76ers

Joel Embiid's fitness level already a concern for Sixers

Joel Embiid's fitness level already a concern for Sixers

Joel Embiid didn’t earn Defensive Player of the Year or All-NBA First Team center last season.

He had the chance to go head to head and outperform the big men that took those honors last season. Instead, he had a poor second half in Utah Wednesday and followed it up with a rough performance Friday night in Denver.

Though Rudy Gobert didn’t really get the better of Embiid, Nikola Jokic had a monster fourth quarter and made a difficult, clutch shot with 1.2 seconds left to cap the Nuggets’ 21-point comeback win (see observations).

In the two games since returning from his suspension, Embiid has shot a combined 11 of 33 and committed 11 turnovers and 11 personal fouls. He’s looked lethargic and lackadaisical. He’s struggled to get back defensively and is settling for too many outside shots. He’s essentially running three-point line to three-point line instead of rim to rim.

“We’re growing Joel’s fitness base and trying to continually move that forward where he can be Joel Embiid,” Brett Brown told reporters postgame. “You know, tonight you can see that we’ve got some work to do. I think that he fought his heart out. I think that when we needed him, most times he was there. And we’re going to continue to just get him as healthy as we can and help put him in a position where he can be Joel Embiid.”

The fact that Jokic woke up and put up a 16-point fourth while Embiid continued to struggle wasn’t the only reason the Sixers lost Friday.

They somehow only scored 13 points in the fourth quarter after putting up 84 through three. They looked out of sync and were missing the decent looks they were getting. Perhaps fatigue was an issue for the entire team. Al Horford airballing a wide-open three from the top of the key with 15.7 seconds left seemed to encapsulate the horrendous final quarter for the Sixers.

While you certainly can’t blame blowing a 21-point lead on officiating, the refs didn’t do the Sixers any favors down the stretch. They were on the wrong end of two coach’s challenges — one took away an Embiid and-one and the other was a foul call on Embiid that should have been overturned but was not. On the Sixers’ ensuing possession after Jokic’s big shot, they called Embiid for a push off. The call was questionable as both players appeared to be jockeying for position and Jokic was holding Embiid’s jersey.

In any case, if you preserve the huge lead you have, you don’t leave the game in the hands of the officials.

“When I watched the replay, I didn’t really see any push off,” Embiid said. “If you want to call that foul, especially at that time of the game, I think that’s kind of BS. Especially because he was hooking me before that foul actually happened.

“But those are things we can’t control. We shouldn’t have let it get to that situation. We had a lot of turnovers, missed free throws. Our fourth-quarter offense wasn’t the same as the third. I thought that the first three quarters was the best that we’ve played. The ball kept moving and we kept finding each other and everybody stepped up. It was just unfortunate that it had to come down to that.”

But the storyline in this one was Embiid's health and fitness level.

It was the storyline for the entire 2019 postseason. Just eight games into the 2019-20 season and this is already a troubling trend. Embiid was forced to sit out the second game of the season with an ankle sprain. After missing just two games because of a suspension, he's looked completely gassed since returning.

Yes, altitude is a factor and Embiid has said many times that it’s very easy for him to get out of shape if he misses a game or two, but things have to change. 

Embiid is an All-Star and considered by most to be a top-10 player in the NBA. The Sixers are all in and part of that mindset is the idea that they have arguably the best center in the league. It’s just two games, but he wasn’t even the best center on the floor in Utah or Denver.

The questions about his health and fitness aren’t going away until he gets to the point "where he can be Joel Embiid."

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

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

The Raptors (15-6) return to the Wells Fargo Center for the first time since Game 6 last postseason to take on the Sixers (16-7).

Joel Embiid (left hip contusion) will return to the lineup and look to overcome his previous struggles against Marc Gasol and Toronto. Rookie Matisse Thybulle is listed as questionable after rolling his right ankle in last night's win over the Cavs. He will go through pregame warmups before determining his status, per a team source.

The Sixers will again be without Josh Richardson, who will miss his sixth straight game with right hamstring tightness. Richardson did participate in full-court activity Saturday, but the team continues to exercise caution so early in the season.

Here are the essentials for tonight’s game:

When: 6 p.m. ET with Sixers Pregame Live at 5:30 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 for tonight's game:

Embiid’s boogeyman

Embiid has struggled mightily against Gasol and the Raptors in his career, but nothing compared to the first scoreless game of his NBA career back on Nov. 15 in Toronto. In six career regular-season games against Gasol, Embiid is averaging just 11.7 points a game and shooting below 30 percent. 

Head coach Nick Nurse deployed a different strategy last month than he did during the seven-game series between these two teams. Embiid faced double teams fairly often in the postseason, but in the last matchup, the Raptors had an extra player on Embiid on every single post touch. Nurse was daring the other Sixers to beat them — and they didn’t.

Embiid has done better handling double teams in general this season. This will be an interesting test.

Simmons shooting

For the first couple years of Ben Simmons’ career, Brett Brown has been fairly diplomatic when discussing his All-Star point guard’s shot.

After Simmons hit his second career three Saturday night, Brown was much blunter.

This is what I want, OK — you can pass this along to his agent, his family and his friends and to him — I want a three-point shot a game, minimum. The pull-up twos, I'm fine with whenever he's open but I'm interested in the three-point shot. And the mentality that he has where he's turning corners and taking that long step, that gather step and bringing his shoulders to the rim and trying to dunk or finish tight, will equal higher efficiency or getting fouled. That's the world that interests me the most — those two things. And when you say, 'OK, what's the number?' I immediately throw out eight [free throws]. For whatever reason, I'm not sure, but that's a number that I think is attainable.

It was against a bad basketball team, but it still provided a blueprint for how Simmons should be playing and attacking. Embiid needs all the help he can get.

Looking to stay perfect … but it won’t be easy

The Sixers are a sparkling 11-0 at home, but they’re facing an opponent that’s played well on the road. The Raptors are 6-4 away from Scotiabank Arena.

Philly native Kyle Lowry has returned to the lineup. While Toronto has lost the two games since, Lowry has been playing well. Kawhi Leonard is in L.A. but this Raptors team is still mighty dangerous in general. Pascal Siakam is playing at a superstar level while Fred VanVleet has put up career-best numbers as a starter.

The biggest thing will be slowing down Toronto’s three-point shooting. The Raptors are the second-best team percentage wise in the league while hoisting a healthy amount beyond the arc. Six of their regulars are shooting 37 percent or better from distance. Meanwhile the Sixers are allowing the fewest threes per game.

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Brett Brown makes it clear what he wants from Ben Simmons

Brett Brown makes it clear what he wants from Ben Simmons

Ben Simmons had arguably the finest game of his young NBA career. He set a career high in points (34) and made his second NBA three. He also made 9 of 12 from the free throw line.

Yes, it was against a bad team in disarray in the Cavaliers who the Sixers crushed in a 141-94 win at the Wells Fargo Center Saturday night (see observations).

But it showed us the blueprint of what Brett Brown is looking for out of his All-Star point guard.

This is what I want, OK — you can pass this along to his agent, his family and his friends and to him — I want a three-point shot a game, minimum. The pull-up twos, I'm fine with whenever he's open but I'm interested in the three-point shot. And the mentality that he has where he's turning corners and taking that long step, that gather step and bringing his shoulders to the rim and trying to dunk or finish tight, will equal higher efficiency or getting fouled. That's the world that interests me the most — those two things. And when you say, 'OK, what's the number?' I immediately throw out eight [free throws]. For whatever reason, I'm not sure, but that's a number that I think is attainable.

After an abysmal performance Thursday night where he was indecisive and turned the ball over seven times, Simmons was the complete opposite against Cleveland.

Missing Joel Embiid and Josh Richardson, the Sixers needed this version of Simmons. He attacked the rim, got to the line, hit midrange jumpers and, of course, made another three.

But what happens if/when Embiid returns to the lineup in a juicy matchup against the Raptors Sunday night? The pair have always been an imperfect fit with Simmons’ ability to push the basketball and Embiid’s dominance on the block.

If the evolution of Simmons’ game is what we saw Saturday, it could go a long in way in the duo figuring things out.

“Just learning with Jo,” Simmons said. “It’s great to have somebody like that that’s so dominant and helping him with the double teams, and just putting him in the best position to help us win games. So, having him back tomorrow is going to be great.”

For the record, there’s been no official update on Embiid, who missed the game against the Cavs with a left hip contusion.

But one the biggest things that could help Embiid navigate double teams and aid him against his boogeyman Marc Gasol is Simmons consistently attempting outside shots.

Much like the first three of his NBA career, Simmons reacted as if he’d hit 1,000 before it.

“What do you want me to do? Jump up and celebrate?”

Simmons has taken two legitimate threes this season and buried both, so the confidence isn't totally irrational. If it gets to the point where it truly isn’t newsworthy that Simmons hits a three, look out.

While Brown has been careful not to make too big a fuss over it and chosen his words carefully when talking about Simmons shooting, he couldn’t help but ponder what it would mean for Simmons — and for his basketball team as a whole.

I think the drama of it is overblown,” Brown said. “The reality that he can shoot and it ultimately, it's going to need to come into his game in a more pronounced way just from an attempt standpoint, that's not overblown. I think the drama surrounding it is completely overblown. When I just put on my coaching hat and I'm looking at a 23-year-old young man trying to grow his game, it's completely — first in his wheelhouse and secondly, he will be liberated. His world will open up. And I think, in many ways, so will ours.

His coach gave him the blueprint. Now it’s up to Simmons to implement it.

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