Sixers find out best things in life are free

USA Today Images

Sixers find out best things in life are free

It’s easy to blame things on the refs when you’re losing. And while there were a few questionable whistles in the Sixers' deflating 114-109 loss to the Raptors (see observations), a 35-14 disparity in free throws attempted can’t be explained away by one or two bad calls.

In scoring a career-high 45 points, DeMar DeRozan attempted 15 free throws (more than the entire Sixers' team), making 13. Kyle Lowry was a perfect 8 for 8 from the line.

After the loss, Brett Brown commented on the duo’s ability to get to the foul line: “I just think it’s what they are ... They bury their head, they find a spot, they bull their way into environments that are confrontational and expose that collision.”

“DeMar is gifted in so many ways. You look down and to have 45 points against what analytics would say aren’t very efficient shots and he just picks spots and jumps. He sure makes a lot. He’s been doing it a long time. I think it’s the physical nature of how they attack.”

The Sixers have allowed the most free throw attempts per game in the NBA (26.5). It’s not a surprising statistic for a young team that often makes questionable decisions, whether that be fouling jump shooters or leaping at pump fakes.

DeRozan is also an especially crafty player, visiting the line an average of 7.9 times. But the Sixers are going to have a difficult time beating any team, let alone an Eastern Conference contender like the 22-8 Raptors, when they concede a 21 free throw advantage.

With 23.3 foul shots attempted per game, the Sixers are 10th in the league, but that stat is heavily influenced by Joel Embiid. Without Embiid, who averages 8.3 free throw attempts, you’d expect the Sixers to struggle to draw shooting fouls, as was the case Thursday.

Tasked to be the main offensive catalyst in Embiid’s absence, Ben Simmons has shown none of DeRozan or Lowry’s penchant for drawing fouls. We all know Simmons is not a good free throw shooter, with the most famous example of his ineptitude the nearly successful Hack-a-Simmons move used by the Wizards on Nov. 29, when the rookie shot 12 of 24 from the line in the fourth quarter alone. Overall, Simmons is shooting 54.8 percent from the line.

One thing Thursday’s game demonstrated, which Simmons surely already knows, is being a good free throw shooter is a valuable tool for someone who can attack the paint as well as he does. At a minimum, it’s crucial for him to improve his foul shooting to the point that fans no longer are cringing when he goes to the line late in games.

The second, less obvious lesson is how important it is for Simmons to get to the line more often. Overall, Simmons is averaging 5.0 free throw attempts per game, though those numbers are skewed by the 29-attempt night against Washington. Since the game against the Wizards, Simmons is just 20 for 39 from the line in 11 games.

A player who penetrates as well as Simmons, who is third in the league with 13.59 points in the paint per game, should be taking a significantly higher number of free throws. He doesn’t have to radically change the way he plays, but he should occasionally be leaning into defenders when he’s blown past them, pump-faking off-balance opponents or bullying smaller point guards. Even if in the short term Simmons is still a subpar foul shooter, two or three more attempts each game would be a big bonus.

Of course, the disparity in free throw attempts is just one of many factors behind the Sixers’ funk. Still, it’s emblematic of many of their issues. Smart, veteran teams like the Raptors tend to shoot more free throws than their opponents.

The Sixers visit Toronto Saturday night. We’ll see if they’ve learned anything.

Is a rival upset with Embiid's ASG starter nod?

Is a rival upset with Embiid's ASG starter nod?

While Joel Embiid was sharing his first All-Star nod with his teammates and deciding to move on from his former crush, at least one person wasn’t happy that the Sixers’ center was tabbed as a starter.

Knicks big man Kristaps Porzingis feels like he should have garnered that final frontcourt spot in the Eastern Conference.

“Players know,” he said, per the New York Daily News. “That’s all I’m going to say.”

True, Porzingis had more of the players’ support as he finished third in the East in that category compared to Embiid in fourth. 

However, Embiid had the trump card with a pair of third-place finishes in both media and fan voting while Porzingis came in fourth. The fan vote was the main key, as it accounted for 50 percent of the overall tally.

“I feel very blessed to be in this type of position,” Embiid said Thursday. “Thank all the fans out there for the support. It’s been a tough couple of years and I really appreciate it — everybody out there, everybody around me, the whole team, the whole organization, the fans especially, for making this happen. We can only get better from here.”

If Embiid is going to get even better, look out. He’s already averaging 23.9 points (48.7 percent shooting), 11.0 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.9 blocks per game this season. Oh yeah, he also has the Sixers with a 21-20 record and sitting in the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

Meanwhile, Porzingis’ overall numbers have gone down every month this season. He’s currently putting up 23.6 points (43.4 percent shooting), 6.9 boards, 1.2 assists and 2.4 blocks a night. And the Knicks have lost 11 of their last 15 games to fall to 20-25.

“Everybody has their own opinion,” Porzingis said. “Fans are one thing. It is what it is. There are a lot of things I could have done better also. It is what it is.”

Cavs stuck in 'Strugglesville' but still manage to survive

AP Images

Cavs stuck in 'Strugglesville' but still manage to survive

CLEVELAND -- There was none of the usual postgame chatter or music in the Cavaliers locker room.

The mood was somber and quiet, not the same place.

"Right now we're in Strugglesville," LeBron James said. "But it felt like a win. We needed it. Definitely."

Isaiah Thomas made two free throws with 11 seconds left and Cleveland came up with a defensive stop in the frantic final seconds after blowing a 23-point lead to beat the Orlando Magic 104-103 on Thursday night and snap a four-game losing streak.

After Thomas made his shots, Orlando's Elfrid Payton missed a contested layup with three seconds left. The three officials ruled there was an inadvertent whistle and held a jump ball at midcourt.

Magic forward Aaron Gordon grabbed the toss and sank a 45-footer as the horn sounded and Cleveland's crowd shrieked in disbelief. But Gordon committed a jump-ball violation with the move and Cleveland only had to inbound the ball to come away with a victory following a crazy and exhausting final sequence that left everyone dazed.

"No, I don't," said Thomas when asked if he knew what happened. "It was a lot of back and forth. I'm just glad we just came out with the win" (see full recap).

Rockets cruise past Timberwolves in Harden’s return
HOUSTON -- Eric Gordon scored 30 points to lead the Houston Rockets to a 116-98 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Thursday night.

James Harden returned to the Rockets' lineup after missing seven games with a left hamstring strain and finished with 10 points on 3-for-15 shooting, and added seven assists, two steals and two blocks in 26 minutes. Houston went 4-3 in his absence.

Chris Paul had 19 points, nine assists and six rebounds, and Clint Capela added 20 points for the Rockets. Houston has won 15 of the past 17 meetings with Minnesota, including a 10-game winning streak at home.

Gordon closed out a big third quarter by hitting a buzzer-beating 3-pointer off the glass from a step behind the half-court line. After hitting the shot under heavy pressure from Andrew Wiggins, Gordon gave a high-five to Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta, who was sitting courtside near the shot.

Gordon's 3-pointer helped the Rockets finish the third quarter on a 16-4 run to take an 89-70 lead into the fourth with their largest advantage of the game. Gordon made 11 of 19 shots, including 7 of 13 from 3, and fell just short of his season-high 33 points against Utah on Dec. 18.

With Rockets small forward Trevor Ariza sitting out the first part of a two-game suspension for a postgame locker room incident on Monday night in Los Angeles, Luc Mbah a Moute started in Ariza's place, scoring 14 points in 32 minutes.

Along with Ariza, reserve guard Gerald Green was also serving the first of a two-game suspension for the altercation with the Clippers (see full recap).

Blazers top Pacers for 5th straight home win
PORTLAND, Ore. -- Damian Lillard scored 26 points and eight assists, Jusuf Nurkic had 19 points and a season-high 17 rebounds, and the Portland Trail Blazers won their fifth consecutive home game, beating the Indiana Pacers 100-86 on Thursday night.

C.J. McCollum added 16 points and Shabazz Napier 13 for Portland, which seems to have its homecourt mojo back, winning five straight after dropping six consecutive home games in early December. The Blazers also beat Indiana for the ninth consecutive time on their home floor.

Victor Oladipo and Darren Collison scored 23 points each for Indiana.

Portland took control late in the third quarter, when the Blazers held Indiana scoreless for more than five minutes. It was part of Portland's 21-2 run, during which Napier scored eight points to help erase a six-point deficit and give the Blazers an 89-76 lead midway through the fourth quarter.

Indiana was without forward Myles Turner, the team's second-leading scorer this season. Turner has missed five consecutive games with a right elbow injury (see full recap).