76ers

Imagine how good Sixers can be once this trio gets rolling

usa-markelle-fultz-jj-redick-dario-saric.jpg
USA Today Images

Imagine how good Sixers can be once this trio gets rolling

As we collectively bask in the glow of the Southern California smackdown the Sixers administered to the Clippers and the Lakers to close out their road trip at 3-2, let’s take a little inventory of just what they’ve accomplished overall this season.

Through 14 games, they are 8-6. That’s two wins shy of their total amount of victories just two seasons ago, and we’re still in November. The times they have a changed in Sixer-land.

The team has not one, but two transcendent stars who are capable of taking over games.

Joel Embiid’s last two performances have been pure dominance. 78 points, 31 rebounds, eight blocks and nine assists, while shooting 25 of 40 from the floor and averaging 35 minutes. He’s made whomever is guarding him look foolish, including one of the better defenders in the game, DeAndre Jordan.

From Game 1, Ben Simmons has looked like a 10-year veteran. His poise belies his years. Simmons is a double-double machine and a triple-double threat every night. He’s posting gaudy early numbers of 17.8 points per game, 9.2 rebounds and 7.7 assists. Despite not being a threat beyond 12 feet, Simmons' ability to get to the rack and finish with either hand more than compensates for his outside shortcomings. That duo has been awesome.

Not to be overlooked is Robert Covington. The 26-year-old, who transformed himself into a top-10 defender in the league, is putting up monster offensive stats after an inconsistent season from the floor last year. Covington is scoring 16.5 points, while shooting 50.0 percent from the field and nearly 50 percent from three-point land (49.5). Couple that offensive production with his defensive prowess and the Sixers got a pretty good bargain for a reported four years, $62 million.  

But what’s even more remarkable when considering the Sixers' good start is who they are doing it without. First overall draft pick Markelle Fultz has played in just four games this season as he continues to battle a shoulder issue. Compare that to the contribution the NBA’s best team thus far, the Celtics, have gotten from third overall pick, Jayson Tatum. The 19-year-old is scoring 13.9 points per game and pulling down 5.6 rebounds, while shooting 49.7 percent from the field and 48.9 percent from three. He’s been an integral piece in their 14-game winning streak. The Sixers have not had that luxury.

Beyond Fultz, Dario Saric has not been able to find a rhythm all season. Saric averaged 15.8 points per game over the final three months of last season. He hasn’t rebounded or shot it as well this season either. No doubt there were going to be adjustments and growing pains as the Sixers incorporated Simmons and with more availability from Embiid, but as the season progresses they will need more from the Saric.

The other crazy thing about the wins over the Clippers and Lakers was the manner in which JJ Redick struggled. He shot 7 of 25 from the floor and 1 for 15 from three-point land. He did make some late buckets inside against the Lakers, but he’s here to knock down shots.

I believe Brett Brown will figure out a way to get more out of Saric. The Croatian works way too hard and cares far too much to not get going. With Redick, shooters can be streaky. It happens. And even when he is not making shots, he provides a lot in terms of leadership and example. How Fultz will fit in and what his shooting form will look like is anybody’s guess, but they didn’t give up a lot to move up two spots for nothing. He wasn’t the consensus first overall pick by accident. My sense is in addition to the shoulder issue, he is struggling mightily with his confidence. So it could be a process with him when he’s ready to return.

To be winning without much of a contribution from these players speaks volumes about how good the Sixers' big three (Embiid, Simmons and Covington) have been. And it’s been noticed nationally. The win over the Lakers was a coming out party of sorts for those on the fringes. They are coming to the realization that we’ve known in this city for some time now.

This team is a playoff contender now. The question is how much better will they be at full compliment?

Joel Embiid renews rivalry, takes notes in 1st All-Star Game

Joel Embiid renews rivalry, takes notes in 1st All-Star Game

LOS ANGELES — Joel Embiid didn’t take home MVP honors as planned, but he leaves All-Star Weekend having made his mark on the NBA. 

While Embiid had a strong performance, he and Team Stephen fell to Team LeBron, 148-145, Sunday night.

Here are three things to know about Embiid’s first experience as an All-Star:

Hungry to make an impact
Embiid kicked off the game with a driving dunk. He drew a foul on Anthony Davis to complete the three-point play. Less than a minute later, he knocked down a jumper to score Team Stephen’s first five points.

Embiid finished with 19 points, eight rebounds and two blocks in 20 minutes. He shot 8-for-13 from the field and 2-for-4 from three.

While he was eager to score, he also recognized the talent of his squad. So when had the ball with just seconds left on the clock and the game on the line, he passed it off instead of trying to be the hero (even if the shot didn’t go in).

"I wanted to shoot it but I felt like I had Steph (Curry) and Klay (Thompson) on my team and (Paul George) was really pressuring me,” Embiid said. “But I felt like I had Steph and Klay on my team, so I felt like it was a better idea to pass them the ball because they’ve been doing that for years and I have a lot of respect for them, and that’s what I did.”

Embiid vs. Westbrook: Round 3
Just when it seemed like the next matchup between Embiid and Russell Westbrook would have to wait until next season, the two were crossed paths in the All-Star Game. Embiid hit a three over Westbrook and then swatted his shot (see video).

Embiid insisted it was all in good nature: “I kind of thought about staring at him and I kind of did. But you know it's all fun. I don't have anything against him. I have a lot of respect for him. He's a great competitor and I love to compete too. So I have a lot of fun playing against him.”

Westbrook, on the other hand, said he didn’t pay much mind to Embiid.

“I don’t know,” he said when asked his opinion of Embiid’s first All-Star performance. “I wasn’t really paying attention, honestly. I was paying attention to our team.”  

Let’s get the 2018-19 NBA schedule now to circle the calendars for their next meeting.

From trash talker to student
Embiid said from the time he was named a starter that he wanted to use this weekend as an opportunity to learn from his experienced teammates. And that he did. 

Check out this rundown of players on Team Stephen whose basketball know-how Embiid sought after.

“Steph, on the bench or during the game, I kind of asked him a couple questions,” Embiid said. “All the guys. (Karl-Anthony Towns) we talk a lot. Draymond (Green), of course, we talked a lot about him not being able to guard me. Of course he mentioned when we blew the lead against them, of course he had to mention that … Kyle (Lowry) was amazing. DeMar (DeRozan), always amazing. James (Harden), amazing. Al (Horford) was great; I love spending time with him. All those guys, they were great.”

Lowry was among many fellow All-Stars to appreciate Embiid’s talent so early in his career.

“(My advice is) continue to be him, and I think that’s his best trait,” Lowry said. “He’s a very hungry, humble guy, super talented, He’s just trying to figure it out and learn the game.”

---

Embiid will return to Philadelphia from Los Angeles where he has one big to-do list after participating in the Rising Stars game, Skills Challenge and All-Star Game. Embiid plans to sleep.

Mitchell-Nance Jr. showdown highlights All-Star Saturday

ap-donovan-mitchell-jazz-dunk.jpg
AP Images

Mitchell-Nance Jr. showdown highlights All-Star Saturday

LOS ANGELES — Rookie Donovan Mitchell of the Utah Jazz put on a show in the slam dunk contest to cap off NBA All-Star Saturday.

Mitchell edged Larry Nance Jr. by two points, sealing his victory with a close approximation of the 360-degree spin dunk that Vince Carter used to win the 2000 contest.

"I wanted this so badly," Mitchell said. "This is one of my favorite events of All-Star weekend. To not only be in it, but to win it, it's crazy."

Before making his winning dunk, Mitchell peeled off his Jazz jersey and wore a vintage Carter jersey from the Toronto Raptors.

Mitchell -- three inches shorter than the 6-foot-6 Carter -- needed a score of 47 to beat Nance, and he got a 48 from the five judges: DJ Khaled, Mark Wahlberg, Chris Rock and Hall of Famers Julius Erving and Lisa Leslie.

Nance, who was trying to win the contest 34 years after his father won it, had earned a perfect 50 with a dunk off a double alley-oop off the glass.

Mitchell advanced to the finals with a creative dunk in the first round that used his sister, Jordan, as well as Kevin Hart and the comedian's son as props. For that dunk, Mitchell wore a Darrell Griffith Jazz jersey. Griffith participated in the first slam dunk contest in 1984.

"I appreciate Kevin Hart coming out there and helping me out," Mitchell said. "He's my favorite comedian."

Booker wins 3-point contest with record final round
Devin Booker of the Phoenix Suns won the 3-point contest with a record 28 points in the final round. He beat 2016 champion Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors and Tobias Harris of the Los Angeles Clippers.

"It feels really good," Booker said. "I wanted to go out there and make a name for myself."

Did he ever. He was sensational in the final round on Saturday, when he missed only five of 25 shots.

Each player shot five five-ball racks with a one-minute time limit. The final ball of each one was a "money ball" worth two points, and one of the racks, usually the last one, was all money balls. Booker made the money ball shot on his first four racks, and then made four of the five balls on the money ball rack.

Harris, Booker and Thompson advanced from the eight-man field to the finals. Harris scored 17 points before Booker scorched the nets for 28 points. Thompson followed and scored 25 points.

The previous record was 27 points, set by Stephen Curry in 2015 and matched by Thompson the following year.

Booker, the 21-year-old sharpshooter in his third season with Phoenix, is averaging 24.2 points per game this season as the NBA's 12th-leading scorer. Eleven months after the shooting guard dropped 70 points against Boston to become the youngest player in NBA history to score even 60 in a game, Booker added another accolade to his promising career with the 3-Point title.

Thompson beat the buzzer with his final shot of the first round to reach the finals with 19 points. Booker also scored 19 and Harris had 18.

Dinwiddie tops Markkanen in Skills Challenge final 
Spencer Dinwiddie of the Brooklyn Nets won the skills challenge to kick off NBA All-Star Saturday.

Dinwiddie, who played at Taft High in the Woodland Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles, beat Lauri Markkanen of the Chicago Bulls in the final round.

The skills competition consisted of two players going head to head. They dribbled around pylons, passed the ball into a net, dribbled to the other end of the floor for a layup and then dribbled back to the other end to take a pull-up 3-pointer.

Eight players started the competition, with Dinwiddie and Markkanen advancing to the final.

Markkanen struggled passing the ball into the net, giving Dinwiddie a big lead. Dinwiddie dribbled down the floor and missed his first 3, but drained the next one to win.