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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To be mature, or to be dominant, that is the question for Joel Embiid

To be mature, or to be dominant, that is the question for Joel Embiid

In years past, it was a common occurrence for Joel Embiid to make a big play and elicit cheers from a sold-out Wells Fargo Center. He’d then raise his arms, imploring the crowd to get louder — and they’d oblige.

This kind of moment happened in Tuesday night’s 97-92 win in a slugfest against the Nuggets (see observations).

With Denver having gone on a run to cut a double-digit deficit to two, the Sixers made a push late in the third. As the clock was winding down, Embiid grabbed an offensive rebound and made a circus shot while he was being fouled.

Embiid went out to center court, raised his arms and the fans went nuts.

Moments like this haven’t been as frequent this year. Not because Embiid hasn’t had spectacular moments, but because he’s trying to be even-keeled.

I haven't done it enough all season,” Embiid said. “I have not been having fun like usual. … It goes back to with me being mature. And one of the biggest parts of my game is just having fun and by having fun is talking trash, but that part, that's kind of been cut. I just need to be myself and I guess just do whatever I want. Because when I'm having fun, I dominate. But this year, I don't know, I can probably count on one hand how many times I've done it. Last year was basically a reaction that I love it. They get me going. They understand me, I do understand them. So, I need to start doing it again because that's how I'm gonna dominate.

Embiid continues to be his dominant self on the defensive end — in case some national pundits forgot that there are two ends to a basketball court. He’s No. 1 in the NBA in terms of defensive rating (95.3) and anchored the defense that held the Nuggets to just 92 points.

With Jimmy Butler gone, it’s also been Embiid who’s been tasked with being the team’s go-to scorer in the fourth quarter. Going to a post player late in games is not something a ton of teams do. Then again, most teams don’t have a big man as physically gifted as Embiid.

Brett Brown has tried to do different things here and there — run isos for Tobias Harris or pick-and-rolls with Ben Simmons. Ultimately, though, Brown said his offense still runs through his “crown jewel.”

Embiid, who almost sounded like a player that had just lost, admitted that he’s still adjusting to his late-game role and also to the idea of drawing attention to free up his teammates.

“Not good enough,” Embiid said when asked about his late-game scoring. “Still getting used to [it]. The whole season I've been trying to adjust. Obviously, it's not the same as last year. It's completely different. So the adjustment has been hard but I'm gonna do whatever I'm asked to every single night. Like I keep mentioning, even if it's being a ball screener or just rebound the ball or take three shots — I'll do that. Whatever they ask me to do.”

It’s been a peculiar season for Embiid. If you were to just look at his scoring numbers, they’re way down. He’s averaging just 21.9 points, down from his 27.5 mark last season. A lot of that is the result of more aggressive double teams and a new supporting cast.

He also just seems a little off as far as his personality goes — and his words Tuesday kind of confirmed that. The only game where he seemed to be his usual plucky self was back on Oct. 30 against the Timberwolves. Of course, that’s the game where he got into a scuffle with Karl-Anthony Towns, shadowboxed to the crowd, got into a profanity-laced Instagram war with Towns, and got suspended for two games.

After that incident, Embiid vowed to never get suspended again. It’s a respectable cause, to be sure, but it seems like it’s led the 25-year-old into an existential crisis.

I'm not trying to be a distraction to the team," Embiid said. "The fight happened and we had good momentum and from there, we just kind of lost it. We lost a couple of games. So, I'm not trying to be a distraction, but that's just part of my game. And I feel like me losing that part, I think it's kind of taken a toll on my game. So it just goes back to me. Sometimes I might be childish and like I said, do whatever I want to, but then again, I care about winning. Everybody knows that. I'll do whatever it takes to win. I care about my teammates, I care about the organization, I care about being a role model. Everybody told me that I need to be — from fans to everybody else — I gotta be mature, so I'm doing it and I don't think it's working but I'm gonna keep doing it.

To be mature, or to be dominant, that is the question.

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Charles Barkley takes aim at Joel Embiid, says Sixers ‘got no chance’ at NBA Finals

Charles Barkley takes aim at Joel Embiid, says Sixers ‘got no chance’ at NBA Finals

The Sixers have only played 25 regular-season games, but that has been sufficient time for Charles Barkley to form some strong opinions about his former team and Joel Embiid. 

At the September unveiling for his statue at the Sixers’ practice facility in Camden, New Jersey, Barkley said the Sixers were his pick to win the NBA title.

His thinking has shifted quickly and, on the NBA on TNT’s postgame show Tuesday night, he targeted Embiid after the Sixers’ 97-92 win over the Denver Nuggets (see observations).

He’s the toughest player in the league to match up with, but we don’t talk about him the way we talk about Luka [Doncic], Giannis [Antetokounmpo], Anthony Davis, James [Harden] — we don’t ever say that about him. It’s frustrating for me, because I picked the Sixers to get to the Finals. They ain’t got no chance. 

Embiid posted 22 points, 10 rebounds and six assists vs. the Nuggets and is averaging 22 points and 12.4 rebounds on the season.The two-time All-Star has a 95.3 defensive rating, the best of any player in the NBA who’s played at least 25 minutes per night.

For Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal, the 25-year-old is falling short of his potential.

"We’re telling you, ‘You can be great. You ain’t playing hard enough.’ Twenty-two ain’t enough to get you to the next level,” O’Neal said. “Do you want to be great or do you want to be good? If you want to be good, keep doing 22 points. You want to be great, give me 28, give me 30. You want to be great, watch Giannis — he wants to be great.”

Embiid has admitted that he perhaps hasn’t always played with his highest level of intensity. The Sixers have prioritized managing his minutes and delivering him to the playoffs healthy and in peak physical condition. Sunday, Embiid had an interesting quote about that philosophy.

The whole season it feels like I've been going through the motions and part of it is also making sure I'm healthy for the playoffs,” he told reporters. “Going into the season, the last playoffs that I've been part of I've not been healthy, so for me going into this season, my main goal was to make sure that I get to the playoffs healthy and so far I've been doing a good job of that —taking care of my body and also, on the court when I'm needed, I'm gonna bring it. But then again, I'm also lucky that we got so many guys that can make a lot of things happen. But if I'm needed, I'll be there.

The NBA on TNT crew is clearly not aligned with Embiid’s outlook. They don't seem impressed with Embiid's defense, the fact that he's been an efficient, high-volume post player on offense, or much about the Sixers overall.

Barkley is almost ready to abandon his preseason prediction. 

“When the season started we were like, OK, Milwaukee is in that conversation, Philadelphia — that was it,” Barkley said. “There were two teams. But right now Boston has really played better, Toronto has played better, and that shouldn’t be. … I don’t want to jump totally off, but I’m in the air.”

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