76ers

Joel Embiid practices, and Brett Brown is thrilled

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NBC Sports Philadelphia

Joel Embiid practices, and Brett Brown is thrilled

CAMDEN, N.J. — Joel Embiid’s right hand looks like it hurts. It’s still puffy and swollen over a week after he originally injured it in the Sixers’ win on New Year’s Eve over the Suns.

But Embiid practiced on Monday, and for coach Brett Brown, that’s cause for celebration.

“Joel practicing today makes it one of my happiest days,” Brown said.

“His hand’s still sore. But any time we can get him to practice, to improve his conditioning and more importantly, let him interact with his teammates when it’s not only in front of 20,000 people in an NBA game, that stuff is more important to me than the side note of him going up and down and getting his cardio.”

According to Embiid, his hand is more than just sore. He said it’s “still bothering me a lot,” still “really painful,” just not enough to sideline him.

“I want to be on the court, and if I miss a game, that means something is hurting really bad,” Embiid said. “The other night, obviously I was doubtful, but I felt like I could help the team win, so I went out there. I was kind of scared because if someone hits you, that’s when it hurts more, so I've just got to be careful. But I want to be on the court, I want to play, so if it’s not the type of pain that really bothers me, I’m going to be out there.”

Despite not being pain-free, Embiid is optimistic about eventually being cleared to play in back-to-back games, though he acknowledges the medical staff has the final say.

“I think the main thing is for me to keep practicing," Embiid said. "And after games, the next day to practice and see how my body feels. And that’s on them, that’s their decision. Obviously I want to play, but that’s their decision, and if they feel like I can sustain the intensity of game, practice, game, then I think by the beginning of February I should be playing back-to-backs.”

The team’s first back-to-back set next month is Feb. 2 vs. Miami and Feb. 3 at Indiana.

The other major development on the injury front for the Sixers is Markelle Fultz playing full contact 5-on-5, which he did for the first time Sunday (see story). After Monday’s practice, JJ Redick said he was impressed with the rookie’s progress.

“He looked great, truthfully. He looked great,” Redick said. “I’ve been really, really impressed with him. Especially for how long he’s had off and away from playing 5-on-5, I thought he’s looked really good.”

Brown said the main barometer for when Fultz will return is “the discomfort in his shoulder as it affects his shot.” He acknowledged that Sixers fans are eager for Fultz’s return, and empathized with those closely studying the short video snippets of Fultz’s jumper at practice, desperate for some sort of definitive timeline.

“I think it’s such a snapshot into Philadelphia fans, that they are dying, they are crying for success,” Brown said. “They’re curious about what’s going on with Markelle. The things our fans have had to endure with the history of our high draft picks either being out for a long time or missing the year, and now wondering what’s going on with Markelle, we understand the whole thing. And I think the excitement is just a snapshot in a positive way of Philadelphia fans and the genuine interest they have in the growth of our program.”

NBA stars taking notice of Sixers' rise

NBA stars taking notice of Sixers' rise

The Sixers have been rising steadily in the standings and players around the league are taking notice. 

The young squad improved to 31-25 with a victory over the Bulls Thursday. They have won six straight and have not lost at the Wells Fargo Center in 2018. That totals up to the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference, only two games behind the Wizards for the fourth spot and two games ahead of the Heat for the eighth. 

"I like them," Timberwolves guard Jimmy Butler said at the All-Star break. "They've got a lot of great young talent. We do as well. But I think the way that they're going and how they play so hard and play so together, that's how you win basketball games. They're going to be really, really good for a long time."

The Sixers turned heads with a statement win over the Rockets in only their seventh game of the season. From there, they have defeated playoff teams, including a rare sweep of the Spurs, while struggling against sub.-500 opponents. 

They have 26 games remaining to make a postseason push. Of their upcoming opponents, only 10 games are against current top-eight teams in their conferences. Brett Brown has emphasized they can't take any team lightly. This is the time for the Sixers to maximize their schedule and show they learned from previous letdowns.

"They look good," Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard said. "Obviously as a young team, it takes time to learn how to win. ... The mature, really high-level teams, they find a way to get it done. I think for them, that's what their record shows. You play against them and it's hard to play against them. 

"They're really talented, they play hard, they play for a great coach. It's just those nights where you might not have it, having that understanding and that experience that'll lead you to more wins. I think once they get to that point, that's when maybe nine or 10 games that they've let slip, maybe they win those games."

The Sixers wrapped up the majority of their Western Conference schedule prior to the All-Star break. They have only the Timberwolves, Nuggets and Mavericks left to play. Those in the conference still are keeping an eye on the Sixers' progress, even if they may not face off again for months. 

"Everyone definitely sees the talent there," Warriors guard Klay Thompson said. "Any time you've got Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid to build around, they've got a very bright future. I think everyone had very high expectations, but it's hard to have high expectations with a team that's got a lot of first-, second-year guys that have never been in the playoffs. 

"But you can tell that they're going to be in the playoffs for, shoot, the next decade or so, probably be upper echelon pretty soon."

Leave the NBA playoffs alone

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USA Today Images

Leave the NBA playoffs alone

You can't kill NBA commissioner Adam Silver for trying.

Last week, Silver announced to the media during All-Star weekend in Los Angeles that he's considering a change to the playoffs, where rather than the top eight seeds in each conference competing to determine a conference champ, playoff teams will be seeded 1 through 16.

More recently, ESPN reported that the league is kicking around a "play-in tournament" to determine the final two seeds in each conference.

Let's take these ideas one at a time:

Re-seeding the postseason may sound fun, and even kind of fair, but it completely dissolves conference rivalries that the league has celebrated for decades. Looking for the Warriors and Rockets in the Western Conference Finals? Sorry. Under the new format, there would be no more West Finals. Right now, those are the two best teams in the NBA. So you might see them in the Finals in that format — if they both get that far.

I could understand this argument in years when the disparity in balance of power is egregious. That's not the case this season. If the NBA season ended today, one team would reap the benefits of a 1-16 playoff format: the 9-seed in the West, the Clippers, who are a half-game better than Eastern Conference 8-seed Miami.

(Psst, right now the 5-12 matchup in a 1-16 format would be Sixers-Cavaliers. But let's stay on topic.)

As for the play-in tournament, this completely contradicts the re-seeding idea. The NBA wants the best teams in the playoffs, right? Is a Pistons-Hornets play-in game must-see TV? Or what's left of the Clippers vs. the Jazz?

And how long do you want the postseason to be? Last season, the playoffs lasted nearly nine weeks. It was only that "brief" because the Finals didn't go the full seven games. Adding another round could extend the NBA season into July (unless it corresponds with a shortening of the schedule). We have seen what happens in Olympic years when players don't get enough offseason rest and it ain't pretty.

I'm guessing this is a backhanded way for Silver to keep more teams from tanking for better draft picks. "Hey, you may be 11th in the conference, but you're one 3-game win streak away from a shot at the postseason!!"

I'm all for change, but in the case of the NBA playoffs, commish, I think we're good for now.