76ers

How Brett Brown and the Sixers have been playing brilliantly with a 'blowtorch'

How Brett Brown and the Sixers have been playing brilliantly with a 'blowtorch'

Brett Brown and the Sixers would, without a doubt, prefer for each of their seven wins this season to have been blowouts.

But the Sixers' head coach acknowledged Tuesday night after Tobias Harris found Joel Embiid for a dunk to put the Sixers on top of the Cavaliers with 13.2 seconds to play, Kevin Love missed an open three-pointer and the clock expired following a mad scramble for the loose rebound that he gets some pleasure from the tight finishes. 

“We've had a ton of close games,” he said after the 98-97 win (see observations). “I mean, we really have. I sadistically love it. I do because we spent so much time on situations over our days here.”

During training camp, Brown dedicated ample time to sideline and baseline out of bounds plays, scenarios in which his team might need a two or a three, and a variety of other late-game possibilities. He recognized the importance of “mastering vanilla,” as he likes to say — nailing down the basics with his new team — but he also wanted to start tinkering early.

I play with stuff,” he said on Oct. 4. “I’ll go in and run something 10 times in a row and just keeping doing it, and then I’ll move people around, and then I’ll change the angle and play with it. You have a base that you think you want to work with, and then you maneuver within that. What goes into deciding what is the base? Thirty-five years of coaching, 20 years of coaching in the NBA, gut feel, a little bit of analytics and just sort of inherent curiosity. You know what I think about plays in general. Because with the creativity of coaches nowadays where you can come out and they could be sitting in a zone, they could switch one through four, keep five at home, sag the inbounder,  pressure the inbounder. There’s just so many things that you’re seeing. 

And to feel like you’re going to come out with all the answers is really not smart. And so for me, I like to just put them in an environment — and that’s the word, an environment. Then they’ve got to choose different options out of it. That’s the mentality when you’re talking about 'need' plays, ATOs, catch shot down three, catch shot down two, need two with time, all that stuff.

Already, Brown has created three “evrironments” that have produced game-winning baskets or free throws. Al Horford’s screen freed Furkan Korkmaz in the right corner against the Trail Blazers.

And Tuesday night, Embiid set a ball screen for Josh Richardson at the right elbow after Ben Simmons' inbounds pass. As Richardson probed for an opening, Embiid rolled toward the rim, then set a strong down screen for Tobias Harris. That flowed into a perfectly executed high-low — similar to the one that led to Embiid’s game-winning free throws on Oct. 28 in Atlanta. 

“Great play call by coach,” Embiid said. “Great drawn play, and we did the rest. Great pass by Tobias, and I was wide open.”

If the offensive foul call on Embiid in Denver Friday night had instead been judged a defensive foul on Nikola Jokic — as the NBA’s Last Two Minute Report said it should have been — Brown might very well have had four game-winning out of bounds plays in 10 games. 

Still, there’s an element of luck at play for teams that put themselves in those situations over and over again, as Richardson acknowledged. 

“You’re going to win some of those, hopefully more than you lose,” he said. “But I understand the NBA — it’s hard to win. There are going to be some of those games where we don’t come out on top. But for me, I think it’s good for us to experience this, because in the playoffs when things slow down, when things get tough, we’ve got a good foundation to lean on.”

As much as he enjoys the challenge of those spots and feels equipped to handle them, Brown gave a very colorful, affirmative answer when asked if his team is playing with fire.

“It is a blowtorch,” he said. “And it is violent. It's a really big one. You're just watching the game unfold and you can't make some of that up. And I'm the coach, and so I gotta figure it out. But some of those turnovers certainly were head-scratching. I do give our guys credit for not crumbling. I think that we knew if we had to do anything, we better play defense, and defense we played. I liked the way that we defended, especially down the stretch. I don't think they scored in the last three minutes.”

The Sixers’ next four games are against the 3-7 Magic, 4-7 Thunder, 4-6 Cavs and dysfunctional, 2-9 Knicks. Brown will hope he can wait a while before again being faced with the exhilarating responsibility of putting his team in a fruitful late-game environment. 

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Sixers vs. Cavs: 3 storylines to watch and how to stream the game

Sixers vs. Cavs: 3 storylines to watch and how to stream the game

Before they have a chance to get one back on the defending champion Raptors Sunday night, the Sixers have a game to play Saturday at Wells Fargo Center.

Here are the essentials for the matchup between the 15-7 Sixers and 5-16 Cavs.

When: 7:30 p.m. ET with Sixers Pregame Live at 7 p.m.
Where: Wells Fargo Center 
Broadcast: NBC Sports Philadelphia
Live stream: NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com and the NBC Sports MyTeams app

And here are three storylines to watch:

It’s not rest this time

Joel Embiid has yet to have a “rest” game since saying load management is “BS.”

He’s out Saturday with a left hip contusion. A team source told NBC Sports Philadelphia that Embiid reported discomfort after the Sixers’ 119-113 loss Thursday to the Wizards and is being treated for the injury.

Embiid had played in 11 straight games since sitting the last game of a back-to-back on Nov. 13 in Orlando. 

After tonight, he’ll have played in 18 of the Sixers’ first 23 games, and 30.4 minutes per night. He played every one of the team’s first 23 games last year, averaging 34.6 minutes. 

Missing the ‘dot connector’ 

Before the season, Brett Brown called Josh Richardson the “mortar” for the Sixers. On Nov. 20, he labeled him a “dot connector.” 

The Sixers have managed a 5-1 mark in games Richardson has missed — he’s out again Saturday with right hamstring tightness — but they’ve been much worse with him off the floor. The team has a plus-10.6 net rating with Richardson on the court, minus-0.6 with him off it.

Much of that can be attributed to him being paired with Embiid, who has similar on-off numbers and tends to boost the net ratings of whoever he’s playing with, but that disparity does suggest Richardson’s value. 

At a minimum, splitting up the Richardson-Embiid pairing has hurt the Sixers. 

Drama with the Cavs 

Three anonymous players were quoted in a story in The Athletic by Shams Charania and Joe Vardon about new Cavs head coach John Beilein. The players voiced their frustration with, among other things, the former Michigan coach’s emphasis on fundamentals and extended film sessions. And, according to the report, “all the team’s screens, cuts, and pivots are named after wild animals. A curl is a 'polar bear' in John Beilein's system.” That reportedly hasn’t resonated with a few of the Cavs’ veteran players.

Several players then responded to the report and spoke out in support of Beilein, including Tristan Thompson. 

“Y’all better find them names ‘cause I’ll pull up on ‘em right now,” Thompson told reporters. “You can’t do that s---. At the end of the day if you’re going to build a culture and a family, you can’t have that Chatty Patty s--- going on. That s--- is whack to me.”

That wasn’t the only notable news involving the Cavs on Friday. The team is prepared to listen to offers for Kevin Love, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported. The five-time All-Star missed Cleveland's 93-87 loss Friday to the Magic because of an illness. 

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Sixers Injury Update: Joel Embiid, Josh Richardson out for Saturday's game vs. Cavs

Sixers Injury Update: Joel Embiid, Josh Richardson out for Saturday's game vs. Cavs

The Sixers will be down two starters Saturday night when they return to Wells Fargo Center to play the Cavs.

Josh Richardson will miss his fifth consecutive game with right hamstring tightness, while Joel Embiid is out with a left hip contusion.

A team source told NBC Sports Philadelphia that Embiid reported discomfort after the Sixers' 119-113 loss to the Wizards on Thursday night and is being treated for the injury.

Embiid had 26 points, 21 rebounds and eight turnovers Thursday.

Richardson and the Sixers have been cautious with his hamstring. He told reporters in Washington, D.C., that this is the first hamstring injury he's dealt with and admitted that it's been a frustrating process.

“A hamstring is one of those things where you can think that you’re fine and then you take a wrong step and it’s a week or two-week setback," he said. "I don’t really want to get into that whole cycle. ... It’s just one of those things where I just don’t really know where I’m at most of the time. It always feels like I’m tiptoeing, trying not to do too much.”

The Sixers' preferred starting five of Embiid, Richardson, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris and Al Horford have played just 102 minutes together this season, posting a plus-21.3 net rating. 

Furkan Korkmaz has started the past four games in place of Richardson. Without Embiid, the Sixers will need to plug in another spot starter and perhaps search for further big man depth. Kyle O'Quinn hasn't played since Nov. 23, but he might be called upon vs. Cleveland.

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