76ers

Sixers offer glimpse of dynamic offensive potential in preseason finale

Sixers offer glimpse of dynamic offensive potential in preseason finale

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — There will be a time in the near future, perhaps even in the Sixers’ regular-season opener Wednesday night in Washington, when Markelle Fultz will fit seamlessly into the offense.

Until then, the Sixers showcased Friday night just how efficiently the trio of 7-foot-2 center Joel Embiid, veteran sharp-shooter JJ Redick and point-forward Ben Simmons can work together.

Start with Embiid, who followed up his dominant preseason debut with a clunker on paper. He scored just five points on 1 for 7 shooting, picked up a couple of silly fouls on defense and looked more like a prospect with 31 career games under his belt than the guy who was given a five-year, $146.5 million contract extension.

But his mere presence in the Sixers’ 119-93 exhibition win over Miami opened up driving lanes for Simmons, who was 9 of 11 from the floor and had 19 points, and carved out space on the perimeter for Redick, who buried five threes and also had 19 points in the Sixers’ most cohesive game of the preseason.

“When you look at the stats, you're going to say, you know, ‘Joel didn't appear to be that dominant,’ but it's so far from the truth,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said. “The stuff he does that you just feel as his coach, and his teammates feel, is hard to quantify because it doesn't say he had 12 rebounds or 20 points or whatever. But he still has that presence and mentality and cocky aggression that we love.”

He also drew three early fouls on the Heat’s Hassan Whiteside, sending him to the bench just three minutes into the game. That showed once more how difficult it is for another big man to guard Embiid one-on-one.

“I thought I was bad today but it’s going to take time,” said Embiid, who admitted to pressing after the news of his contract extension this week, and with a building full of his college fans from Kansas.

“I was trying to force it too much. Some days I’m going to force it.One thing I’m trying to change is my turnovers. Unfortunately last game I had one and today I don’t think I had any.”

Neither did Simmons, who had seven boards and five assists for a near-flawless stat line.

Simmons took over most of the ball-handling duties while Fultz rested his sore knee, and his unique ability at 6-10 to slash to the basket was on full display. But rather than just throwing dazzling no-look passes to set up his teammates, something that folks already knew he was capable of doing, the former No. 1 overall pick showcased a rapidly improving ability to finish at the rim.

That could add another dynamic to the Sixers’ entire offense.

“I took the sleeve off. Maybe that had something to do with it,” Simmons said with a wry smile. “I just felt comfortable. My mind was right. I came in and tried to let it come to me. Tried to be a slasher. You need someone to cut and cut hard. I try to do that for the team. It gives guys opportunities when I do that.”

Guys like Redick, who seemed to turn every pass from Simmons into an assist.

“Everybody is going to see him make threes,” Brown said of his veteran shooting guard, “but what I see is an incredible leader in the locker room. I see him being amazingly professional in the locker room. He’s an incredibly prideful pro, and we sort of see the end result that he makes shots. But it’s the ripple effect, the stuff that goes on behind the scenes.”

Indeed, Redick has been a guiding influence for both Embiid and Simmons, and the way the trio worked in concert in the Sixers’ final tune-up before the regular season was an encouraging sign.

“Ben was excellent moving off the ball, I think he's a very underrated off-ball cutter,” Brown said. “We've always taken tremendous pride on passing. The pass is king. The pass is everything. And when you talk about growing a true team offensively, and amongst that belief is how do you get Joel posted, how do you get JJ some shots, it all has to fit. And tonight it all fit.”

Cavs stuck in 'Strugglesville' but still manage to survive

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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).

Sixers suddenly beating once unbeatable teams

Sixers suddenly beating once unbeatable teams

BOX SCORE

BOSTON — What a difference two games make.

The Sixers entered this week 0-8 against the top three Eastern Conference teams: the Celtics, Cavaliers and Raptors. By Thursday night, they had picked up two straight wins over them.

The Sixers followed up Monday’s victory over the Raptors with an 89-80 win over the Celtics (see observations)

“I think we are in a good position right now,” Ben Simmons said. “Still a lot of improvement, a lot of things we’ve got to pick up on, but I think we are doing really well and getting better.” 

All season long, a downfall of the Sixers has been giving up leads. Ten, 15, 20 points have been erased just like that. 

The Sixers’ largest advantage was 21 points in the last two games, and in both instances their opponents fought back. The Raptors cut the lead to one with three minutes to play; the Celtics got within seven with two minutes on the clock.

Unlike in the past, the Sixers held on for wins.

“We’ve been in that situation too many times,” Joel Embiid said. “We just have to stay calm and keep moving the ball. We made a couple mistakes, but everything was fine and we got the win.” 

The game was missing two key players. The Celtics were shorthanded without their leading scorer, Kyrie Irving (shoulder). The Sixers were down starting shooting guard JJ Redick (leg). Brett Brown considered their absences “almost a wash.” 

Newly-announced All-Star starter Embiid led all players with 26 points, 16 rebounds and six assists, his 19th double-double of the season. 

“They are still a great team,” Brown said of the Celtics. “For us to come in here and build a lead, hold onto the lead, close out the game, and at times not in a pretty way, is a fantastic result for us.” 

With the win, the Sixers snapped a seven-game losing streak at TD Garden dating back to April 4, 2014. They also avoided a regular-season sweep by the Celtics. 

The Sixers moved above .500 (21-20) and into the eight spot in the East. The Celtics and Raptors could be postseason pairings if the Sixers hold their ground in the standings, a scenario they are well aware of in these regular-season games. 

“I don’t know what seed we are going to be, but that’s a potential matchup in the playoffs,” Embiid said. “We always want to come out and try to dominate and let them know that’s it’s not going to be easy.”