76ers

Latest version of Sixers shows how dangerous it is in win vs. NBA-best Bucks

Latest version of Sixers shows how dangerous it is in win vs. NBA-best Bucks

The last time the Sixers played the Bucks, it wasn’t pretty.

Back on Oct. 24, Milwaukee took control early and the game was a blowout. The Sixers’ starters that night: Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Robert Covington, Dario Saric and Markelle Fultz.

What a difference a few months and a couple blockbuster trades can make.

The Sixers’ new-look starting five, playing in just its seventh game together, turned in its finest performance with a 130-125 win in Milwaukee Sunday afternoon (see observations), clinching a playoff spot in the process.

Giannis Antetokounmpo was a monster with 52 points, but Joel Embiid was no slouch with 40 of his own along with 15 rebounds and six assists.

“I think when you ask about Joel, the thing that most stood out to me was there was a fierce level of competitiveness that he played with tonight,” Brown said to reporters postgame. “It was at an A-level. It was at a playoff level. And the physical side of things — throwing his body into things — just was extremely competitive.”

In a game against the NBA’s best and in a fight for the East’s third seed, there was a playoff feel to this one.

There’s been a lot made of the Sixers’ inability to beat the Eastern Conference’s elite. Going into Sunday, the Sixers were just 1-7 against the Bucks, Raptors and Celtics — that one win coming against a depleted Toronto team.

But that was then and this is now. This team looks nothing like the first iteration Milwaukee saw. In what could’ve been a possible playoff preview, “Sixers 3.0,” as JJ Redick called it, turned in its most impressive win of the season.

“We had only played six games. Think of that number. Truly, think about that number,” Brown said. “And to play against one of the more consistent teams in the league — as it sits, best team in the NBA [and] the best defensive team in the NBA — and try to learn and grow our team and move it forward. 

“There’s some talent in that room, no doubt about it, but there’s no right to have a fluid side and a chemistry and a symmetry. They have no right to have that — not to anybody’s fault except the calendar. So growing that and be excited about that and trying to polish it up before the playoffs begin is our goal.”

That calendar now reflects that there’s less than a month to go before the postseason. There are 12 games — including the rubber match against the Bucks — left in the regular season. That doesn’t leave much time for Brown to figure out his newest starting unit.

But luckily for Brown, the most promising thing this starting lineup has shown is the willingness to play a selfless brand of basketball. While Embiid may be the “crown jewel,” there are four other players that are supremely gifted offensively.

On Sunday, it was Redick who sparked them early by hitting 7 of 10 shots and going a spotless 4 of 4 from three for 19 points. It was Jimmy Butler who continued his aggressive ways and played closer yet again with 14 of his 27 points in the fourth quarter. It was Embiid being Embiid.

Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris weren’t spectacular, but they were efficient. Simmons was 4 of 8 for eight points, but also added nine rebounds and nine assists. Harris shot just for 4 of 7 for 12, but added seven boards and four dimes.

The beauty of having five guys as immensely talented as what the Sixers have is that you don’t need everybody to go off. 

“I think we have so many guys that score the ball in so many different ways that any given night somebody’s going to get hot,” Butler said. “You’re not going to be able to guard everybody. We do a good job of finding guys in spots where they’re comfortable — I think that’s the best part about our offense. 

“When the ball is moving around and of course when we’re playing defense, [we’re at our best]. But I think everybody is having fun and when you’re having fun, the basketball game is easy.”

If “Sixers 3.0” keeps this up, the rest of the Eastern Conference won’t be having very much fun.

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Sixers' Ime Udoka is ‘biggest name to watch’ in Bulls’ head coaching search

Sixers' Ime Udoka is ‘biggest name to watch’ in Bulls’ head coaching search

Sixers assistant coach Ime Udoka is, according to NBC Sports NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh, “the biggest name to watch” in the Bulls’ search for a new head coach.

Chicago fired Jim Boylen on Friday. NBC Sports Chicago’s K.C. Johnson reports former Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson, Nuggets assistant Wes Unseld Jr., Mavs assistant Stephen Silas and Bucks assistant Darvin Ham are also expected to be included in Chicago's search. Bulls GM Marc Eversley used to be the Sixers’ vice president of player personnel. 

Udoka joined the Sixers this season after spending seven years as an assistant with the Spurs. In September, he said that he was responsible for game planning and strategizing against “eight or nine” opponents under Gregg Popovich. Brett Brown assigned him to be in charge of the Sixers’ defense, which is rated eighth in the NBA, and he's looked to install more aggressive defensive concepts. He’s a well-respected former player who, according to The Athletic’s Shams Charania is also a candidate for the Nets job.

From the Sixers’ perspective, part of what may complicate this situation is Brown’s status. Here’s what Haberstroh wrote on that subject:  

Over the next few weeks, league insiders are keeping an eye on the situation in Philadelphia as the Sixers have underwhelmed for the second straight season. If the short-handed Sixers lose in the first round, Udoka could be in line for a promotion with the Sixers.

“The Sixers may not want another coach to leave their organization. Brown’s top assistant job has been a springboard to head-coaching positions throughout the NBA. Houston’s Mike D’Antoni, Phoenix’s Monty Williams and Atlanta’s Lloyd Pierce’s last stops before their current gigs was the bench in Philly. 

In response to rumors last May that the Sixers’ second-round loss to the Raptors may have put Brown’s job in jeopardy, his players defended him vehemently. The team’s supersized roster has disappointed in this highly unusual, pandemic-affected season, as the presence of Al Horford has boosted the Sixers’ backup center play but generally not helped the team otherwise. Brown’s new-look starting lineup with Shake Milton at point guard and Ben Simmons at power forward only had three games together before Simmons injured his left knee. 

The Sixers’ first-round series against the Celtics begins on Monday night (see series schedule).

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How to watch Sixers at Rockets: Storylines, live stream, game time and more

How to watch Sixers at Rockets: Storylines, live stream, game time and more

For the first time since the 2011-12 lockout year, the Sixers will play fewer than 82 games in a “regular” season. Their 73rd and final game before the postseason is Friday night against the Rockets.

Joel Embiid (left ankle soreness) and Glenn Robinson III (left hip pointer) are questionable, and Russell Westbrook is out for Houston with a right quad strain. 

Here are the essentials:

When: 9 p.m. with Sixers Pregame Live at 8
Where: AdventHealth Arena
Broadcast: NBC Sports Philadelphia Plus
Live stream: NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com and the NBC Sports MyTeams app

And here are three storylines to watch: 

All about Monday 

Health and “spirit” are the two things Brett Brown has consistently said he hoped the Sixers would have intact for the postseason. The team’s health is significantly compromised with Ben Simmons out after undergoing surgery on his left knee, which is probably more important than an intangible quality like spirit. That said, the Sixers’ morale doesn’t seem too bad given the circumstances. There’s been a little time for everyone to wrap their head around Simmons’ injury and what it means, and the starting lineup enjoyed cheering on the reserves in the fourth quarter of Wednesday’s loss to the Raptors.

The Sixers’ first-round series vs. the Celtics begins Monday night (see series schedule). It sounds simple enough … but just get to tip-off of Game 1 with the healthiest version of the current team. 

Is hot outside shooting sustainable? 

Before the NBA’s hiatus, the Sixers were shooting 36.2 percent from three-point range. They’re at 40.6 percent in Disney World, and Joel Embiid and Shake Milton are the only rotation players below their season averages from long range. 

That large of an increase is likely attributable to a small sample size, at least in part, but it does seem that players like Al Horford, Furkan Korkmaz and Alec Burks are comfortable and shooting with confidence. Perhaps it will carry over to the playoffs. 

Small-ball prep 

The Rockets will finish either No. 4 or No. 5 in the Western Conference, a distinction that means very little when there are no true home games. It would therefore be unsurprising if minutes were limited for Houston’s key players. 

One thing that will be interesting to watch regardless is how the Sixers will handle a team without a conventional center. Houston is an extreme practitioner of small ball, but the Sixers’ top lineups will generally be larger than the Celtics’. Horford’s perimeter defense will be tested by Boston.

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