76ers

Joel Embiid turns in dominant performance vs. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks in Sixers' Christmas day win

Joel Embiid turns in dominant performance vs. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks in Sixers' Christmas day win

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When GM Elton Brand spoke pregame, he faced a lot of questions about his team perhaps not living up to expectations.

With more performances like the one we saw on Christmas day those questions could go away in a hurry.

The Sixers took down the NBA-best Bucks, 121-109, delivering a nice present to a sold-out Wells Fargo Center Wednesday afternoon.

Thanks to a monster performance from Joel Embiid and red-hot three-point shooting, the Sixers built a 21-point halftime lead and didn’t look back.

The win improves the Sixers to 16-2 at home and 23-10 overall.

They hit the road for a back-to-back starting Friday in Orlando (7 p.m. NBCSP).

Here are observations from the win:

The Process bests the Freak

This may have been the most locked in we’ve seen Embiid all season. As you’ll recall last season, Embiid took a career-high 13 attempts from three in a 40-point performance in Milwaukee. The Bucks are a team that will clog the paint and take their chances on teams making threes. With that in mind, Embiid was taking them early and often, making 3 of 5 in the first half.

He was also just as dominant as we’ve seen in a first half this season. Milwaukee opted to guard him mostly 1-on-1 with soft double teams occasionally. That didn’t work well as Embiid beat up on Brook and Robin Lopez to the tune of 23 first-half points. The All-Star Center definitely had extra juice for this matchup, finishing with 31 points (11 of 21), 11 rebounds and two blocks in just under 29 minutes.

Perhaps even more impressively, Embiid was tasked with guarding reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and did a damn good job. Despite an uptick in the Greek Freak’s three-point shooting, it’s clear the way to guard is let him shoot from the outside (0 of 7 from three) and try to minimize his drives. He was just 4 of 14 in the first half and finished the game 8 of 27 for 18 points.

Harris and Richardson deliver

A lot of the credit for the Sixers building their massive advantage goes to Tobias Harris and Josh Richardson. Both players shot the ball extremely well and presented mismatch issues for Milwaukee.

As Harris has proven lately, he’s perhaps the most versatile scorer Brett Brown has had. He did his damage in the midrange, from three and in transition. Harris said from the moment he arrived here that he functions best in an offense that moves the ball well. The Sixers did just that Wednesday. Harris had 22 points on 8 of  16 including 5 of 7 from three.

Richardson was a sizzling 4 of 7 from three to start and looks to be recovered from that wrist injury he suffered a couple weeks back in Boston. As Brown has pointed out frequently, Richardson features a unique offensive skillset for this starting unit. He’s strong in the midrange and does well in the pick-and-roll. You can see the chemistry between Richardson and Embiid developing in that action. Richardson cooled after halftime, but still finished with 18 points.

Raining threes

The Sixers are not a prolific three-point shooting team. While they’re in the top 10 percentage wise, they’re in the bottom third of the league in attempts. They shot 11 of 22 from distance before halftime and looked good doing it. Given the opponent, this may have been the best the Sixers moved the ball all season.

Even as head coach Mike Budenholzer went to a zone in the third quarter, the Sixers shredded it, as Furkan Korkmaz hit three straight threes and the team continued to move the ball very well.

Meanwhile, Milwaukee is outside the top 10 in percentage but attempts and makes the third-most treys per game in the league. The Bucks were just 6 of 19 at halftime against a Sixers team that allows the fewest made threes in the NBA.

On Wednesday, this was one of the biggest differences in the game as the Sixers (21 of 44) held a decisive advantage over the Bucks (13 of 33).

Simmons good against a good team

It’s been an interesting season for Ben Simmons, who’s looked like an All-Defensive Team lock and made his first two NBA threes. He’s still likely not shooting enough for the Sixers to get to their ultimate goal — a big topic of conversation pregame.

With that said, you sort of got a blueprint of what Simmons’ role could look like when all the pieces around him are functioning at a high level. When Embiid is dominating and Harris, Richardson and Al Horford are shooting well from deep, Simmons can be an elite facilitator (14 assists). This was a strong performance. He picked his spots to attack but didn’t try to do too much and took care of the basketball. He had 15 points (7 of 10) and added three steals and two blocks. Maybe most impressively, he committed just two turnovers. As a team, the Sixers tied a season-low with eight.

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Trying to answer initial questions with Ben Simmons' knee injury

Trying to answer initial questions with Ben Simmons' knee injury

Updated: 8:42 p.m.

Ben Simmons is out for the Sixers’ seeding game Friday against the Orlando Magic with a left patella subluxation and there's not currently a timeline for his return as he considers treatment options. That news is clearly significant in the Sixers’ world, and it raises a range of questions. 

Let’s run through some of the bigger ones: 

What exactly is the injury? 

A simpler way to classify the injury is as a partial dislocation of the kneecap. 

How long will Simmons be out?

This is the largest question and still murky. Brett Brown on Thursday said “stuff is still being evaluated” and that he wasn’t in a position to offer a timeline. Presumably, factors such as the state of the ligaments around the knee could play a key role in determining how long Simmons is out. 

Outside of Simmons’ physical status, the team’s approach will be important. There’s no reason to put Simmons back on the court before he’s healthy. 

Shake Milton is hoping for a speedy return.

“It’s tough for us,” he said Thursday. “Ben is an incredible player, an incredible athlete. I don’t know, he’s like a freaking superhuman, so hopefully he’s able to heal super fast and get back on the court, because we definitely need him.”

How will the starting lineup change?

On March 11, the Sixers’ final pre-hiatus game, the team started Milton, Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris, Al Horford and Joel Embiid. That’s one possibility. The Horford-Embiid pairing is still the Sixers’ worst regular duo in terms of net rating despite having a plus-15.6 net rating in 40 minutes together at Disney World.

If Brown wants to prepare for a scenario in which Simmons is available and in the postseason starting five, he could keep Horford as the sixth man. He could instead turn to a wing such as Matisse Thybulle, Furkan Korkmaz or Glenn Robinson III, all of whom have started games for the Sixers this year. Robinson, who has missed the Sixers' first three seeding games with a left hip pointer, is doubtful for Friday's game. 

What about the rotation?

Robinson’s health is a relevant issue with the rotation, which Brown shrunk to nine players when the Sixers played the Wizards. Raul Neto didn’t play against Washington after seeing time in the first two seeding games.

It’s interesting to note that Neto started in Simmons’ place on Nov. 8 and Nov. 10 when the Australian was out with a shoulder injury. The circumstances were very different, however, as Milton was sidelined by a bone bruise and left knee sprain, leaving Neto and Trey Burke as the two main ball handlers on the roster. Trade deadline acquisition Alec Burks now appears ahead of Neto in the backup point guard pecking order, and Simmons’ injury should increase Burks' value a touch. 

As of Wednesday, Brown said his plan was still to have a nine-player rotation for the playoffs. 

What’s the intangible impact? 

When Simmons suffered a nerve impingement in his lower back on Feb. 22, Brown recalled him vomiting because of pain. He’s lauded Simmons often for the diligent rehabilitation he did to recover from that injury and be ready to go when play resumed amid a pandemic.

Injuries aren’t anything new to Brown, but he admitted it hurt some to learn about this one after witnessing the process of Simmons’ back rehabilitation. 

“It’s the life that we've lived since I have been in Philadelphia,” he said. “I’m sure every coach has some level of a similar story. This one stings, for sure. We all felt with the pandemic and are we going to play again, it obviously bought time for Ben — had the season kept going, it’s anybody’s best guess. In relation to being incredibly down about it, I’m not. When I think too long about it, probably I can go there.

“But I feel numb to it. I feel conditioned, that we’ve gone through this type of thing before. There is a level of faith that I have in the rest of the team that we can hold the fort until we hopefully get him back. But snakebitten, woe is me, I don’t go there.”

In addition to dealing with the disappointment of a star going down, the Sixers will have to tinker with ingredients like leadership that aren’t necessarily evident to an outsider.

“It’s going to be kind of everyone has to step up by committee,” Richardson said. “I think we have a few guys that can step up as leaders, who can step up and have big games for us. We don’t really like to put too much pressure on one or a few guys. Everybody’s going to step up in his absence.”

Can the Sixers manage without Simmons? 

Again, the lack of a timeline looms large here. We can say without question that the Sixers are 6-5 this season without Simmons and don’t have direct replacements for his elite defense, transition talents, creative passing and more.

It’s also logical that the Sixers will rely on Embiid defensively and feed him frequently in the post. His 34.4 percent usage rate so far in Florida may very well rise. 

“Offensively, he needs to get as many touches as we can get him,” Brown said. “And I think that one of the areas of most noticeable growth … is what he’s been doing passing out of the post. It’s maybe the single thing that stands out most to me offensively when you look at whether it’s Jo, or just us as a team — I like our post spacing.

“I like Jo’s unselfishness quarterbacking the gym. His ability to read where the double teams are coming from I think has been shown.”

Thybulle, Richardson, and perhaps Robinson when healthy could assume challenging defensive assignments that otherwise would have been Simmons’. Players like Harris and Korkmaz will miss Simmons’ ability to drive and set up three-pointers. 

Initially, the Sixers are coming to terms with the situation and hoping the injury doesn’t dent their playoff hopes.

“There’s a lot of moving parts right now and really we're all coming to grips with the news that we’ve received,” Brown said. 

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Sixers injury update: Ben Simmons has subluxation in left patella

Sixers injury update: Ben Simmons has subluxation in left patella

Updated: 8:37 p.m.

The injury Ben Simmons sustained in the Sixers' win Wednesday night over the Wizards is a subluxation of the left patella. He's out for the team's game Friday night against the Magic and treatment options are being considered.

Simmons exited Wednesday's game in the third quarter after throwing a pass for Al Horford. He immediately flexed his left knee and headed to the locker room.

Brett Brown was not prepared to give a timeline for how long Simmons will be sidelined.

"Some of the information is fluid, it’s still moving," he said Thursday. "In relation to saying any type of deadline, timeline, playoff, whatever, I’m not in a position to offer anything. Not because we don’t want to, but stuff is still being evaluated. What I do know — it’s boring, but we play Orlando tomorrow and we don’t have him. That’s kind of all I know at this point.”

The 24-year-old Simmons made his second All-Star team this season and has averaged 16.4 points, 8.0 assists and 7.8 rebounds. The Sixers shifted him to power forward in their new starting lineup, and he was open to the change.

"You've just gotta work with different things,” he said on July 14. “You’ve gotta try different things out, see if they work. We’re not at a stage where we can be comfortable yet. I’m still trying to figure it out myself ... what feels comfortable, what’s right for this team and how we’re gonna win. 

“If it’s this way, then I’m all for it. I’ve been having fun in that position — whatever you guys say, the four — whatever it is. But at the end of the day, when you see me I’m on the floor, I’m making plays."

He'd missed the Sixers' final eight games before the NBA's hiatus with a nerve impingement in his lower back but recovered from that injury and said he felt explosive heading into the restart. 

Without Simmons, Brown will have a few options to replace Simmons in the starting lineup, including original starting power forward Al Horford and wings Matisse Thybulle and Furkan Korkmaz.

Brown said he spoke with Simmons and Sixers medical director Scott Epsley on Wednesday night during a team dinner.

"There is clearly disappointment," Brown said, "because I don’t know if anybody really understood what he did to get ready to play basketball again. He really invested time, he really was diligent during the whole pandemic about recovery and rehab and strength and conditioning. ... And so I feel like there is certainly some disappointment, I think (there’s) the uncertainty of what really is it right now, is obviously there.

"But he’s a great teammate and his teammates care about him, and I think more will unfold, I suspect, in the next 24 hours where we can maybe provide more information.”

In other injury news, Mike Scott (right knee soreness) is questionable for Friday's game and Glenn Robinson III (left hip pointer) is doubtful. Both participate in the Sixers' practice Thursday after missing the team's first three seeding games. 

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