-pressure situations.

They were at it again on Saturday night, coughing up another close game, this time against the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers. The Sixers blew double-digit leads in losses to Orlando and Charlotte and couldn’t execute down the stretch of their opening night loss to Oklahoma City and again Saturday against Cleveland.

The loss was a continuation of a disturbing trend for the Sixers. This was already the third time this season they’ve dropped a game where they at one point led in the fourth quarter. In other words, even though the Sixers scratched and clawed their way back into the game against Cleveland, eventually taking the lead against the defending champs, they could not convert that into a victory.

That’s what happens when you turn the ball over six times in the final three minutes and in your final five possessions like the Sixers did against the Cavs on Saturday night.

It always seems to be a struggle for the Sixers to create points, which is why they rank No. 30  in points per game this season. They’ve relied so heavily on Joel Embiid to score it becomes difficult for them to generate clean looks when defenses tighten up on him late in games.

Their one-dimensional offense becomes an especially glaring weakness as the game reaches its most important points. Here was their last-second shot attempt Saturday night when trailing the Cavs by one:

Previous to that play, Philadelphia was forced to call a 20-second timeout because they couldn’t inbound the ball. Coach Brown said during his post-game press conference the goal of the final play was to “get Joel the ball.”

“It was supposed to be a post-up for me,” Embiid described to reporters.  “They just defended that well.”

To be fair, Cleveland was anticipating Embiid getting the ball, but the Sixers have to find more creative ways to get the ball in his hands. Out of the timeout, Brown explained that the players convinced him to run the same play again. The feeling was they could get the ball to Embiid through Ersan Ilyasova.

“We felt the way they were guarding it that we could get it back in (to Embiid) a different way,” Brown explained said about what he saw from the Cavs defense and called the same play.

However, the ball went from Gerald Henderson to Robert Covington back to Henderson, never into Embiid, resulting in a play with poor spacing and Henderson losing the ball – ending the game.

For what it’s worth, Henderson, who claims he was fouled on the play, saw time running down, so he took the ball to the basket.

“I got fouled, they didn’t call it,” Henderson smiled. “That’s the end of the game.”

Henderson had a similar, if not identical late game failure during the Sixers opening night loss to Oklahoma City.

It’s the second time this season the game has ended with the ball in Henderson’s hands with the game on the line. While it might be too early  to call it a trend, it can not continue if the Sixers have any thoughts about becoming successful.

The Sixers simply have not been able to create a half-decent look whenever they need a basket late in a game. Both times the Sixers needed a basket to give them a lead, Henderson had the last shot.

Overall, the Sixers are 0-5  and 0-3 in games that are within three points with less than a minute remaining all because they can’t figure out how to execute late in games.

“We really do need a win,” Embiid admitted to reporters after the Sixers 102-101 loss to the Cavs. “I think we should have at least three wins right now, but that’s basketball, and great players make plays.

Embiid has been great and will continue to be great, but he is going through some late game growing-pains that come with missing two years of playing basketball, that he should be able to overcome with better talent around him.

“He will learn from it,” Sixers coach Brett Brown promised.

If and when he does is when the Sixers will turn these late game losses into consistent wins.

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