Sixers told us exactly what they would be, and they weren’t kidding

Sixers told us exactly what they would be, and they weren’t kidding

Teams sometimes meander upon their identity after a long season, stumble upon it around New Year’s or never truly find it. The 2019-20 Sixers have no such problem. 

Head coach Brett Brown, whenever there’s been an opening, has reminded reporters of the Sixers’ desire to embody the spirit of Philadelphia. Those words aren’t empty. 

If you went into our practice facility, it’s our creed — it’s Philly hard, Philly edge and there’s an authenticity — it’s real,” he said Wednesday night after a 117-95 Sixers win over the Timberwolves that featured a chaotic fight between Joel Embiid and Karl-Anthony Towns. “And every time we can, we like to point to an example. Like yep, this is Philly hard. That thing had an edge. This is real. There’s a spirit amongst our team that’s authentic.

After the fight, and the post-ejection shadowboxing, and the crowd’s rapturous “MVP” chants as Embiid headed back to the locker room, Mike Scott knew what he was supposed to say about the incident. He opted against an insincere reaction.

“It was definitely entertaining,” he said. “Let’s get all the bad s--- out. You don’t want to condone it, kids are watching. We’ll see what the league does. But that was great. Probably … nah, f--- that. That was great. I enjoyed that. He’s a superstar. With plays like that, he just has that Philly toughness in him.”

Embiid borrowed one of Scott’s favorite phrases when asked what sort of trash talk had led to the fight.

“Well, first of all, I ain't not b----,” he said. “So no, there was not a lot of talking. It kind of happened out of nowhere. I just did what I had to do and I was just trying to control myself. It happens.”

Unlike Embiid, who also bragged about “owning that real estate" in the mind of Towns, the Timberwolves’ center wasn’t boastful.

“It was a competitive game, that’s all it was,” he said. “There are a lot of great things we can learn and really go out there and try to beat Washington.”

Towns deflected questions about what caused the fight, whether he regretted it and if he’d indeed taken a swing at Embiid in a similar manner. He used the word “competitive” six times in his postgame scrum. 

Embiid and the Sixers, on the other hand, were sticking their chests out.

... I was built for this city and they were built for me," Embiid said. "My reaction, the reaction and the love they have for me —I can't thank them enough. ... And I heard the MVP chants from the locker room. But that's what the city of Philadelphia is about. You got to come here, you got to fight. You got to play hard. Got to be gritty. You got to be Broad Street bully. So that's what it's about. So we're going to keep on fighting and trying to accomplish the goal we have set for us.

The dissonant voice was Al Horford. After a 12-point, 16-rebound, four-assist night — not that many will recall the stats from this game at the end of the year — the even-keeled 33-year-old was displeased with the incident between Embiid and Towns. He’d kept a good distance from the scrum of bodies on the floor and did not like what he’d witnessed. 

“I couldn’t believe it,” he said. "I couldn’t believe it. It’s just one of those things. Those two players are two of our great young players in the league. I’ve known Karl for years, I know his family. He’s a good kid. Joel’s a good kid, as well. It’s just one of those things that you don’t want to see in a game. Our game is a great game. That happened, and it was unfortunate. I do hope that they both learn from this. There’s just no place for that in our game.”

The Sixers likely won’t tune out Horford if he expresses that opinion behind closed doors. His new teammates have publicly praised his work ethic, professionalism and intelligence. They seem to genuinely respect his viewpoint. But, while Scott might be the most extreme, unfiltered version of the team's identity, his attitude appears to be a natural one for the Sixers, one of two remaining unbeaten teams in the NBA.

“Smash mouth offense, bully ball defense,” Brown had promised at his annual luncheon with the media before the season. 

Well, Ben Simmons had Towns in a headlock at the bottom of that pile of bodies Wednesday night, with the Sixers up 20 and their best player in the middle of a mess. It seems safe to say he’s bought in. (For what it’s worth, referee Mark Ayotte told The Associated Press pool reporter that the officiating crew “deemed [Simmons] a peacemaker.” We’ll see whether the league agrees with that assessment upon further review.)

“You’ve gotta have that mentality,” Scott said. “Like I said, we don’t want to come out here and fight every night, s--- like that. But sometimes you’ve gotta do that. I have to watch the whole replay and see what happened. But I feel like Jo did what he had to do. S---, I would have done the same thing.”

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With the ‘end in mind’ more than ever, will Sixers’ plans eventually come together?

With the ‘end in mind’ more than ever, will Sixers’ plans eventually come together?

Even with 58 regular-season games to go, Brett Brown has “the end in mind” for his team. As he ponders how to best prepare the Sixers for playoff basketball, he's referred to that idea time and time again.

The end of the Sixers' 110-104 win Sunday night over the Raptors at Wells Fargo Center was ugly. The Sixers turned the ball over seven times in the final 4:14 against the Raptors’ full-court pressure, including three by Joel Embiid.

“It is disappointing the way that ended because I thought for the most part, we played good basketball,” Brown said. “It's just the way that it ended, you have a little bit of a sour taste in your mouth. And then I'm reminded it was a good weekend, we just beat the NBA champs. And there's lots of good things that came out of it, just the last part wasn't one of them.”

The weekend back-to-back was indeed a fruitful one for the Sixers, who led the hapless Cavs by a franchise-record 41 points at halftime and played very well vs. the 15-7 Raptors with the exception of those final few minutes when it seemed everyone besides Toronto just wanted to hear the final buzzer. 

But, with almost anything this team does, there’s a natural instinct to consider the big picture.

Three of Simmons’ career-high 34 points Saturday came on a long range jumper, and Brown wants him taking "a three-point shot a game, minimum,” along with eight free throws a night. If Simmons gives Brown what he's looking for, what would it mean for the Sixers against opponents much better than the Cavs? 

In his last two games, Embiid has 15 turnovers, and he’s been an unfortunate combination of careless and oblivious against fourth-quarter pressure and double teams. Do the Sixers have a real chance to contend for an NBA title if he’s making similar mistakes when the games are higher stakes?

Rookie Matisse Thybulle is emerging as a three-and-D player, and his success at home has mirrored the Sixers’. He’s shot 65.4 percent from three-point range at home and has a plus-12.7 net rating at Wells Fargo Center. Those numbers plummet to 20.8 percent from long distance and a minus-14.1 net rating on the road. Can Thybulle and the Sixers — 12-0 at home, 5-7 away — eventually figure out how to win on the road?

Few of these larger questions lead to obvious answers at the moment, in part because of how often the starting lineup has been fractured.

Josh Richardson has missed six games in a row with a right hamstring injury. Al Horford is experiencing load management for the first time in his NBA career. Simmons was sidelined for consecutive games in early November with a shoulder sprain. And Embiid has sat out five games as a result of suspension, injury and load management. 

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,” Embiid told reporters Sunday. “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.

Embiid’s time on the court is substantially down from where it was at this point last season, even if this path isn’t the one the Sixers would have meticulously mapped out before the year. He’s played 19 of the team’s first 24 games and 30.4 minutes per contest. In 2018-19, he played every one one of the team’s first 24 games — all of the first 26, in fact — and averaged 34.1 minutes.

The idea of a player feeling as if he’s “been going through the motions” might not be palatable for many fans. Embiid and the Sixers, though, aim to be healthy and the best versions of themselves when the games are more important.

Competing with that priority is Brown’s insistence that the Sixers are chasing the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. He said Saturday he hasn’t “recalibrated” that preseason goal.

The Sixers obviously want the best of both worlds. These first 24 games, however, seem to suggest that — should they be competing in the second round of the playoffs for a third straight year — they see being better equipped to advance as more important than seeding. They want to have their top players available and well-conditioned. They want to understand how to capitalize on their strengths — size, defense, rebounding — and either gloss over or eliminate weaknesses with turnovers and shot creation. 

Though Brown and his team have their ideas at this stage about how to reach that broad objective, there’s no preset path to follow. One of the Sixers’ best players has a history of injury and conditioning problems, another is being asked to play point guard and doesn’t have a history of taking and making jump shots, and the three other starters are relatively new additions.

None of that prohibits everything from working out in the end.

The Sixers are 17-7, have won 10 of 12 games and have 58 to go before the fun starts. 

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'Big brother' Tobias Harris leading, rookie Matisse Thybulle following

'Big brother' Tobias Harris leading, rookie Matisse Thybulle following

So much of the focus ahead of the Sixers’ game against the Raptors Sunday was on Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.

And for good reason.

Embiid put up a goose egg the last time the teams faced off and has historically struggled with Marc Gasol. Simmons was coming off a career-high 34 points and made his second NBA three Saturday night.

While both players had roles in a 110-104 win Sunday night (see observations), it was Tobias Harris leading and rookie Matisse Thybulle following that kept the Sixers unblemished at the Wells Fargo Center.

Harris poured in a game-high 26 points, taking on the scoring load with Toronto head coach Nick Nurse’s game plan focused on stopping the Sixers’ young All-Stars.

“Yeah, 100 percent,” Harris said when asked if this is the most comfortable he’s felt here. “I think I’m in a really good rhythm of just going out and embracing and feeding off my teammates, and getting into a flow.”

Since a slump that saw him miss 23 straight threes, Harris has been pretty darn consistent. Over his last 12 games, Harris is shooting 41.3 percent from three and 50.6 percent overall.

If there’d been a knock on Harris outside of that tough stretch, it’s that he hasn’t looked as aggressive as a Sixer as he did during his stint with the Clippers. That hasn’t been the case recently. He’s averaged 16.3 field goal attempts per game over the last 12 games and has taken at least 22 shots in three of the last four.

Even during Harris’ up and down play, he’s remained a leader — a role he’s taken seriously since he signed the biggest deal in franchise history this summer.

And his teammates have responded.

“Aside from being an amazing example, he’s just been like a big brother,” Thybulle said. “We sit next to each other on every flight and he’s constantly giving me advice. I seek him for all my questions — whether it’s financially, on the court, off the court, I go to him. He’s done it at a very high level for a while now, and I really look up to him in that sense. He’s been able to be a huge role model for me.”

Whatever Harris has been telling Thybulle, it’s been working. When GM Elton Brand traded up in the draft to get Thybulle, nights like this are presumably what Brand had in mind.

Thybulle was his usual self on defense — annoying veteran Kyle Lowry, coming up with steals and contesting shots. On the other end, he continues to shoot the basketball at a high level. He hit a rookie career-high five threes and reached the 20-point mark for the first time. He’s now at 44 percent from beyond the arc, the highest percentage among rookies with at least 50 attempts.

In a contest that felt like it had a lot more juice than a regular-season game in December, Thybulle didn’t shy away from the moment — despite a couple late-game turnovers. The Sixers as a team had a brutal last few minutes as the Raptors went to a full-court press in desperation.

The thing Harris wants Thybulle to remember is that he was one of the main contributors in helping the Sixers build a huge lead. 

“Matisse is great,” Harris said. “I was telling him in there, ‘Don’t let the last minute and 30 seconds kill your vibe of the game, because you helped us secure that win tonight.’ He came in and his energy was amazing. He was able to knock down big shots, big threes that really pushed our lead each and every time they tried to make a run. He was amazing out there, man. He’s an amazing player, amazing person, amazing rookie. Every night I’m on him, each and every game, to continue to progress, continue to stay ready and locked in. He’s really catching his stride now.”

There is a refreshing vibe about Thybulle. He knows he has a job to do and he takes it seriously, but he also allows himself to enjoy it. He’s also not taking any of it for granted.

“That’s something I find myself thinking about a lot,” Thybulle said. “Even just six months ago, if you had told me I’d be in the position that I am today, it would have been really hard for me to believe you. I think I’m incredibly blessed. I’m so grateful. To have the guys that we have on this team and to have the opportunity that I have has been nothing short of a blessing.”

That’s a level of humility his “big brother” would approve of.

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