76ers

With Joel Embiid, Jimmy Butler out, Sixers wisely focused more on big picture

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With Joel Embiid, Jimmy Butler out, Sixers wisely focused more on big picture

The Sixers will be without the services of Jimmy Butler (back) Monday and Joel Embiid (knee/load management) for Monday and Wednesday.

If they’re unable to beat the lowly Mavericks and Hawks, you might as well pack it in. They have no shot to reach the NBA Finals if they lose these next two games in Dallas and Atlanta. Brett Brown should lose his job right after the sure losses. All these bold moves by Elton Brand for naught!

But seriously, is it more important to beat two teams that are a combined 37 games below .500 or deliver Embiid and Butler to the playoffs healthy? Maybe those two things aren’t mutually exclusive, but then again, maybe they are. Besides, the Sixers have a 4.5 game lead for the East's third seed with six games to play. How much is really at stake here?

That’s not to say Embiid and Butler missing time is ideal. The Sixers’ new-look starting five doesn’t have much experience together. They still need to develop a little more chemistry — especially on the defensive end.

But look at what they’ve done when they’ve played together. They’re 8-2 in 10 games when they’ve all started. They took down the team with the best record in the NBA on the road and finally beat their boogeyman in Boston. Among current NBA starting lineups that have played at least 160 minutes together, the Sixers’ unit has the best net rating at 17.6. They also have a plus-7.5 point differential, the highest mark of any five-man lineup that’s played at least 10 games together.

Last week, NBC Sports NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh wrote an in-depth piece examining how important it is for teams to be peaking going into the playoffs. Haberstroh basically proved that momentum going into the NBA playoffs is a myth.

Take last year’s Golden State Warriors. They stumbled into the playoffs, losing six of their final 10 games and 10 of their final 17. In Game No. 82, the Warriors suffered the worst defeat under Steve Kerr, getting trampled by the Utah Jazz by 40 points even with Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green playing. It’s hard to imagine a team more out of sorts on their quest to repeat.

If you hit the panic button and sold all your Warriors stock right then, well … poor move by you.

Golden State proceeded to go 16-5 in the postseason and were so good that they swept the Finals, the first 4-0 championship series since 2007. Meanwhile, the Cavs team the Warriors swept entered the postseason victorious in 11 of their final 14 contests. Hot, cold, lukewarm -- it didn’t seem to matter.

Sixers fans need look no further than the team they root for as a prime example. The Sixers took a 16-game winning streak into the playoffs last season, capped by a Markelle Fultz triple-double in the regular season finale. By Game 2 against the Heat, the Sixers clearly needed Embiid, who was recovering from a facial fracture, while Fultz played his way out of the playoff rotation. Chemistry is important, but nothing is more important than having your best players healthy in a talent-driven league.

While it’s not great for a team to turn it off and on, the Sixers do appear to have the ability to do so. The wins over the Bucks and Celtics show what they can do when they're locked in. Their recent letdown loss to the Hawks shows what happens when they just coast through a game.

When the Sixers are fully engaged come playoff time, a healthy Embiid and Butler will mean more than the results of the last six games of the regular season.

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Sixers at Cavaliers: 3 storylines to watch and how to stream the game

Sixers at Cavaliers: 3 storylines to watch and how to stream the game

The Sixers (7-5) will look to get back into the win column in Cleveland when they take on the Cavaliers (4-7) this afternoon.

Here are the essentials for today’s game:

When: 3 p.m. ET with Sixers Pregame Live at 2:30 p.m.
Where: Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse
Broadcast: NBC Sports Philadelphia+ 
Live stream: NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com and the NBC Sports MyTeams app

And here are three storylines to watch:

Time to get right

There’s no such thing as a good loss, but man, the Sixers’ losses have been particularly brutal. On Friday night, they held a nine-point lead with 7:20 to go but gave up a 12-2 run and eventually lost in overtime to the Thunder.

The Sixers have glaring issues — especially in their starting five — but Brett Brown feels like he knows what they are.

“If you're sick and you don't know why, that's a problem,” Brown said. “We are in a tough spot right now, but it's a long year. I think that it doesn't take much for me to understand where we have to get better. And it's really that simple. If you're scratching your head, sort of confused, then I think we got some problems and that's not what I'm doing. I think the guys understand the areas that matter most that can best impact changing the way things are going and get back on the winning side.”

We'll see.

Taking care of business

This Cavs team isn’t as bad as perhaps we all thought coming into this season. They start two extremely young guards in Collin Sexton and Darius Garland, but they’re still flanked by veteran bigs Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson.

Cleveland also gave the Sixers all they could handle earlier this week — especially veteran guard Jordan Clarkson (20 points). The Sixers were able to sneak out of the Wells Fargo Center with a 98-97 win. Then again, when is the last time this team played a game that wasn’t close?

While the Cavs are maybe better than anticipated, this is a team the Sixers should be able to get well against. On Tuesday, they held Cleveland scoreless for over three minutes to close out the game. They need to bring that for 48 minutes and get right with a win over a team they’re clearly more talented than. 

Sorting out the bench

Furkan Korkmaz was scorching hot for a six-game stretch. He shot 50.9 percent from three and averaged 13.8 points in mostly bench minutes. In his last three games, he’s just 4 of 16 from distance. The issue with Korkmaz is if he’s not hitting shots, he doesn’t bring much else to the table. You saw Oklahoma City pick on him in overtime after Tobias Harris fouled out.

Korkmaz has been getting the most minutes off Brown’s bench recently. Should he be? Rookie Matisse Thybulle got off to a roaring start, but has looked overmatched offensively. With that said, he’s just so special defensively, Brown should deal with the growing pains on the other end. In games Thybulle has played at least 12 minutes, the Sixers are 6-1.

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There are positive signs, but still glaring issues with Sixers

There are positive signs, but still glaring issues with Sixers

After dropping their second straight game in overtime Friday night in Oklahoma City (see observations), the Sixers at times sounded like a team looking for answers.

More of that is likely struggling to answer questions coming off another brutal loss. They have an idea why they’ve lost five of their last seven after starting their season 5-0. A large part of it is a group with a bunch of new faces that are still figuring each other out. On Friday, fouls were an issue as they allowed the Thunder to attempt 41 free throws.

For a team that has championship aspirations and got off to such a hot start, this isn’t where they expected to be 12 games into the season.

“Obviously we're frustrated,” Tobias Harris said to reporters postgame. “7-5 is not where we want to be. It's early in the season and right now we're going to progress and get better and figure out ways that we can help each other and help our team and go from there. This game is over. Tomorrow, we'll watch film on it, we'll find out which ways that we can better ourselves and be ready for the next game. [We’re] 7-5 right now but ... we'll just go into the next game and be ready to get that win and go from there.”

There are reasons for optimism — with Harris being arguably the biggest.

After missing 23 straight threes and looking lost recently, Harris splashed his first trey of the game and looked like a totally different player. He finished with 21 points on 8 of 16 from the field and 3 of 4 from three. He was much more aggressive and decisive than he’d been in the previous two games.

Josh Richardson, returning to his native Oklahoma, has continued to show signs of improvement. He poured in 28 points, his highest total as a Sixer. More importantly, he’s looked much more comfortable in the offense as he figures out his role.

Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons both had their moments. Embiid had a game-high 31 points and Simmons broke out after a quiet first half to play the entire second half.

One of the team’s biggest issues is figuring out the pairing of Embiid and Al Horford. The reality is Horford has never played with a center like Embiid who demands the ball and attention offensively. It’s been an obvious adjustment for Horford, who shot just 5 of 12 Friday and has done most of his damage with Embiid off the floor.

The uncomfortable offensive fit for the entire starting five has been a big reason the Sixers have been involved in so many close games. A familiar theme emerged Friday, as the Sixers held a nine-point advantage with 7:20 to go in the game. Instead of hitting the gas and putting the Thunder away, they gave up a 12-2 run and saw their lead evaporate.

These are talented players that have won in different places. They’re still learning how to win together.

“I was just telling Al about that,” Harris said, “and really it's just I think a matter of right now we are yet to be up like eight points and push that to 15 and really push what we're doing and move forward with that, and really imposing our will and dominating. And that's something that we have to get to and that's something I think we're still learning — how we can do that and how we can make those type of runs. That's something we definitely got to get better at.”

The good news is you see the talent and recognize some of the issues.

And Brett Brown has 70 games to figure it out.

“If you're sick and you don't know why, that's a problem,” Brown said. “We are in a tough spot right now, but it's a long year. I think that it doesn't take much for me to understand where we have to get better. And it's really that simple. If you're scratching your head, sort of confused, then I think we got some problems and that's not what I'm doing. I think the guys understand the areas that matter most that can best impact changing the way things are going and get back on the winning side.”

They know the problems, now they just have to answer the questions.

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