76ers

5 centers the Sixers should target in free agency

5 centers the Sixers should target in free agency

The Sixers have their starting center in Joel Embiid. In fact, they already have another two centers in Jahlil Okafor and Richaun Holmes. That frontcourt logjam hasn’t gone away since the trade of Nerlens Noel. 

Still, there will be centers (and forward-centers) on the free-agent market who can help the Sixers for an array of reasons. 

Nene 
Nene knows what it takes to last in the NBA. He and Mike Dunleavy have the longest tenures of the 2002 draft class. 

Nene, 34, doesn’t need to be in the spotlight at this stage in his career. Last season, he came off the bench in 59 of his 67 games as the Rockets started younger centers. 

He averaged 9.1 points (career-high 61.5 percent from the field) and 4.2 rebounds. He bumped up those numbers in the postseason to 10.0 points (70.6 percent from the field) and 4.7 boards.

Aron Baynes
Just like the case for Patty Mills (see story), the Brett Brown connection continues with Baynes. Brown coached Baynes in Australia and with the Spurs. 

Since his three years in San Antonio, Baynes played the past two seasons with the Pistons. He declined his player option to become a free agent this summer.

Baynes, 30, averaged 4.9 points and 4.4 rebounds in 15.5 minutes per game last season. He was reliable, appearing in 75 games, and came off the bench in all but two. Baynes would be a veteran option to back up Embiid (or be a backup to the backup). 

Kelly Olynyk (restricted)
Embiid likes to joke about his desire to play point guard one day. Olynyk did just that until he hit a growth spurt in high school. The seven-footer has a combination of backcourt and frontcourt skills that can spread the floor. 

Olynyk is coming off a postseason run with the Celtics in which he scored 26 points in the deciding game of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Wizards. He averaged 9.0 points and 4.8 rebounds in his fourth season. 

Olynyk, 26, is not hesitant to pull up for a three. He shot 35.4 percent from long range on 192 attempts during the regular season. 

Mike Muscala
Like Olynyk, Muscala fits into the Sixers’ search for versatility. At 6-foot-11, 240 pounds, he can play the four and the five while stretching the offense.  

Last season, Muscala shot a career-best 41.8 percent (46 for 110) from three-point range. He averaged 6.2 points (50.4 percent from the field) and 3.4 rebounds.

Muscala, 25, has been a role player his entire four-year career with the Hawks and would be comfortable as a reserve. He played 70 games last season, starting just three. 

Zaza Pachulia
Would Pachulia leave the opportunity of defending a title for a younger team vying for a postseason berth?

Pachulia brings both veteran know-how and championship-winning experience. He is a traditional big man (he has attempted just 26 threes in 14 seasons) and posted 6.1 points and 5.9 rebounds in his 14th season. 

Pachulia, 33, could be a go-to for Dario Saric like Ersan Ilyasova was last season. Pachulia has seen Saric play overseas and is familiar with the development of his game. 

"You could see he was a young, talented kid, smart," Pachulia said of Saric last season.  

Russell Westbrook hits dagger at the buzzer

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USA Today Images

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).

Sixers close in on 'something special' with great escape

Sixers close in on 'something special' with great escape

BOX SCORE

CHICAGO — If the Sixers end their playoff drought this season, it’ll be because of the franchise’s big two.

All-Star Joel Embiid and rookie Ben Simmons showed just how much fun that could be Thursday night.

Embiid forced a turnover in the final seconds, Simmons scooped up the ball and made a pair of free throws with 5.6 seconds to play and the Sixers scratched out their sixth straight victory, 116-115, over the Bulls (see observations).

The win halted a four-game road skid but, more important to the Sixers’ fortunes, had Embiid and Simmons’ fingerprints all over it.

Simmons finished with a career-high 32 points and had 11 assists and seven rebounds to come close to his second straight triple-double while Embiid added his ninth straight double-double — 30 and 13 rebounds with four blocks — to pace the Sixers on a night when they didn’t get much else.

“Joel and Ben carried us,” coach Brett Brown said after his team won on the road for the first time since Jan. 26. “I thought everyone else really had subpar performances. You felt like we came out of a break.”

The tanking Bulls — starting center Robin Lopez was a healthy scratch as Chicago joins the dash for better NBA draft odds — made 18 three-pointers in both teams’ return from the All-Star break and appeared to have the Sixers on the ropes after Zach LaVine’s triple with 1:02 to play made it 115-110.

That was the last time Chicago scored.

Simmons followed his miss with a layup and JJ Redick made a pair of free throws with 8.0 seconds left to set up the final defensive sequence that put Simmons at the line.

“First of all, we needed a steal and I saw Joel get it and he kind of lobbed it to me and I said, ‘S---, I better get it,’” Simmons said. “Stepping up to the line, I knew I was going to knock ‘em down. You have to have that mentality. I was put to the line and I can’t be thinking I’m going to miss ‘em.” 

With 26 games to play, the Sixers can move into the upper half of the Eastern Conference with a late surge, but will need solid play — and the workloads that come with it — from Embiid and Simmons. If their contributions Thursday (both players were on the court for at least 30 minutes) are any indication, Sixers fans might have more postseason success to celebrate in the spring.

“We stole that win. Sometimes you need those and that’s what we did tonight,” Embiid said. “It’s fun when you win games like that.”

It’ll be even more fun when games like that happen in the postseason … which looks much more plausible every game lately thanks to the big two.

“They feel something special is close. They feel something special that we’ve worked hard for for four years is just around the corner and no one is taking that for granted,” Brown said.

“There’s no entitlement. We just fight for everything we can get.”