What we've learned during Sixers' win streak

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What we've learned during Sixers' win streak

A 1-4 start threatened to rob the Sixers of some of the enthusiasm and energy surrounding the franchise entering this season. They sure turned that around quickly.

The Sixers have won five games in a row heading into a California swing that begins in Sacramento against the Kings on Thursday, and excitement levels are once again on the rise. They're two games above .500 for the first time since December 2012 and in the midst of a five-game winning streak for the first time since the 2011-12 season.

And if you ask Sixers guard JJ Redick, this team is just getting started.

"A winning streak isn't a winning streak until it hits five games, so we are in Day 1 of our winning streak," Redick said.

The Sixers will be tested on the road over the course of the next week. The team heads to Oakland to meet the defending-champion Warriors on Saturday, then moves on to LA for matchups with the Clippers on Monday and Lakers on Thursday. We'll learn a lot more about their makeup then, but here are a few thoughts on what we've discovered already.

1. The Sixers are coming together faster than expected. The first few games of the season, this team was very much a work in progress at the offensive end. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons could create and score at will, and Robert Covington had the hot hand from Day 1. But Redick and Dario Saric were having trouble getting involved, while Amir Johnson and Jerryd Bayless were taking on outsized roles for some reason. The offense seems to be striking the right balance now. Simmons and Embiid are still the workhorses, but there have been more opportunities for Redick and Saric, and even guys like T.J. McConnell and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot off the bench. Since the ball started winding up in the right hands more often, the team's improvement has been rapid — and it happened almost overnight.

2. Simmons has been as advertised with the ball in his hands, and he's continuing to work on his shot, but what about his development at the defensive end? No surprise, the 21-year-old is quickly becoming a force to be reckoned with. The kid is already a walking double-double, averaging 10.1 rebounds per night. Simmons also has 13 steals in the Sixers' last six games, and six blocks in the last two. He's jumping in passing lanes and contesting shots, and making it look easy with his ridiculous quickness and reach.

3. There wasn't much of a reaction to the news that Embiid missed Wednesday's practice to take part in physical therapy, this after he was held out of the Sixers' game against the Jazz on Tuesday. Either that means it was fairly routine and no cause for alarm, or everybody has gone numb to the appearance of any new injuries for Embiid. There's no indication from the club he isn't expected to play on Thursday against the Kings or Saturday against the Warriors — although, as we've seen in the past, that doesn't necessarily mean anything. Regardless, expect the Sixers' leading scorer back in the lineup until alerted otherwise.

4. Saric is beginning to find himself again in the Sixers' crowded offense. After failing to eclipse nine points in the first five games, Saric has reached double digits four times during the Sixers' streak, including a season-high 25 points against the Jazz on Tuesday. And while he's playing more minutes, the differences are he's staying out of foul trouble and shooting the ball better. Saric was 3 for 14 (21.4 percent) from beyond the arc over the first five, and he's 15 for 30 (50 percent) since, which is a marked difference. It seems like a case of the 23-year-old's simply rounding into playing shape while also becoming more comfortable with his role. Whatever changed, Saric appears to be heating up.

5. You hate to say it, especially because he was clearly playing hurt, but the Sixers are clearly better off without Markelle Fultz right now. That might seem obvious based on the team's record with Fultz (1-3) compared to without (5-1), or because he was an astoundingly awful minus-123 over just 75 minutes of action. But since the No. 1 choice in the 2017 draft was sidelined indefinitely, the Sixers have averaged 112.5 points per game. When the club was forcing an injured 19-year-old onto the floor, the offense averaged 99.5. None of this is to suggest Fultz is a bust. He just needs to get healthy — otherwise, he's a weak link.

6. Covington has to cool off eventually, right? The Sixers' 3-and-D man is taking the "three" part of the equation to a whole other level this season. Covington has never shot better than 37.4 percent from beyond the arc over a full season, yet 10 games into the 2017-18 campaign, he's hitting 50 percent. Only four NBA players have made more threes — James Harden, Klay Thompson, Stephen Curry and Eric Gordon — and they've all appeared in more games and are taking more shots. Obviously, Covington is going to make half his three-point attempts over the remainder of the season. That being said, is this merely a lengthy hot streak, or is the 26-year-old still growing?

7. I'd like to see Justin Anderson get more minutes. He was great on Tuesday, connecting on 4 of 5 shots for eight points in 13 minutes against the Jazz, and he was lauded afterward by Sixers head coach Brett Brown for his defensive performance. Acquired in the Nerlens Noel trade last season, Anderson has shown 3-and-D potential. Yet he's appeared in only six games this season, averaging 12.2 minutes in those games. The Sixers are winning, so Brown isn't going to make sweeping changes to the rotation, nor should he. Anderson just feels like a talent that's worth a closer look, maybe coming off the bench to spell Covington with a tad more frequency.

Markelle Fultz named in NCAA corruption scandal

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Markelle Fultz named in NCAA corruption scandal

Markelle Fultz is one of many players named in a Yahoo report exposing high-profile athletes who accepted loans or bribes from former NBA agent Andy Miller, associate Christian Dawkins and Miller's agency, ASM Sports.

Fultz received a loan of $10,000 at some point before attending the University of Washington, according to the report, which utilized documents and bank records found during the discovery process of the federal investigation into Miller.

Other named players include Dennis Smith Jr., Isaiah Whitehead, Tim Quarterman (a teammate of Ben Simmons' at LSU), Bam Adebayo, Kyle Kuzma, Fred VanVleet and P.J. Dozier.

The records also show that Dawkins, 24, sought reimbursement after having dinner with prominent figures such as Fultz, Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo and unnamed "Villanova coaches." The dinners themselves are one thing, the payment is another.

For more details, here is the Yahoo report, which points out that the findings are so widespread and involve so many universities that punishment will be difficult for the NCAA. 

Russell Westbrook hits dagger at the buzzer

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Russell Westbrook hits dagger at the buzzer

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Russell Westbrook made a 3-pointer as time expired, lifting the Oklahoma City Thunder to a 110-107 victory over the Sacramento Kings on Thursday night.

The Thunder blew a 23-point lead and trailed 105-102 with 4 minutes remaining before closing the game on an 8-2 run.

Westbrook, who notched his 18th triple-double of the season, made three free throws sandwiched around a bucket in the paint by Steven Adams to put Oklahoma City up 107-105.

Justin Jackson's 6-foot jumper off an offensive rebound tied the game. After a timeout, the Thunder got the ball in front of Sacramento's bench and Carmelo Anthony found Westbrook atop the 3-point line for the winner.

Westbrook lifted the Thunder from what would have been a devastating loss after a fast start in their first game since the All-Star break. They set a season high with 44 points in the first quarter and made 12 3-pointers but still had to rally in the final minutes to win.

Anthony matched his season high of seven 3-pointers and Paul George had three from beyond the arc, ending his five-game streak with five or more 3s. It was the second-longest streak in NBA history behind George McCloud's six-game streak in 1996 (see full recap).

Curry scores 44 as Warriors hold off Clippers
OAKLAND, Calif. -- Stephen Curry swished a beautiful buzzer-beater from way back early and hit another timely 3-pointer late on the way to scoring 44, and the Golden State Warriors returned from the All-Star break and had to hold off the Los Angeles Clippers 134-127 on Thursday night.

Kevin Durant had 21 points and eight assists, Klay Thompson added 19 points, and Draymond Green contributed 13 points, seven rebounds, six assists and two steals.

Curry shot 14 for 19, including 8 of 11 from deep, in his third 40-point game of the season.

Coach Steve Kerr challenged the defending champions to begin games better on the defensive end, which they did. Then the Clippers nearly came back with a surge down the stretch in what became an entertaining back-and-forth in the closing minutes (see full recap).

Wizards spoil home debut for new-look Cavs
CLEVELAND -- Bradley Beal scored 18 points, Kelly Oubre Jr. added 17 and tried to untie the sneakers of one of Cleveland's new players, and the Washington Wizards withstood a late assault by LeBron James to beat the new-look Cavaliers 110-103 on Thursday night.

The Wizards nearly blew a late 11-point lead as James scored 14 straight points to pull the Cavs within 106-103. But Beal hit a driving layup and James missed a free throw and committed a lane violation while intentionally missing the second one and the Wizards held on.

Washington is 8-2 since star guard John Wall went down with a knee injury. Tomas Satoransky, who has been starting in Wall's spot, added 17 points and eight assists.

James, back from winning MVP honors at the All-Star Game, scored 32 -- 14 in the fourth -- for the Cavs, who dropped to 2-1 since acquiring four new players before the trade deadline. J.R. Smith added 15 for Cleveland.

The Wizards spoiled the home debuts for Larry Nance Jr., George Hill, Rodney Hood and Jordan Clarkson, four new faces the Cavs are hoping can get them back to the NBA Finals (see full recap).