What Sixers need more and less of in second half

What Sixers need more and less of in second half

Now that the dust has settled on the NBA's All-Star festivities, the Sixers will reconvene this week and turn their attention back to the playoff push.

With 27 games remaining in the regular season over a 49-day stretch, it will be a sprint to the finish.

So how can the Sixers capture their first postseason berth in six seasons? Let's take a look at what the team needs more and less of down the stretch.

More: Healthy Embiid
What injury? Joel Embiid shook off right ankle soreness to participate in three events during All-Star weekend as a shining representation of the up-and-coming Sixers.

"There was never really a thought about missing out on any of these events," Embiid said Friday after the Mtn Dew Kickstart Rising Stars game. "It's my first time, so I'm going to have fun."

The big man is always about having fun, but now it's time to get down to business. Even though the Sixers' competition appears to lighten up after the break, the schedule does not (27 games with six back-to-back sets).

The Sixers are 27-17 when Embiid plays and just 3-8 when he doesn't suit up. They need the center healthy and on the court.

Less: Turnovers
Way less, actually. 

As you know by now, the Sixers have a bit of an issue holding onto the basketball. They simply don't respect each possession enough, evidenced by their 17.5 turnovers per game. That's good enough for dead last in the NBA and it's a full 1.5 turnovers more than the closest team (Los Angeles Lakers).

And it's not just the miscues. Teams are capitalizing, too — the Sixers also rank 30th in opponents' points off turnovers (19.4).

Of the "Four Factors" statistic on the offensive end, which breaks down weighted factors that help a team win a game — shooting (40 percent), turnovers (25 percent), rebounding (20 percent) and free throws (15 percent) — the only category that the Sixers rank outside of the NBA's top 10 in is turnovers.

If they can cut down on the giveaways just a little, it will go a long way toward their goal.

More: Early execution
However, not all of those possessions end up with the Sixers running back on defense after a turnover.

With more legit scoring options on the roster this season than any previous time during Brett Brown's tenure, they have shown the ability to execute a play to perfection for a bucket.

It's a stark contrast to the days when they couldn't even get the ball in on an inbounds play.

That level of scoring punch has been particularly evident at the start of games. The Sixers are tied with the Cleveland Cavaliers for fourth in the league in first-quarter points per game (28.7) and are even with the L.A. Clippers for seventh in first-half points a night (55.2).

The Sixers must continue to apply that pressure on teams at the outset of games, especially if their woes finishing off opponents is going to persist.

Less: Bad Covington
Ah, the curious case of Robert Covington.

Has any player in NBA history ever looked like they could make a push for an All-Star spot for two months only to appear as if they belong in the G League the next few months?

Covington has always been a streaky shooter, but this season has been extreme. He shot 44.7 percent from the field and 43.1 percent from three-point range in October and November to help secure his multiyear extension. 

Since that point, the swingman has connected on just 37.6 percent from the field and 32.4 percent from long distance.

Whether it's the weight of the big contract or the nasty spill he took against the Cavs in December, Covington hasn't looked the same on the floor in several months. The team needs him to get it together and the sooner the better.

More: Killer D's
While Embiid's presence on both ends and Ben Simmons' wizardry at the point have put the Sixers in position to snag a playoff bid, the team didn't really hit its stride until a certain pairing found its footing: Dario Saric and defense.

Much like his rookie season, Saric struggled to find his role at the start. But that's long in the rearview mirror now. The second-year forward has increased his production each month and has been rolling so far in February (18.6 points, 51.7 percent field goals, 46.3 percent threes, 6.9 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game).

That surge has coincided with the Sixers' tightened grip on defense. In seven games this month, they've allowed 96.1 points per game on 41.4 percent shooting.

The type of balance Saric offers offensively and the overall lockdown defense won't only make the Sixers a postseason team, it will also make them a tough out. 

Less: Fultz speculation
This is a big deal that the Sixers could make very small with a clear decision on the No. 1 pick's immediate future.

Markelle Fultz reportedly continues to ramp up his rehab workouts for his ailing shoulder, even after team president Bryan Colangelo said earlier this month that the guard could return soon or be shut down for the season.

The franchise should obviously give Fultz every chance to come back and contribute, but that ruling should be made at the first opportunity.

It's after the All-Star break and having that type of deliberation hovering over the team isn't exactly fair to the other players. Not to mention, for a guy that has apparently dealt with questions regarding his confidence, possibly dropping him into the thick of a playoff race doesn't really do him any favors either.

Sixers considering trade for hometown scorer

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Sixers considering trade for hometown scorer

With the Sixers' closest competition for a playoff spot completing a blockbuster trade to make a push, it appears the team isn't about to stand still.

According to the New York Times' Marc Stein, the Sixers have expressed interest in Memphis Grizzlies swingman Tyreke Evans. Per the report, the Grizzlies are seeking a first-round pick in a return package for Evans.

For 2018, the Sixers hold their own first-round pick and another first-rounder via the Los Angeles Lakers. That's the pick included in the Markelle Fultz trade that goes to the Boston Celtics in 2018 if it falls between Nos. 2-5.

This news comes just two days after the Detroit Pistons acquired star power forward Blake Griffin, Willie Reed and Brice Johnson from the L.A. Clippers for Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, Boban Marjanovic, a first-round draft pick and a second-round pick.

The Sixers (24-23) are sitting in the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, just two games above the Pistons (23-26).

Evans is enduring a renaissance season. The Chester native is averaging 19.5 points per game, his highest mark since his Rookie of the Year campaign in 2010. He's also shooting 45.8 percent from the field and 39.2 percent from three-point range in addition to averaging 5.0 rebounds and 5.0 assists a night.

Evans makes $3.29 million this season before becoming an unrestricted free agent.

Sixers-Thunder rematch could get chippy

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Sixers-Thunder rematch could get chippy

It’s been 43 days since the Sixers and Thunder took part in the best NBA game of the regular season so far.

A quick rewind shows you the teams battled in a triple-overtime thriller at the Wells Fargo Center back on Dec. 15 that resulted in a 119-117 Oklahoma City win. 

However, a closer look reveals that both squads learned much more about themselves that night in South Philadelphia.

For the Sixers, they perhaps realized for the first time that Joel Embiid isn’t in fact made of glass. Embiid went the distance … and then some. He gutted through a sore back to play a career-high 49 minutes. 

And Embiid wasn’t just moving up and down the court. The big fella was putting in work as he poured in 34 points along with eight rebounds, six assists and two blocks.

“He felt good about playing and we listened to him,” Sixers head coach Brett Brown said after the loss. "As a staff, we thought that was going to work. Maybe, in the light of day, we could have given him a minute here or there.”

Embiid was a little more certain that he could handle the workload.

“I’ll be fine,” he said.

Sure, the center missed the next three games to recover from the back pain, but the big man hasn’t sat out since. He’s moved beyond the injury-riddled first two seasons of his career and is locked in at 31.4 minutes a night.

What better way to show just how far Embiid’s come from a minutes and injury standpoint? By playing in the first — and possibly both — games of a back-to-back set, which starts Sunday. 

Whoa, whoa, whoa. We know, pump the brakes. Embiid said he would like to play in games on consecutive nights by month’s end, but that’s hardly his decision alone. Anyway, just mark it down as potentially another lesson learned about his progression.

On the other end of the court, the Thunder found out about their squad as well, particularly who should lead OKC’s three-headed monster.

During the first two months of the season, Russell Westbrook spent a lot of time deferring to new star teammates Paul George and Russell Westbrook. However, the reigning MVP took the lead that night.

While Westbrook shot just 10 of 33 for 27 points — which Embiid reminded him of after the final buzzer — the point guard came through when it counted most. He connected on 6 of 15 shots during the three extra sessions for 14 points to secure the win.

“We live for it,” Westbrook said of the level of competition after finishing with a triple-double. “On the road, great environment. To come out and get a win like this, you live for stuff like this.”

And despite Westbrook’s shot attempts per game not drastically increasing (20.1 before facing the Sixers and 22.4 since), the Thunder have certainly benefited from him clearly being the No. 1 option. Entering Saturday, they were 14-6 since topping the Sixers.

But perhaps the main thing unearthed in the season’s first matchup: the rematch will definitely be a heated affair.

In that December clash, Embiid had words with Anthony in the fourth quarter and waved goodbye when OKC center Steven Adams fouled out during the third overtime.

That didn’t sit well with Westbrook, who waved goodbye to Embiid after the Thunder notched the win.

“I was telling him, ‘Go home,’” Westbrook said.

Embiid wasn’t impressed with point guard’s copycat act — or his performance in the game.

“He told me to go home,” Embiid said. “And this is my home and I ain't going nowhere.

“The dude shot like 10 for 33. I wish I would have shot 33 times. I guess we would have had a better chance of actually winning the game.”

We’re not sure about Embiid’s shot attempts making a difference in the first tilt. One thing that is certain: there will be a whole lot of buckets and even more trash talk taking place at Chesapeake Energy Arena Sunday night.