Halfway through the regular season, Sixers look a bit desperate in their search for identity

Halfway through the regular season, Sixers look a bit desperate in their search for identity

The Sixers are still searching. 

They’re halfway through the regular season and have yet to arrive upon a dependable identity.

Early in the season, there were hints that they’d done so. The team embraced a physical, attacking defensive style and a post-heavy offense sparse on pick-and-rolls. We thought they’d found it, in fact, after that Halloween scrap against the Timberwolves that seemed to captured the toughness and “bully ball”  mentality Brown had said he wanted to see.

Nothing stuck, though. 

Before the team’s 101-95 loss Monday night to the Pacers, Brown was asked for his definition of the Sixers' identity. He didn’t pretend he had a firm answer.

I think we’re learning,” he told reporters. “I know what I want it to be. To say, ‘Yep, that’s what it is’ would not be true. It’s changed even more now without [Joel Embiid] for a while. … We’re still figuring some stuff out. We have an opportunity — and I’ll use that word — to sort of solidify what’s life like without Joel. We miss him terribly — we’re completely different on both sides of the ball. But when we inherit Jo, when we absorb Jo back into the list when he does become available to us, we’re hoping that there’s been a little bit of momentum with our guys to grow that. So, to sort of anoint ‘this is who we are after the halfway mark,’ it’s difficult for me that do that.

Brown’s response was honest, if not satisfying. 

Against Indiana, he coached like he was grasping for solutions. He put Raul Neto in the game late in the third quarter ahead of Trey Burke, made Josh Richardson the primary ball handler in the fourth quarter and didn’t play an available James Ennis for the first time this season.

The results were mixed. Neto scored seven points in under four minutes, though he fell victim to T.J. McConnell’s relentless hustle as the former Sixer poked free a steal from behind the oblivious Neto that led to a Justin Holiday dunk on the other end. Richardson was tremendous in the final period, scoring 17 of his 23 points and nearly saving the game.

One imagines Ennis could have been valuable on a night in which the Sixers’ bench was outscored by the Pacers’, 31-18. The Sixers shot 6 for 33 as a team from three and Furkan Korkmaz was 1 for 5 in his 23 minutes.

There have been many unfortunate circumstances that help explain why the Sixers haven’t yet reached the level or clarity they’d like. Embiid’s injury — he's set to be re-evaluated in 1-2 weeks after undergoing surgery for a torn ligament in the ring finger on his left hand — and the general lack of health among the starting five is most obvious. The Sixers’ preferred starters have only played in 19 games together. 

The team’s poor outside shooting the last two games has obviously not been beneficial. They shot a combined 15 for 70 from three-point range (21.4 percent) against the Mavs and Pacers. When open look after open look is missing, desperation isn’t an irrational response. In that context, the second-half lapses on defense haven’t been surprising either.

“We’ve gotta execute,” Tobias Harris said. “We’ve gotta execute better on both ends. We’ve gotta get stops and we’ve gotta make plays. I think the first half defensively, we were pretty locked in. Second half, we let too many easy ones go their way. So, it’s an overall thing. And it’s on us to figure it out. Look, we can sit here and we can discuss everything about it and what went wrong every possession, but at the end of the day it’s the five guys who are on the court that go out there and get the job done and figure it out.”

We’ve seen enough to know that offensive issues are most pressing. The Sixers sit 17th in offensive rating and sixth in defensive rating. We also know they’ve been tremendous at home (18-2) and woeful on the road (7-14).

The Sixers are now 4-6 this season without Embiid and quite clearly a better team when he’s on the floor. His presence patches up various holes and makes the team less reliant on consistent offensive output from others. Simmons has been brilliant in his last two first halves, totaling 31 points on 14 for 18 shooting. He posted a combined four points on 1 of 10 shooting in the second halves of those games.

The question of Embiid and Simmons’ fit together is on hold for now, but it will resurface at some stage. A change (or changes) in personnel before the Feb. 6 trade deadline could shift things, too.

“Philadelphia hard,” Brown said of what he hopes his team’s identity will be. “Defense. Philadelphia hard. It’s a blue-collar city. It’s how I see the world, and that needs to be the starting point. And then you get down to the obvious stuff you’d say. Ben Simmons isn’t slow, and so you want to jump on him — he’s got the ball, you want to play fast. It’s probably easier to achieve that when you don’t have the need to — and it’s a great need — Joel Embiid is an All-Star and still is our crown jewel, make no mistake about that. 

“So, trying to find him in the post and play through him when he does come back, that split kind of personality offensively is a challenge at times, but that’s where it will end up. And for sure, that’s where it will end up in the playoffs. That’s what we’re trying to achieve.”

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Sixers at Knicks: 3 storylines to watch and how to stream the game

Sixers at Knicks: 3 storylines to watch and how to stream the game

The 27-16 Sixers begin a three-game road trip Saturday night against the 11-31 New York Knicks.

Here are the essentials:

When: 7:30 ET with Sixers Pregame Live at 7 p.m.
Where: Madison Square Garden 
Broadcast: NBC Sports Philadelphia Plus
Live stream: NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com and the NBC Sports MyTeams app

And here are three storylines to watch: 

Campaigning for Simmons 

Despite posting 20 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists in addition to playing smothering second-half defense, Ben Simmons might have been a bit overshadowed Friday night by Furkan Korkmaz’s career-high 24 points.

Brett Brown didn’t want that to happen.

How can we not recognize Ben Simmons' defense? After the first timeout in the third period, are you serious? He was just the adult in the room defensively. He's a physical presence by a lot when you watch him play defense. I thought he changed the game. How can he not be a First Team, All-League defensive player? I don't know.

A great chance to win on the road

The Sixers are 20-2 at Wells Fargo Center and 7-14 on the road. Simmons doesn’t know why there’s such a disparity. 

“If I knew the answer I’d probably fix it on the road,” he said Friday.

A game against the Knicks presents the Sixers with a strong opportunity to win away from home for the first time since Dec. 23. The Knicks are 6-14 at Madison Square Garden.

“At the end of the day, it comes down to playing defense, locking in from the first to the fourth quarter, and keeping that mentality and not letting up,” Simmons said. “Just staying locked in to that team game and playing defense.”

The Sixers beat the Knicks in New York on Nov. 29 without Al Horford, Josh Richardson and Kyle O’Quinn, coming back from a 16-point second-quarter deficit. All three of those players should be available tonight, while Joel Embiid is set to miss his sixth straight game after having surgery last Friday for a torn ligament in the ring finger on his left hand. Knicks rookie RJ Barrett is out with a sprained right ankle. 

Not so fast … 

We all expected the Sixers to play at a quicker pace in the absence of Embiid. So far, though, that hasn’t been the case.

The team’s 95.8 pace since the Boston game last Thursday is 29th in the NBA. 

They have, however, taken better care of the ball since Embiid’s injury, turning it over only 11 times per game, tied for best in the league. 

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Furkan Korkmaz sparks sudden blaze, then leaps over logic

Furkan Korkmaz sparks sudden blaze, then leaps over logic

There came a point Friday night during Furkan Korkmaz’s career-best 24-point performance when everyone at Wells Fargo Center seemed to collectively shrug and say, “Sure. Why not?”

Korkmaz had already flashed his trademark skill, hitting four three-pointers in under two minutes during a sudden blaze at the end of the third quarter.

With a little less than seven minutes to go in the Sixers’ 100-89 win, he stared down Bulls center Cristiano Felicio. The 22-year-old then crossed Felicio over, blew past him, dunked and let out an exultant scream. 

“At that time of the game, I was really feeling it,” Korkmaz said. “I got that confidence. When I saw the open lane, I just took off. I was also not expecting that, but I just dunked it. That was a good moment.”

Korkmaz wasn’t done, though. He missed a well-earned heat check on the Sixers’ next possession, but dropped in a floater shortly after. And, just to confirm that it was indeed his night, he took a charge on Bulls star Zach LaVine. 

Which play did he enjoy more?

“It’s a tough question, but I think I would say the dunk,” Korkmaz said honestly.

This isn’t the first time Korkmaz has changed a game this season with his shotmaking. He had nine key fourth-quarter points Wednesday vs. Brooklyn, blew up the Bucks’ zone in the third quarter on Christmas and made the game-winning three on Nov. 2 in Portland.

The Sixers declined Korkmaz’s third-year option last year, then let him sit on the free-agent market until July 25. Though they billed him as a young, promising player, their actions suggested Korkmaz was not a prominent part of their plans. He appeared to be on the fringe of the rotation.

Brett Brown hasn’t passed up many chances to laud Korkmaz, and he had a great opportunity Friday.

It’s really quite a — to say it's incredible would be too dramatic — but it's a heck of a story, isn't it? Just where he was and where he is. For us to see him — and he's young, can't forget his birth certificate — for us to see him come in and do JJ [Redick]-like stuff and have that type of a bomber, that was different. … We ran probably, I don't know, five plays in a row going to him. 

“I had flashbacks of JJ. We jumped into JJ's package and he changed the game. He gave us a spark and whether it was a three ball — I don't remember JJ dunking like that … but the long shot and just like bam, bam, bam — quick points, buckets — fueled our defense.

While Korkmaz deserves credit for translating his hypothetical value as a shooter into real contributions this year — he’s made 71 threes, tied with Tobias Harris for most on the team, and converted 39 percent — he will probably not maintain Friday's euphoric high. 

He’s devoted time and energy to improving his defense, but the question of whether he’ll be able to hold his own in the playoffs remains open and valid. If he’s not sinking shots, his impact tends to not be positive. Any moves the Sixers make before the Feb. 6 trade deadline could shift his role, too.

But, for the time being, he is playing with an apparently limitless self-belief.

“As a player you just need to get that confidence,” he said. “When you start to feel good on the court and also your teammates see that, your coaching staff sees that — I think today everybody saw that I was feeling it — and I knew that I had to shoot those looks. I just take the open shots, that’s all I do.”

Brown is clearly relishing in Korkmaz’s success.

“He's quality people,” Brown said. “He's a genuine person and you're proud of that, too. Good things happen to good people ... He's put in the time and to his credit, he came in and changed the landscape of an NBA game. And he did it quite emphatically. It wasn't like it was swept under the carpet. He did it where ESPN and all of us and his teammates, probably more importantly, felt his success.”

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