76ers

Sixers-Mavericks observations: Ben Simmons lifts Sixers to 1st win in Dallas since ’05

Sixers-Mavericks observations: Ben Simmons lifts Sixers to 1st win in Dallas since ’05

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DALLAS — The headlining matchup of the night was Joel Embiid against former teammate and best friend Nerlens Noel, but by the end, I was left wanting to see more of Embiid vs. Dirk Nowitzki in the Sixers' 112-110 win Saturday night over the Mavericks.

Embiid started the game against Noel. He began out on the arc early on and quickly shifted to attacking the basket. Instead up pulling up from long range, he often caught the ball behind the three-point line and drove the hoop (23 points and nine rebounds on the night).

Embiid had a clear physical edge against Noel and used it in his favor. If you go by the official listings, Embiid has 40 pounds on Noel (260 to 220), but based on the fact Embiid estimates he weighs between 280 and 285 pounds, that differential probably is much larger.

The 20-year veteran Nowitzki did a solid job defending Embiid, especially during the Mavericks’ second-quarter push. During a one-minute span, Embiid missed a jumper while guarded by Nowitzki and then Nowitzki blocked another shot attempt.

This wasn’t a battle for the ages, but it was a matchup of two different ages of NBA basketball — a 39-year-old future Hall of Famer against a 23-year-old star on the rise. Embiid hit a trio of threes in the same game Nowitzki moved into 12th place on the NBA’s all-time three-point leader list. Watching the two compete had me thinking of all the matchups they could’ve had if Embiid hadn’t missed his first two seasons.

• This game was a contest of two teams looking for their second win of the season. The Sixers found themselves in familiar territory as they had to hold on to a lead late in the fourth. Would this game turn out different than Wednesday's one-point loss to the Rockets?

The Sixers led 109-107 with 20 seconds to play. Embiid hit a shot over Nowitzki and Harrison Barnes answered with a trey. Up 111-110 with 8.9 seconds on the clock, Jerryd Bayless drew a foul on Yogi Ferrell and only hit one of two free throws. That gave the Mavs a final chance. Ferrell sprinted to the basket where he was fouled by Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot with 0.2 left.

When Ferrell missed the first free throw, both teams made defensive adjustments. Embiid, Dario Saric, Noel, and Salah Mejri subbed back in for the final shot. The Mavs failed to connect.

• Overheard from the stands: “I can’t believe they’re playing Ben Simmons as a point guard.” As if on cue, Simmons dunked the ball so hard the basket still was shaking during the Mavs' possession. He played aggressively in the paint, as Brett Brown wants him to focus on finishing at the rim, and tallied 23 points, seven rebounds, eight assists, three steals and a block in 34 minutes.

• Dario Saric got the start with JJ Redick sidelined by lower back tightness. He has been struggling to hit his stride early in the season and looked to find a rhythm immediately. Saric pulled up for the first shot of the game, a three, and knocked it down. He scored all of his 12 points from long range (4 for 12 from the field, 4 for 7 from three).

• As for Redick, he’s not concerned about his back. “Nothing out of the ordinary,” Redick said. “I’ll be fine. It’s not a big deal.” He started feeling tightness Friday morning.

• Embiid continued to play physical after stating earlier this week, “I’m not made of glass.” And there were still tumbles. Embiid was tripped up by Wesley Matthews, fell out of bounds and came up holding his back. He shook it off and stayed in the game.

• Nik Stauskas received playing time in the absence of Redick. He scored his first points of the season (four) and picked off a steal. Stauskas put time in before the game working on his shot.

• Both teams could attribute a large chunk of their turnovers to one player. Embiid committed seven of the Sixers' 14, while Dennis Smith Jr. was charged with six of the Mavs' 18.

• A sneaky J.J. Barea drove by Embiid for a clear look at the basket and a layup. Reminder: Barea is listed at six feet tall.

• Mavericks fans dressed for the theme Saturday night.

How to manage Joel Embiid's health while pushing for playoffs

How to manage Joel Embiid's health while pushing for playoffs

CAMDEN, N.J. — In some ways, Joel Embiid is a dream to coach. You can go to him in the post whenever you need a bucket, rely on him to erase defensive mistakes, sit back and watch as he takes over games.

But in other ways, coaching Embiid is not an easy job. Brett Brown has to constantly weigh Embiid’s health with the immediate desire to win. That balancing act has never been more difficult for Brown, who commented Wednesday on how he plans to manage Embiid with the playoffs in sight.

“Everything is still, and it should be, delivering him to a playoff round,” Brown said. “It’s not cramming for the exam and doing whatever you can to get home court, it’s not that at all. And so I feel like the path that we’re all on is both professional and responsible. So it’s that more than trying to cram for an exam.”

The Sixers have six back-to-back sets in their final 27 games. Embiid played his first ever back-to-back on Feb. 2 vs. Miami and Feb. 3 at Indiana. Since then, he’s had an injury scare with his right knee (on Feb. 10 vs the Clippers) and missed the Sixers’ final game before the All-Star break with a sore right ankle.

That said, Embiid’s obviously taken major steps forward. After being sidelined for his first two NBA seasons and playing just 31 games (and only 25.4 minutes per game) in his rookie year, he’s played in 44 of the Sixers’ first 55 games, and is averaging 31.4 minutes per game.

But the Sixers are 3-8 when Embiid doesn’t play. Without Embiid, the Sixers don’t look like a playoff team. With him, they look like a team which could earn home-court advantage. The Sixers are currently seventh in the Eastern Conference at 30-25, two games behind the fourth-seeded Washington Wizards.

When asked how he’ll generally manage his players’ minutes in the final third of the season, Brown referred to his time as a Spurs assistant, implying that the Sixers will approach things more aggressively than a championship contender.

“In my old life, when you felt like you were going to be in the finals and win a championship, you definitely started managing stuff differently in this final third,” Brown said. “That’s not where we’re at now. We are fighting to get in the playoffs.

“And we’re in a fist fight, we want a little bit more than that. And we’re going to play with that in mind, and when the opportunity arises when I can rest some of our guys, I will. But it’s not about being conservative right now or feeling like we’re entitled and we’re in the playoffs; we aren’t. So we’re still fighting to do that, and I’ll coach it accordingly.”

It might sound like there’s a contradiction between that desire to fight for the postseason and Brown’s goal of “delivering [Embiid] to a playoff round.” The Sixers probably need Embiid to play the majority of their final 27 games to make the playoffs in the first place. On the other hand, nothing in Embiid’s past suggests that he’s capable of playing all six remaining back-to-backs and suiting up fully healthy in Game 1 of the postseason.

The key for Brown is finding the perfect middle ground between riding Embiid hard every night and babying his 7-foot-2 star to the detriment of the team. With the playoffs finally in sight after five seasons of processing, that’s going to be one of Brown’s greatest challenges in the home stretch.  

Rookie of the Year down to 2 and Ben Simmons' odds slipping

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Rookie of the Year down to 2 and Ben Simmons' odds slipping

Donovan Mitchell continues to creep closer to Ben Simmons in the NBA Rookie of the Year race, and the gap in Bovada's odds for the two is as close as it's been all season.

Simmons is now -250 to win the award, meaning a $250 wager is required to win $100. 

Mitchell is at +170, meaning a $100 wager wins you $170.

In the most recent odds update in January, Simmons was at -650; Mitchell was +400.

It's a clear two-man race at this point.
 
Simmons is averaging 16.4 points, 7.8 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 1.9 steals and 0.9 blocks this season. No player in recorded history has hit all five criteria in the same season.

Mitchell, however, has been on fire for the NBA's hottest team. The Jazz have won 11 straight games to test the Pelicans for the 8-seed, and over that span, Mitchell has averaged 21.3 points, albeit on 41 percent shooting.

For the season, Mitchell is at 19.6 points, 3.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.5 steals. He's made 35.4 percent of his threes and 83.6 percent of his free throws.

Both are stars in the making, but it's worth noting that the Jazz are playing better than they have all season and Simmons is still the favorite. Where Utah ends up will be a determining factor in the Rookie of the Year race — if the Jazz can somehow end up the 7-seed in a loaded West, arguments for Mitchell will grow louder.

Both Simmons and Mitchell were two of five guests this week on NBA TV's Open Court: Rookies Edition. Interesting talking points from the special: 

• Mitchell referenced former Sixer Jrue Holiday as an under-the-radar tough player to guard, saying he watches film of Holiday every day.

• Simmons recalled LeBron attacking him frequently in the first quarter of their first meeting, saying he wasn't surprised LeBron wanted to send a message by going right at him.

• The Morris twins were mentioned by Simmons and Jayson Tatum when asked about the most imposing players in the league. Everyone cited DeMarcus Cousins.

• Simmons downplayed the importance of his NBA redshirt season, saying you don't really know what it's like to play back to back and deal with the hectic travel schedule until you're involved in it every day.