76ers

Sixers-Heat preseason observations: Ben Simmons steals the show

Sixers-Heat preseason observations: Ben Simmons steals the show

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Joel Embiid got the biggest cheers in his return to Kansas City.

Ben Simmons deserved them.

The former No. 1 overall pick stole the spotlight from his teammate and former Kansas standout Friday night, pouring in 19 points in a 119-95 exhibition victory over the Miami Heat. Simmons also had seven rebounds and five assists without a turnover while taking care of the primary ball-handling duties without Markelle Fultz, this year’s No. 1 overall pick, who remained sidelined with soreness in his right knee.

Few have questioned whether the 6-foot-10 Simmons can distribute the ball, some even comparing him to Magic Johnson. But the question that has dogged him has been whether Simmons can shoot it effectively.

For one mostly meaningless game, he provided an answer.

Simmons made his first three shots while Embiid struggled to get into a rhythm, and mixed in some deft passes to set up JJ Redick for open threes. During one first-half stretch, Simmons sealed off on the post to get an easy dunk, then scored on the Sixers’ next two possessions, capping the scoring spurt by taking the Heat’s Justise Winslow to the hole and drawing an and-one foul.

“It catches people off guard when you say you’re going to give a 6-10 guy the ball and you’re going to call him a point guard,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said prior to the victory, “but he’s our point guard right now. You give him the ball and off you go. And he’s embraced it.”

Redick also gave the Sixers a glimpse of what $23 million is buying them this season.

The sharpshooter drained his first three three-pointers, then bounced back from his first miss by knocking down two more. He finished with 19 points on 5 for 6 shooting from beyond the arc.

Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot scored 17 points off the bench, going 10 of 11 from the foul line.

The biggest letdown was the biggest man on the court: Embiid followed his dominant preseason debut against Brooklyn, when he had 22 points and seven boards in just 15 minutes, by going 1 for 7 from the floor and finishing with five points and seven rebounds in 15 minutes. Embiid even caused a brief scare when he crashed to the floor on a drive to the basket and appeared to flex his left knee, though he slowly got to his feet and took his place at the foul line.

The game was supposed to be a homecoming of sorts for Embiid, who played one season down Interstate 70 at Kansas. He was certainly the most popular player in the building, with fans turning out in No. 21 jerseys and the 7-foot-2 standout getting the biggest cheers during pregame introductions.

“It feels like it’s been a while,” Embiid said of his college days. “I would have graduated last year — to me it feels like it was yesterday, because i still have memories of me starting to play basketball.”

But what was supposed to cap a memorable week, which began with Embiid signing a $146.5 million contract extension, instead left him heading into Wednesday’s regular-season opener in Washington without much rhythm.

As for the rest of the team, Brown thinks they’re ready for games to count.

“I like our preparation, I like our patience and the pace we’ve put things in, making sure we don’t skip steps,” he said. “I’d be lying if I told you everything stays the same after the last preseason game. You see things differently. You go overboard with the minutia, what you’re going to have to do.

“You tick boxes — I know we haven’t skipped steps,” he continued, “but preseason basketball is completely different than regular season, and regular season is completely different than postseason. There’s three separate phases we play in and we just ended the first phase tonight.”

• Fultz sat out his second straight preseason game because of his right knee, though he did take part in the morning shootaround. The first overall pick in June’s draft only appeared in three preseason games, but Brown said he’s not concerned by the limited work.

“It gets back to we have a long lens — our vision line is long,” the Sixers’ coach said. “This isn’t something we feel we have to solve the world’s problems on opening night, especially with him. No one is rushing, no one is panicking. We’re going to have a slow, deliberate approach with him.”

• The Sixers went with the same starting lineup that they used Wednesday night against Brooklyn. That meant Embiid was joined by Simmons, Redick, Jerryd Bayless and Robert Covington. Dario Saric and Jahlil Okafor were first off the bench, followed by T.J. McConnell and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot.

• Backup power forward Amir Johnson, who sprained his right ankle in practice on Oct. 3, also sat out the preseason finale. Fellow big man Richaun Holmes was still out with a fractured left wrist.

• Several members of the unbeaten Kansas City Chiefs were seated courtside, including cornerback Marcus Peters, wide receiver Tyreek Hill, linebacker Derrick Johnson and running back Charcandrick West. The Chiefs play the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium.

• Brown has likened the competition for minutes among backup wings Justin Anderson, Nik Stauskus and Furkan Korkmaz to a “fistfight.” Anderson must have delivered the biggest haymakers, because he was first off the bench. Stauskus checked in midway through the third quarter and Korkmaz in the fourth.

• Next to Embiid, the most popular guy in the building was Jacob Pullen, a longshot to earn a guard spot on the Sixers’ roster. Pullen starred a couple hours’ drive west at Kansas State, and played some of his best games in the Sprint Center, including the Big 12 title game against Kansas. He’s spent the bulk of his professional career playing overseas, but has made an impression on Brown and the Sixers (see story). 

“I just look at it like a great opportunity,” Pullen said. “They got a lot of great guys, a lot of great younger guys. I feel like I have a chance to help them. We’ll just see what happens.”

Tyler Johnson, Justise Winslow help Heat snap skid

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USA Today Images

Tyler Johnson, Justise Winslow help Heat snap skid

MIAMI — Tyler Johnson scored 23 points to lead six players in double figures, and the Miami Heat stopped a three-game slide when they beat the reeling Memphis Grizzlies 115-89 on Saturday night.

The Grizzlies lost their ninth game in a row, the longest active streak in the NBA, and their second in as many nights.

Justise Winslow scored a season-high 17 points for the Heat. Reserve Wayne Ellington went 5 for 10 from 3-point range and scored 15.

Miami's Dwyane Wade was limited to 18 minutes by foul trouble and scored six points. But the Heat, scrambling for a playoff berth, still managed to win for only the second time in the past 10 games.

Andrew Harrison scored 17 points for the Grizzlies, who played without leading scorer Tyreke Evans. He'll undergo a precautionary MRI Sunday on his injured right ribs.

The Heat took the lead for good at 28-26. Their margin reached 92-70 by the end of the third quarter.

Miami outscored Memphis 50-30 in the paint, 13-2 on fast breaks and 26-8 off turnovers (see full recap).

Irving's 31 powers Celtics past Knicks
NEW YORK — Kyrie Irving had 31 points, nine rebounds and eight assists, leading the Boston Celtics over the New York Knicks 121-112 on Saturday for their second victory in two nights since the All-Star break.

Irving scored 15 points in a dazzling third quarter and then helped the Celtics finish it off with his passing in the fourth, highlighted by a behind-the-back dish to Jaylen Brown for a dunk that made it 115-106.

Brown had 24 points for the Celtics, who went into the break with three straight losses but came back with a victory in Detroit on Friday.

Trey Burke scored 26 points off the bench for the second straight game for the Knicks, but they couldn't win this one after beating Orlando on Thursday to end an eight-game skid.

Irving was just 1 for 6 behind the arc in the first half but showed no lack of confidence in the third. He scored 14 straight Boston points, hitting four 3-pointers and pushing the ball right at the Knicks.

His last 3-pointer in that spurt gave the Celtics a 10-point lead, but the Knicks chipped away while he rested and it was a two-point game by the time he returned with 8:14 remaining.

Irving soon made another 3, and passed to Al Horford for a 3 that pushed the lead back to double digits.

Horford finished with 13 points and 10 rebounds (see full recap).

Warriors avenge pair of blowout losses to OKC
OAKLAND, Calif. — Kevin Durant scored 28 points for Golden State while avenging an embarrassing home loss to his former Oklahoma City team earlier this month and another on the road in November, leading the Warriors past the Thunder 112-80 on Saturday night.

Stephen Curry added 21 points with five 3-pointers, nine rebounds, six assists and three steals as Golden State put on the kind of defensive performance coach Steve Kerr has been seeking from the defending champs.

Russell Westbrook had 15 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists for Oklahoma City, which failed to reach 100 points for the first time in the last five games. The Thunder had scored at least 100 in 14 of their last 16.

Durant's pretty layup off a perfect pass by Curry with 3:06 left in the third put the Warriors up 75-66. That was part of a 37-11 Golden State run that included 30 points over the final 8:48 of the third -- when Zaza Pachulia subbed in to relieve JaVale McGee.

The Warriors held Paul George to five points. George's 3-pointer at the 7:52 mark of the third with Durant's hand in his face was his first basket after going 0 for 9 to begin the game. He finished 1 for 14 after going off for 38 points in the last meeting when Oklahoma City left Oracle Arena with a 125-105 rout on Feb. 6.

Golden State also lost at OKC by 17 on Nov. 22 (see full recap).

There's no 'I' in Sixers team win

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AP Images

There's no 'I' in Sixers team win

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The Sixers’ 116-105 victory over the Magic (see observations) was just that: a complete “Sixers” victory.

This wasn’t about one player taking over or the starting five carrying the weight. From players one through 10 who stepped on the court, everyone contributed. 

“It doesn’t matter who scores all the points as long as we win,” Ben Simmons said. “We all know that to get to the next level, that’s what it’s going to take.”

Enhancing the bench is a priority for the Sixers as they look to the playoffs. They are going to need depth in a postseason series, having different weapons as they face the same opponent night in and night out. 

Brett Brown was committed to counting on the second unit. The Sixers held a 22-point lead halfway through the fourth, an opportunity for starters to get a significant period of rest ahead of Sunday’s back-to-back on the road against the Wizards. 

So as the Magic chipped away at the differential and got within nine, the reserves stayed on the court. Even when Mario Hezonja attempted a trey that would have cut the lead to six with 1:21 remaining, Brown had decided the starters would remain on the sidelines.

“I wasn’t going to do it," Brown said of subbing in the starters. "I was going to go with those guys. Some of it’s just gut feel, maybe some of it’s stubbornness. But we have to grow our bench. We have to give those guys confidence that they can close out games and they did. My intention was to going to be to let them see it through.”

In total, the reserves combined for 32 points, 16 rebounds and 12 assists. The bench stepped up in different ways. Marco Belinelli provided a boost on the scoreboard with 15 points. T.J. McConnell absorbed extra playing time and clocked a team-high 31 minutes. (None of the starters played more than 29 minutes.) 

Brown determined before the game he would give Richaun Holmes the nod to back up Embiid instead of Amir Johnson. He wanted Holmes, who has played in only three of his last 10 games, to get the opportunity for time on the court (see video). Holmes grabbed eight rebounds with four points in 21 minutes. 

“It shows (the bench) can hold it down,” Simmons said. “We have guys who are capable of doing that, it doesn’t have to be the starting five.”

The bench's production in this win over the Magic is only a small glimpse into what the Sixers believe they will need to succeed in the postseason. 

"Our objective is, in general, playoffs, but I want homecourt advantage," Joel Embiid said. "To know that going into the playoffs you have a bench that can come in and keep the lead or keep building the lead, it's great. In the playoffs you need that, you need a bench to come in and keep it up for the starters, and finish it."