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Give and Go: Examining Sixers at quarter pole of season

Give and Go: Examining Sixers at quarter pole of season

Each week, our resident basketball analysts will discuss some of the hottest topics involving the Sixers.

Running the Give and Go are NBC Sports Philadelphia anchor/reporter Marshall Harris, NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com producer/reporter Paul Hudrick and NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com producer/reporter Matt Haughton.

In this edition, we analyze the Sixers’ biggest strength and weakness at the quarter mark of the 2017-18 season.

Harris
The Sixers’ biggest strength at the quarter pole is their ability to bang down low, specifically when it comes to rebounding. As a team, they lead the league in rebounds per game (49.6) and rebound percentage (53.5 percent). Joel Embiid leads the way, but it goes well beyond the man in the middle. Ben Simmons, Dario Saric, Robert Covington and Amir Johnson also all have the ability to register double-digit rebounds any given night. The end of most successful defensive possessions is a rebound and the Sixers are able to rebound better than anyone else to this point.
 
All that rebounding comes in handy when you examine what the Sixers’ biggest weakness has been so far. It’s a problem that’s plagued the Sixers throughout Brett Brown’s tenure, but it’s to be expected with a young, fast-paced team. No one turns it over more times a game than the Sixers (17.5 per game) as 16.8 percent of their possessions end in turnovers. While that’s bad, the Sixers only allow an average of 17.7 points per game off turnovers. It’s not ideal, but there are nine teams that allow more.
 
This could go either way the rest of the season. Think of how good the Sixers can be if they continue to dominate on the glass. On the other hand, think of games that can be lost if they don’t tighten up the ball security. Let’s reassess at the halfway point.

Hudrick
Although it’s still not exactly where it should be, the Sixers’ depth is the best it’s been in what feels like forever. Their starting lineup alone features five players that can all score the basketball in a variety of ways. 

The bench has been more up than down. T.J. McConnell has been tremendous and his absence was felt as Kyrie Irving ran amuck against the Sixers Thursday night. After a slow start, Amir Johnson has provided solid minutes from the backup center position. Richaun Holmes, a strong backup in his own right, hasn’t been able to get off the bench when Joel Embiid plays. Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Jerryd Bayless can both have a role. But as we’ve seen, if they’re asked to do too much, they can be exposed.

It’s hard to be disappointed in much from a team that’s on a 48-win pace that I thought would struggle to go .500. It was already mentioned by Marshall, but the turnovers have been a big issue. Embiid has been one of the bigger culprits in this category (4.1 turnover per game), but this is all new to him. He still needs to a do a better job of what Brett Brown calls “quarterbacking the gym.”

I can live with the turnovers that come as a result of the Sixers’ breakneck pace. If they can clean up the turnovers in the half court, they should be just fine.

Haughton
I’m going off the board a bit for the biggest strength and say the team’s togetherness. One thing Brett Brown has never been lacking for is an ability to motivate. Even when his teams were devoid of talent and healthy bodies during previous seasons, Brown was always able to put a group on the floor that competed to the final whistle. More importantly, the Sixers never came unraveled amid the mounting losses.

Now that he has a vastly improved roster, Brown’s handling of things has remained the same. With emerging superstars (Embiid, Simmons), high-priced free agents (JJ Redick), undrafted gems (Covington, T.J. McConnell) and even disgruntled players (Jahlil Okafor), the coach has managed to maintain the pulse of the evolving locker room. That’s not easy in today’s NBA.

One thing Brown hasn’t been able to get a handle on during his time in Philadelphia, as Marshall mentioned above, is turnovers. In his four full years at the helm, the Sixers finished 30th, 30th, 29th and 30th in turnovers per game. So far this season, the squad is dead last again.

The Sixers should certainly make the postseason barring any major injuries, but their stay will be short lived if they don’t learn to value the basketball at some point. 

Sixers miss Joel Embiid's presence in 2nd night of back-to-back set

Sixers miss Joel Embiid's presence in 2nd night of back-to-back set

BOX SCORE

BOSTON — Joel Embiid hopes to be cleared for back-to-backs sooner rather than later this season. But he’s not there yet, and so the Sixers have to continue to learn to play without him.

Each one of their three games minus the big man has taught them lessons. Thursday’s loss to the league-leading Celtics shined light on ways to improve on both ends.

“It’s tough because you get into a rhythm and then he’s not there,” Ben Simmons said after the Sixers’ 108-97 loss (see observations)

The Sixers are 1-2 without Embiid this season. The most glaring void is his offensive production, a team-high 22.9 points. It’s not just that Embiid can score; he can create his own opportunities to do so down low. Amir Johnson (six points, six rebounds, four assists) got the nod to start, but his game is more defensive-minded than Embiid’s versatile shot arsenal.

“We miss him in the sense that when our offense gets stagnant, we can always kind of throw him the ball and get a bucket,” JJ Redick (17 points, five assists) said. “Tonight, I thought we moved the ball well, we shot the ball well from three, but we could have for sure used him at times — obviously, all the time — but at times just to kind of calm us down, throw it in the post, and play off that.”

The Sixers were supplemented by a team-high 18 points from Dario Saric, who maximized receiving more touches (see highlights). He also scored 25 in the previous game against the Jazz without Embiid. Brett Brown has been able to turn to Saric in a small-center scenario. 

“Tonight, Dario was playing well, so it’s easy to feed him,” Simmons, who posted 15 points, six rebounds, seven assists and five steals, said (see highlights). “But not having Jo there, a lot of the focus is taken away from that player so they’re working on somebody else. He’s a big part of this team but we’ve got to find ways to win without him.”

The hit the Sixers take on defense when Embiid is not in the game has been well-documented. The Sixers lead the league in rebounds (48.9) and out-rebounded the Celtics, 45-40. Saric pulled down 10 and Richaun Holmes added seven off the bench. Still, they were outscored 44-36 in points in the paint.

“You take away a rim defender like Joel and it’s a lot different,” Simmons said. 

Brown and the players acknowledged the strong effort despite being shorthanded against the 19-4 Celtics. The Sixers led in the third quarter and trailed by only three in the fourth while missing Embiid and backup point guard T.J. McConnell (shoulder). Their next pair of back-to-back games is coming up Dec. 9 and 10 in Cleveland and New Orleans.  

“Hopefully we don’t have to play without him too often,” Redick said. 

Sixers-Celtics observations: Too much Kyrie Irving

Sixers-Celtics observations: Too much Kyrie Irving

BOX SCORE

BOSTON — No Joel Embiid. No T.J. McConnell. No day off in between games. No home-court advantage.

With all those factors against them Thursday, the Sixers still made their matchup against the NBA-best Celtics competitive even if the 108-97 final score doesn’t reflect that fact.

The Sixers overcame a 10-point halftime deficit as they opened the second half on a 22-10 burst to lead by two. However, they still ended up trailing, 76-71, after three quarters. Despite several pushes by the Sixers, the Celtics were able to turn their advantage back into a double-digit lead to put the game away.

The Sixers dropped to 12-9 on the season and 1-2 without Embiid, while Boston improved to 19-4.

• Let’s get to the hot topic: would there be Round 2 of Hack-a-Ben? Ben Simmons actually attempted just four free throws (3 for 4). The Celtics, unlike the Wizards, weren’t in a position where they needed to stall the Sixers’ offense to dig out of a 20-point hole. Simmons posted 15 points, six assists and seven rebounds in another 40-minute night. 

• Dario Saric thrives when he gets the opportunity for more touches. That’s the case without Embiid. Saric recorded an 18-point, 10-rebound double-double, and added four assists in 35 minutes. 

• Robert Covington struggled to find an offensive groove. He went 3 for 10 from long range with two of those makes not coming until the final 6:05 of play. JJ Redick, on the other hand, was an efficient 4 for 6 from long range (17 points). 

• Kyrie Irving got the job done for the Celtics all over the court. Of his 36 points, 15 were on threes and seven were at the line. Al Horford poured in another 21 points. Jayson Tatum, who will be linked to the Sixers because of the No. 1 pick swap, added 15 points. The rookie has settled in nicely with the Celtics’ starting five. 

• Brett Brown started Amir Johnson in place of Embiid. He went with the veteran over Richaun Holmes because Johnson has been the backup center for most of the season. Johnson had six points, six rebounds and four assists. 

• Holmes was focused on using his athleticism to bring energy off the bench. He connected on hustle plays fighting at the basket and finished with nine points and seven boards. Holmes did not play in the previous game against the Wizards. 

• Johnson took a loud spill and stayed down on the ground in the second quarter. The veteran got up and stayed in the game. Later, Johnson came up walking gingerly after getting tripped up and fouled by Daniel Theis while running the break off his own steal. The Sixers can count on Johnson to battle through whatever he can. He came into the league on the Pistons with tough-minded players like Rasheed Wallace and Ben Wallace to show him the NBA ropes. 

• The Sixers traveled light to Boston. Four players were not with the team. Markelle Fultz (right shoulder) is in Kentucky for physical therapy. Embiid stayed back as part of his back-to-back restriction. McConnell, who suffered a sprained AC joint in his left shoulder on Wednesday, expectedly remained in Philadelphia. Jahlil Okafor did not make the trip either, listed as individualized training. 

• Simmons looked like he was trying out for the Sixers’ Dunk Squad with this move:

• Injury updates: In addition to those noted above, Justin Anderson remains out (left leg). Boston’s Gordon Hayward (left ankle) has been out since opening night. 

• Former Sixer (and former Celtic) Dana Barros was in attendance. Barros is a community relations consultant for the Celtics.