Improbable hero Furkan Korkmaz delivers in improbable comeback for Sixers over Blazers

Improbable hero Furkan Korkmaz delivers in improbable comeback for Sixers over Blazers

Everyone loves a good comeback story and the Sixers needed one Saturday night.

They came into Portland as the only undefeated team in the NBA.

But that unblemished mark was very much in peril. The Blazers were on fire from the jump. They shot the lights out and built up a 21-point lead. At a certain point you got the sense it just wasn’t the Sixers’ night — and that would’ve been fine. They weren't going 82-0 and were likely due for clunker.

Instead of packing it in, the Sixers clawed their way back into the game, setting up Furkan Korkmaz to play hero in a 129-128 win (see observations).

The same Furkan Korkmaz that played his way out of Brett Brown’s rotation last season, didn’t look he’d be back this summer and lost minutes to Shake Milton earlier this week.

Thanks to his huge three with 0.4 seconds left, the Sixers are 5-0.

You can’t make this stuff up.

"Even still, I don't know how to feel, how to act,” Korkmaz said to reporters after the game. “It was the biggest shot in my career. But I knew that Al (Horford) was going to set a good pick and try to get me open to make the shot. … I was wide open. I just let it fly, and I made it. That was also a huge comeback from double digits (down). Horford, I think, made a lot of shots. And then from a huge comeback, to make the buzzer beater and get the W, it's incredible. It's like a dream."

It was an improbable comeback with an improbable hero completing it.

Korkmaz wasn’t the only player to step up. Horford, filling in for a suspended Joel Embiid, was excellent, posting a team-high 25 points with seven assists, five rebounds and two blocks. The entire bench was outstanding — Korkmaz, James Ennis, Mike Scott, Kyle O’Quinn and even Raul Neto, who helped spark the comeback in the third.

Let’s also not forget about Ben Simmons.

With the Sixers trailing 125-124, Simmons stepped to the free throw line with the chance to give his team their first lead of the game with 10.1 second left. Simmons came into the game shooting 44.4 percent from the line.

But when the Sixers desperately needed it …

Swish. Swish.

Though it still took Korkmaz’s heroics after Damian Lillard found Anfernee Simons for a corner three with 2.6 seconds left, those free throws were big.

"There were a series of things that happened,” Brown said. “Ben stepping up and making two free throws was huge. And then they come back and they sort of isolate Damian (Lillard). … we tried to get the ball out of his hands. They did a great job of finding the corner. 

“And then we get to your question, two plays later, three plays later, and Furkan hit the shot. He's one of two or three options. Ben made, I think, the correct decision, Furkan made the shot. Just a tremendous road win. This is a difficult place to win under any circumstances and to come back from 21 points down in the second half is a real tribute to our guys."

So not only does Simmons get credit for the foul shots, but also for making the right decision to get the ball to a wide-open Korkmaz.

"I trust in everybody on the floor,” Simmons said. “I know the plays, I know what's going to be open. As soon as I saw Furk open — I think he was shocked that he was open — but I trusted Furk to make that shot. He's one of my teammates, he works hard every day, he's a great competitor, great player. I trust in all my teammates to make shots, when it comes down to it. I'm not surprised, I'm just happy he had the opportunity."

The story is Korkmaz.

A 2016 first-round pick by then-GM Bryan Colangelo, Korkmaz’s future with the Sixers was in serious doubt this summer. The team declined his option at the beginning of last season after the Turkish wing said he was unhappy with his role. After receiving steady minutes for a stretch, Korkmaz found himself out of the regular rotation by mid-January. Billed as a shooter, Korkmaz shot just 32.6 percent from three last season.

As the Sixers made a flurry of offseason moves, Korkmaz lingered on the market. There were reports that he was headed back to his native Turkey to play professionally.

Then when the team failed to sign veteran sharpshooter Kyle Korver, GM Elton Brand circled back to Korkmaz.

Often a punching bag, Korkmaz made plenty of people eat crow Saturday night — including the scribe that wrote this story.

To start the season, Brown’s support of Korkmaz hasn’t wavered. To Korkmaz’s credit, he seems like he’s doing everything that’s asked of him. It was a feel-good moment for the 22-year-old — who was so happy postgame he could barely find the words to speak — his head coach and his teammates that believed in him.

"I know everybody likes me on the team,” Korkmaz said. “They support me every time. It doesn't matter if I'm good or bad — everybody has some ups and downs. But, end of the day, I know everybody likes me here and I know everybody likes me in the organization. That's given me the confidence to be on the floor, to show myself. I really appreciate them for their performance tonight, because that was a huge comeback, too."

It appears Korkmaz is trying to write a comeback story of his own.

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Criticism by analyst of Joel Embiid's opinion on NBA plan is well off the mark

Criticism by analyst of Joel Embiid's opinion on NBA plan is well off the mark

Joel Embiid on Tuesday gave a thoughtful and detailed explanation for why he initially “hated” the NBA’s plan to resume the season in Orlando and still does not believe it is safe enough.

Wednesday, Kendrick Perkins reacted to Embiid’s comments on ESPN’s “First Take,” and his stance was not as well-reasoned. 

In part, Perkins said, “To me, this is just an excuse. If they get knocked out, this is going to be an excuse because their superstar was halfway in. … Man, go down there and hoop. I ain’t trying to hear that, man. It’s a billion-dollar bubble.”

Perkins’ response evades the substance of Embiid’s remarks. Among Embiid’s primary points were that he is concerned about consequences the coronavirus might have for himself and his family, that basketball isn’t the only thing which should define him, and that he is skeptical other players will adhere to the NBA’s health and safety protocols intended to minimize risk of COVID-19 exposure. (Embiid noted he doesn’t do much outside of basketball besides playing video games and will personally do everything necessary to mitigate risk.) What Perkins said addresses none of those issues.

Instead, he focused on the notion of Embiid somehow being weaker than other superstars who committed to resume play without publicly voicing any concerns. To express worry about doing one’s job in these circumstances — playing basketball, in Embiid’s case — does not suggest a lack of character or toughness. It is a logical sentiment, and there is nothing wrong with Embiid being candid on the subject. 

… If you told me that the current trend is that people are getting sick and a lot of people are dying,” Embiid said, “obviously you don’t know what's going to happen and you don’t want to be in a situation where you put your life at risk ... and all that stuff, just for what? The money and all that stuff. At the end of the day, basketball is not all that matters. I've got family, I've got myself to look out for. That's all I care about.

Coronavirus cases have risen sharply in Florida, to the extent that many hospitals in the state have maxed out their ICU capacity. Embiid, who’s donated $500,000 to coronavirus relief efforts, has every right to say he is “not a big fan” of playing in Orlando. 

Familiar cliches in sports about sacrifice for the sake of the team and adversity over obstacles do not apply to a pandemic. This is a different category from Embiid shifting how he plays to accommodate teammates, and a topic that should be approached seriously. 

Perkins is allowed to criticize Embiid, of course, but his viewpoint is lacking in empathy and perspective.

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What to make of Joel Embiid's answers to big on-court questions

What to make of Joel Embiid's answers to big on-court questions

Since March, Joel Embiid has played a little under 27 minutes of competitive basketball.

He was impressive in that time on the floor, recording 30 points and 11 rebounds vs. the Pistons on March 11 after a five-game absence with a left shoulder sprain.

However, the most notable part of Embiid’s conversation with reporters Tuesday did not have to do with on-court matters. He said that he “hated” the NBA’s plan to resume the season in Orlando and does not believe it is safe enough. As Embiid said, he is more than just a basketball player. It is certainly valid to be critical of the idea of playing in Orange County, where ICU beds are at full capacity in several hospitals because of a spike in coronavirus cases. 

Still, we’re obligated to discuss Embiid the player, a three-time All-Star starter. 

Embiid didn’t volunteer many specifics about his fitness but said on multiple occasions he “feels good.” Over the last week, Brett Brown and Josh Richardson have praised his conditioning.

“I don’t think my weight is an issue,” he said. “The only thing to always watch is my body fat, and I feel good. Like I said, I’ve been chilling. Just doing what I have to do.”

He acknowledged Tuesday he did not always play at full intensity this season. 

“During this year, there were a lot of times when I was not into the offense and I was just basically going through the same motions and all that,” he said. “But with the playoffs coming, I’ve just gotta be more assertive and just be that guy — just demand the ball and do what I do.”  

Though no major statistic that might signify aggression — usage rate, free throw rate, post-ups, three-point attempts per 36 minutes — dropped significantly this year for Embiid, he feels he’s capable of more. In 44 games, he’s averaged 23.4 points, 11.8 rebounds and 3.1 assists, playing 30.2 minutes per game. Brown said last Wednesday he’d ideally like to have Embiid play 38 minutes a game in the postseason. 

I know what I’m capable of, and I know what my teammates think of me. I know I’m capable of carrying the team,” Embiid said. “It’s all about me being assertive. If I feel like I'm not getting the ball, I've just got to talk to them and do what I have to do, but at the end of the day, I should never be in a position to complain about not getting the ball, just because of who I am. 

“I believe I can carry the team. I believe that by being able to do that, I’ve just got to take matters into my own hands. … Obviously I need to be in positions where I feel comfortable, and I'm sure my teammates are going to help me.

Embiid’s partnership with Al Horford was a prominent storyline for the Sixers before the hiatus, mostly because it hasn’t worked as the Sixers hoped offensively. Among regular Sixers duos, the team has the worst offensive rating when that pair is on the floor together, and by a three-point margin

In Embiid’s mind, the pairing isn’t doomed to fail, though he thinks the players surrounding himself and Horford are an important factor. 

I don’t believe there is a problem,” he said. “It’s just a matter of everybody buying in and being able to play their role. The pairing with Al, I feel like it has been fine. At times it could be better but then again, everyone on the court has a job and with that type of pairing you need to have shooters around or you need to have people or guys ... wanting to take that shot, especially, when you’ve got two inside presences like me and Al. 

“He can post up, I can post up and then around, you’ve got to be able to have guys that are willing to shoot and that are going to shoot the ball. I think that's what needs to happen, but I don’t think there’s a problem. I think we're fine. I like him, great guy. We've got to keep on working together. … We are better suited for the playoffs. We’ve got about eight games to get back into it ... so I’m excited.

Horford and Embiid have not played together with a cast of willing and able shooters very often this season. The Sixers as a team are 22nd in three-pointers attempted (31.6) and 14th in three-point percentage (36.2 percent). The duo has shared the floor most often with Tobias Harris, who’s taken the most threes on the team, but the Sixers only have a 101.0 offensive rating when those three play together.  

Embiid seems to think an intuitive understanding of how to play the game — when to take open shots, how to accommodate each other, when to feed the dominant big man in the post — can override what we saw in the first 65 games.

More than anything, he trusts his own abilities when he’s determined to attack. 

“We didn’t get the chance to see it as much this year,” he said, “but you can go back and look at last year’s regular season and what I did, and that’s the mindset I need to have — and even better — if I really want to achieve that goal, which is to win the championship.”

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