Noah Levick

Ilyasova shows Sixers fans what they've been missing

Ilyasova shows Sixers fans what they've been missing


In his first game back at the Wells Fargo Center in his second stint with the Sixers, Ersan Ilyasova gave a resounding reminder of what the team’s fans had been missing.

Ilyasova was integral to the Sixers’ second-half comeback in a 110-99 win over the Hornets Friday night, recording 18 points, four rebounds and three assists in 23 minutes (see observations). Fifteen of those points came in the second half, as the Sixers outscored the Hornets 62-43 after intermission.

Every time the Sixers needed a big play, Ilyasova made it. He notched four points and an assist in an 8-0 Sixers' run after the Hornets took a 76-62 lead, their largest of the night. His three-pointer from the right wing gave the Sixers a 91-89 advantage, their first lead since early in the second quarter (see highlights). And the charge he took on Michael Kidd-Gilchrist with 1:24 left and the Sixers up 101-97 brought the house down.

Brett Brown, who played Ilyasova with the starters down the stretch, is a big fan of the veteran and all the elements he brings to the Sixers.

“All over the place, whether it’s him making a three, him making a pass to Joel (Embiid), rolling, him taking a charge, him coexisting with Dario Saric — I think that flexibility, that versatility is what excites me the most about him,” Brown said. “And it’s not like we don’t know each other. We know each other well. He knows the system well, though there’s still lots to re-familiarize with. But he’s a massive pickup at this stage, in my eyes.”

Brown still sounds like he’s trying to figure out where exactly Ilyasova, who the Sixers traded to the Hawks at last season's deadline, fits into his rotation. He played 10 players Friday night, including five minutes for Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and 12 for Richaun Holmes. At one stage, Ilyasova played at center, in a small lineup alongside Saric. For most of the night, he was in his traditional power forward spot, alongside either Embiid or Holmes.

Embiid, who found Ilyasova for a nifty give-and-go basket late in the fourth quarter, is happy he’s getting a chance to re-connect with the veteran forward.

“I was excited to him have back,” Embiid said. “I told him, ‘Let’s do whatever we had going on in January last year.’ So I’m excited to have him back.”

As for Ilyasova, he chose the Sixers for a reason. He saw the growth of Embiid and Ben Simmons, the winning atmosphere building in Philadelphia, and he wanted to be a part of it.

“Joel was obviously great last year. And now healthy, he’s obviously playing at a high level,” Ilyasova said. “I think Ben Simmons, I didn’t play with him last year, but the way he sees the floor with his height, it’s a huge advantage for us.”

With his veteran perspective, does Ilyasova think the Sixers can be a threat in the playoffs?

“Of course, why not? When you look at the game we play, it’s all about us,” he said. “When we played against Cleveland, they’re probably considered one of the teams who will be in the playoffs, but we came out strong and beat them. I think when you look at this conference, everybody is close to each other, everybody’s beatable.

“I think from this point, it’s all about us. In the playoffs, you have to know one thing: In a seven-game series, it’s unique. Everybody studies each other, it’s a long series. And I think we’re capable of bringing something extra every game.”

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.  

Outplayed most of night, Flyers grateful for Neuvirth's stellar game

Outplayed most of night, Flyers grateful for Neuvirth's stellar game


For most of Sunday night’s game, the Flyers were second best. During long stretches of play, the Golden Knights camped out in the offensive zone, firing shots at Michal Neuvirth’s goal. They looked like the best team in the Western Conference, while the Flyers looked like a tired team playing the second game of a West Coast back-to-back.

Despite being outshot 39-18, the Flyers made their opportunities count to beat the Golden Knights, 4-1 (see observations), behind a huge game from Neuvirth, who was stepping in for injured starter Brian Elliott.

Sean Couturier, who tied the game at one late in the first period with his 28th goal and assisted on the Flyers’ second and third goals, credited Neuvirth for giving the team a chance to win.

“I think they probably outplayed us for most of the night,” Couturier told reporters. “Neuvy kept us in the game and we got two lucky bounces to kind of get going a little bit, but we found a way to win and that's all that matters.”

The Flyers are finding a lot of ways to win these days. Saturday, they had a season-high 43 shots but needed seven shootout rounds and a clutch cameo from Neuvirth in the final five rounds to beat the NHL-worst Coyotes.

Sunday, they beat the Golden Knights, a team that was 19-3-2 at home, despite sparse offensive opportunities. Radko Gudas even scored his first goal of the season, an empty-netter. Overall, they have 65 points and sit in third in the Metropolitan Division, with four straight wins heading into Tuesday’s game against the Devils.

“For a night like tonight, to win on a back-back, you have to have good goaltending and you have to have a bunch of guys that are willing to lay it on the line and scratch and claw and find a way,” coach Dave Hakstol said. “And I think that sums up a little bit about our hockey team.”

If Elliott’s lower-body injury is serious, Neuvirth will need to maintain the high level he showcased against the Golden Knights. After stopping the final five shots of the shootout in relief of Elliott Saturday, he felt good heading into a matchup against one of the NHL’s top teams.

“It was huge coming off the bench yesterday and shutting the door,” Neuvirth said. “That gave me a lot of confidence coming into this game and back-to-back wins in our tough schedule is huge for us."

Claude Giroux, who has been thriving recently alongside Couturier and Travis Konecny on the first line, said the Flyers couldn’t have pulled off such an unlikely win without Neuvirth.

“Neuvy was the best player out there tonight,” Giroux said. “He made a lot of big saves, great opportunities that he was able to shut down. Without him tonight, we don’t win this game.”