76ers

Sixers shrug off another frustrating 1st half vs. Knicks, come back to win

Sixers shrug off another frustrating 1st half vs. Knicks, come back to win

The New York Knicks have twice had double-digits leads in the second half over the Sixers this season. On the surface, that might be a concerning fact.

Yet the Sixers have twice come back to beat the lowly 4-15 Knicks. Down by as many as 16 in the second quarter Friday night, they shrugged off a poor first half and earned a 101-95 win at Madison Square Garden.

The Sixers, now 13-6, were very shorthanded, without Al Horford (rest), Josh Richardson (right hamstring tightness) and Kyle O’Quinn (left calf strain).

They’ll play the Pacers on Saturday night at Wells Fargo Center ( 7 p.m./NBCSP).

Here are observations from the win: 

First-half frustration 

The Sixers’ offense was clunky in the first half, scoring a season-low 39 points, and it didn’t help that they missed a bunch of open looks and hit just 2 for 18 shots from three-point range. Their collective frustration culminated in a technical foul on Brett Brown late in the second quarter. Ben Simmons also was T’d up in the third. 

Brown has been consistent in his view that he’s not satisfied with his team’s offense, and that its evolution will take time — at the moment, he’s tinkering and searching for solutions with an unorthodox, massive team who tends to look bad when they don’t knock down threes.

He ran a couple of snug pick-and-rolls between Simmons and Joel Embiid in the second quarter, an action the Sixers showed occasionally last season, too. The first produced an and-one for Embiid. With Simmons still not attempting threes or being regularly stationed off the ball in the corner, it’s at least a way for the Sixers to have two men down low simultaneously with a result besides just congested spacing. 

Simmons and Embiid’s winning plays 

Both Simmons and Embiid were a level or two below their best in New York, but both made winning plays. 

Simmons, as he did during the Sixers’ win over the Knicks last Wednesday, picked up his defensive intensity after the Sixers fell behind and was strong on that end in the second half. 

His steal of an inbounds pass intended for RJ Barrett and slam dunk with a little over a minute left gave the Sixers a seven-point edge.

For the game, Simmons had 15 points, eight assists and five rebounds. 

Embiid never found a true groove offensively, but he still managed 27 points on 7 for 19 shooting, 17 rebounds and three blocks, including an impressive chase down rejection on Julius Randle with 3:39 to go. 

He went right into Mitchell Robinson’s chest with 2:33 left, drawing the sixth foul on the Knicks’ center and converting an and-one to give the Sixers a 90-87 lead and snap a scoring drought of over four minutes. 

The replacements

The Sixers started Matisse Thybulle and Furkan Korkmaz in place of Richardson and Horford. Neither came close to giving the Sixers a comparable level of production. 

For Korkmaz, it’s been clear for a while that he typically needs to score and to shoot at a high percentage in order to have positive value. The 22-year-old is in better shape and a bit sharper defensively than he was last season, but what Brown finds most appealing about him is his shooting ability. After going 3 for 8 from the floor Friday, he’s 43.4 percent from the floor this year, 35.7 percent from three-point territory.  

Thybulle, after scoring 15 points, making all five of his shots and recording four steals in Wednesday’s win over the Kings, was scoreless in 21 minutes. 

Perhaps Brown will consider starting James Ennis, who scored a season-high 20 points and knocked a trio of important second-half threes, the next time the Sixers need a spot starter. 

Welcome to the NBA, Norvel Pelle

Norvel Pelle sure isn’t afraid to challenge shots — the 26-year-old blocked three per game last season and was a member of the G League’s All-Defensive First Team. 

Less than a minute into his NBA debut, he didn’t shy away when Randle rumbled down the lane, rising in the air with the Knicks’ forward. Randle welcomed Pelle to the NBA with a powerful dunk in his face. 

But Pelle didn’t hesitate a few minutes later when Frank Ntilikina drove toward the rim, swatting away his attempted dunk. In the second quarter, he confronted Randle again at the rim and won, denying him another dunk. 

The big man, who’s on a one-year, two-way deal with the Sixers, had a winding path to the NBA. He’s played in the G League, Taiwan, Italy and Lebanon.

“It matured me, mentally and physically,” he said on Nov. 12. “I started young, so I had to grow up fast. Mentally, it just matured me. I know the different things I need to do and what it takes to stay consistent.”

Pelle admitted then that the transition to not having regular minutes was “hard,” but he was focused on staying ready. As he displayed Friday night, he’s always ready to block shots. 

Whether he has the other skills needed to stick in the NBA is still an open question, but his attitude and athleticism were impressive in his first action in the league. 

He had three points, four blocks and two rebounds in 13 minutes against the Knicks. 

Harris goes into attack mode, eventually 

With Richardson and Horford out, the Sixers needed Tobias Harris to initiate more than usual on offense.

He didn't take on that job early, going scoreless and taking just two shots in the first 15 minutes of the game.

Brown has talked often about wanting Harris to attack more offensively. Ideally, the Sixers would like for Harris to take charge without needing any extra encouragement, but his first instinct is to be selfless. 

However, Harris was in an aggressive mode to start the second half and scored the Sixers’ first five points of the third period on a driving lefty layup and a corner three. He scored nine of his 19 points in the third and helped spark the Sixers’ surge back into the game. 

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Is Sixers' Tobias Harris an All-Star? He's making a compelling case

Is Sixers' Tobias Harris an All-Star? He's making a compelling case

Around this time last year, Tobias Harris was leading the surprising Clippers to a strong start. Harris was averaging over 20 points a game while flirting with the 50-40-90 shooting line. He was a borderline All-Star.

Fast forward a year later and the 27-year-old resembles that player more now than he ever has during his tenure as a Sixer.

Harris added another impressive performance to his recent stretch of strong play in the Sixers’ 116-109 win over the Pelicans Friday night (see observations).

It wasn’t the cleanest performance for the Sixers, but Harris’ team-high 31 points helped the Sixers stay a perfect 14-0 at the Wells Fargo Center and become the only undefeated team at home in the NBA.

Every night is an opportunity for me to go out there and do the best I can to help our team win,” Harris said. "I’d love to be an All-Star — it’s a goal of mine as a player. I felt last year I was an All-Star in the beginning of the season. It didn’t happen that way. But I think each and every night, especially with our team, we have a nice amount of talent and I want to play at my best every single night to help us win games.

It hadn’t been the smoothest transition for Harris since he arrived in a blockbuster trade from Los Angeles.

The Sixers had just traded for Jimmy Butler a couple months prior and they were still trying to figure out how to use the mercurial star alongside Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. With Harris, it was another mouth to feed and another piece to fit into the puzzle.

On paper, it looked like a master stroke by GM Elton Brand. Harris had become an elite three-point shooter and a go-to scorer for the Clippers. But the chemistry didn’t develop as quickly as they would’ve liked as Embiid missed a significant amount of time down the stretch with tendinitis in his left knee.

Over the last 16 games — and with Butler in Miami — Harris seems to have found his niche with the Sixers.

“Yeah, there’s definitely a comfort level, just being able to get familiar with guys on this team on and off the floor,” Harris said. “I think as a team, the comfort level from each and every one of the guys that’s on the floor is continuing to increase. I’m able to find ways to play with Ben in different pockets of the game, and Joel, also. There’s been a lot of things that I’ve liked. I’m going into games understanding more of what we need to do, where I’m at, where I’m going to get this play, that play, things like that.”

While the All-Star game doesn’t generally account for defense, that is likely where Harris has seen his most improvement.

In Friday night’s game, he was tasked with guarding former Sixer JJ Redick. As we saw during Redick’s time in Philly, that’s not an easy ask. Redick runs a marathon every game, navigating around screens and running dribble handoffs. Harris did a decent enough job, as Redick went 6 of 15 on the night.

Improving on the defensive end was Harris’ biggest point of emphasis this offseason. He went to Brett Brown before the season began and let him know that he wouldn’t be the weak link amongst a starting five that had elite-level defenders.

The notion of putting Harris on someone like Redick wouldn’t even have crossed his head coach’s mind last season.

“Could Tobias have done something like that last year? I didn't see him like that,” Brown said. “Maybe he could have, but I never saw him or played him like that and this year I do. And I think that it's part of your question about, 'Oh, he's having a great year,' and you go right to offense. I think he's having a hell of a year defensively.”

Harris is 13th in the conference in scoring and fourth among forwards. His 2.6 win shares are second-most among any forward in the East.

Throw in the last 16 games, where Harris has averaged 22.1 points and shot over 50 percent from the field and over 40 percent from three, and the case is making itself.

You don't need much more ammunition," Brown said. "I mean, he's been so steady and just responsible, reliable, go-to guy. I put him kind of in a bunch of different spots — middle pick-and-roll, iso, three balls, making his free throws, plays that back down pound, pound game and can jump over people, smaller people. He's having a hell of a year.

A good enough year to be in Chicago on Feb. 16 for the All-Star game?

There’s a strong case to be made.

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After unusual path, showman Norvel Pelle doesn't 'mess up' his moment

After unusual path, showman Norvel Pelle doesn't 'mess up' his moment

Norvel Pelle is not the typical NBA player.

A native of Antigua and Barbuda, Pelle was a top recruit out of high school — that part was normal. Then his path went sideways.

The wiry center never played college basketball because of eligibility issues. He traveled to Delaware, Italy, Taiwan and Lebanon before signing a one-year, two-way contract with the Sixers this summer and reaching Friday night, where Brett Brown turned to Pelle, in his third NBA regular-season game, as Joel Embiid’s main backup. 

“It’s just knowing that this opportunity is once in a lifetime,” Pelle told NBC Sports Philadelphia. “I worked hard to get here and I can’t mess up. So, just getting the jitters out — obviously there are going to be jitters regardless, but just meditating and staying positive throughout the whole thing.”

In 12 minutes, Pelle was exceptionally active. He had six points, five rebounds, three blocks and a handful of altered shots. Every time Pelle has stepped on an NBA floor, it seems he has been immediately challenged by players on a mission to embarrass him. It hasn’t always gone his way. Julius Randle slammed one in over Pelle in his NBA debut in New York and Kevin Porter Jr. dunked on Pelle last Saturday and then flexed in his face despite the Cavs trailing by more than 40 points. 

A member of the G League’s All-Defensive First Team last season, Pelle sees no shame in taking the occasional ferocious dunk to the face. He’s a showman who enjoys playing to the crowd and feeds off its energy, and he never likes to show any fear. 

“Next play,” he said of his mentality. “Next play, next play, next play. At the end of the day, I’m a shot blocker, so if I get dunked on, I get dunked on — that’s my mentality. Next play.” 

After picking up two early fouls, Pelle waited out a series of pump fakes from former Sixer Jahlil Okafor to record his first block of the night, leading to a Ben Simmons dunk. He then denied a slam attempt by Brandon Ingram, creating a fast break that concluded with a James Ennis three. 

“You know every game he's going to bring you energy,” Simmons said following the Sixers' 116-109 win over the Pelicans (see observations). “He loves blocking shots, just risking his body for those blocks and protecting the rim. I love having him as a part of this team.”

Both Simmons and Brown said Pelle reminded them of Nerlens Noel. Like Noel, Pelle’s offensive game is not too extensive — it’s mostly screening and rolling, lob catching and energy. The defensive package, though, is intriguing.

“Just wanted to see what we have in him,” Brown said. “We had a little taste in New York. I wanted to see more. And I thought he was really good. I thought he was really good. He is sort of Nerlens like to me — rim protector, shot blocker, quick off the floor. I thought he was good.”

It’s uncertain whether Pelle could eventually have a consistent role with the Sixers. The man whose job he temporarily took Friday, Kyle O’Quinn, was signed this offseason to be insurance for Embiid. Al Horford should assume the primary backup center position once he returns from the left knee soreness and left hamstring tightness that’s sidelined him the past two games. 

Pelle’s two-way contract also means he can’t be with the Sixers for more than 45 days between the start of Blue Coats training camp and the end of the G League regular season, and he’s not eligible for the NBA playoffs.

Brown didn’t attribute Pelle’s five fouls vs. the Pelicans to being “undisciplined,” but the big man would likely need to refine his game a bit if he was tasked with a regular role.

Embiid wasn’t worried about any of that. 

“I told him if he got the minutes, he would probably lead the league in blocks,” he said. “He has a chance to become a fan favorite, so he should just keep doing whatever he’s doing.”

After all the empathic dunks and dramatic poses and swatted shots in foreign gyms, Pelle had time to reflect Friday night. 

“This was more than what I expected,” he said. “I’m appreciative of everything and everybody. I’m taking it day by day, moment by moment, opportunity by opportunity and just go out there and do what I have to do.”

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