76ers

'MVP' McConnell unwraps Christmas win for Sixers

'MVP' McConnell unwraps Christmas win for Sixers

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NEW YORK — The NBA paired the Sixers and Knicks for a Christmas Day showcase and the teams delivered at Madison Square Garden.

The evenly matched opponents competed in a matchup of some of the league’s top young talent, headlined by Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Kristaps Porzingis. The Sixers (15-18) prevailed with a 105-98 win over the Knicks (17-16) (see observations).

With Monday's win on Broadway, the Sixers pulled within two games of the Knicks, who currently possess the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

“I was so excited to play tonight because we’ve been through so much losing,” Embiid said. “To be able to be one of the few teams in the league to play on this day, it just shows you how much we’ve improved.”

The Sixers had not played on Christmas Day since 2001 against the Lakers. For a team that won 10 games just two seasons ago, the matinee selection was significant. More importantly, they broke a five-game losing streak, a skid that extended back to nine of their previous 10 contests.

“It’s huge,” Simmons said. “That’s what we definitely needed and it’s on a special day, so it was great.”

Embiid, who was a game-time decision because of back tightness, led the Sixers with a 25-point, 16-rebound double-double. He mixed in three blocks, adding him to the list of Anthony Davis, Shaquille O'Neal, Moses Malone, Rick Mahorn and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the last seven players to record at least 25 points, 15 rebounds and three blocks on Christmas.

JJ Redick followed up with 24 points (4 for 8 from three) in his first game back from right hamstring tightness. The Sixers would need more than that to fend off a massive 31-point, 22-rebound effort by Enes Kanter and 22 points, seven rebounds and five blocks by Porzingis, though.

That’s where T.J. McConnell stepped in off the bench with a season high-tying 15 points. McConnell’s high-energy performance earned high praise from Sixers head coach Brett Brown.

“He was the MVP of the game,” Brown said.

Brown also credited the Sixers’ defense for the victory. They held the Knicks to 33.3 percent shooting from the field and 28.6 percent from three in the fourth quarter. When turnovers, which had been under control all game, crept in during the final quarter (seven of their total 13 came in the final frame), the Sixers fended off a Knicks’ late-game push and kept the lead to five or more during the final three minutes.

“We got stops when we needed to,” Embiid said. 

The Sixers head back to Philadelphia with a win to their Christmas evening celebrations. They knew they couldn't take the afternoon off if they wanted to enjoy the rest of the holiday before heading out West for three games starting Thursday in Portland prior to stopping in Denver and Phoenix.

“We were on a losing streak,” Redick said. “We realized we are at a breaking point in the season. We had to play with more urgency. Today our energy was at a different level.”

Nemanja Bjelica spurns Sixers, reportedly talking deal with Kings

Nemanja Bjelica spurns Sixers, reportedly talking deal with Kings

What exactly is going on with the Sixers?

After missing out on LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and any and all superstar free agents this summer, even their bench, fill-out-the-roster type of guys are dodging the Sixers like a plague.

The latest being forward Nemanja Bjelica, who was in Philly (but not really) for just a bit longer than Eagle-for-a-second Frank Gore.

Bjelica, 30, reportedly agreed to a deal with the Sixers on July 5, providing a boost off the bench and an upgrade over Ersan Ilyasova. 

That was all grand until Tuesday, when news broke that Bjelica had spurned the Sixers and was going back to Europe, a source confirmed to NBC Sports Philadelphia's John Clark.

But in the greatest (or lamest) twist in a strange and sad offseason for the Sixers, Bjelica is now looking to stay in the NBA and is working toward a deal with the Sacramento Kings, according to a report by Yahoo! Sports' Shams Charania. That can't be right. No one would willingly sign with the Kings.

Bjelica posted career bests in points (6.1) and three-point percentage (41.5) last season. While he would have been a nice bench addition, it's not the end of the world. But it sure isn't a great look that the Sixers were toyed with and lost out to a lowly team like the Kings. 

After the Bryan Colangelo debacle and the star-hunting strikeout, we're officially at the "Player X would rather sign with the Kings" stage of the offseason.

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What now for Sixers after Kawhi Leonard trade to Raptors?

What now for Sixers after Kawhi Leonard trade to Raptors?

LeBron James is a Laker. Kawhi Leonard is a Raptor.

The Sixers went star hunting and came up empty. So now what for a team that won 52 games but is likely one more superstar away from winning a title?

You may not like this answer, but the correct course of action is … nothing — at least not this offseason.

The only star that could possibly be available is the Timberwolves’ Jimmy Butler — if you choose to believe the rumors. Butler, who is an outstanding two-way player, will be 29 entering next season and has an expiring deal. He already forced his way out of Chicago and reportedly wants to force his way out of Minnesota. How much are you giving up for that?

On a smaller scale, the Sixers lost Nemanja Bjelica, who reportedly agreed to sign with the team for the mid-level exception. The Serbian forward decided instead to take his talents back to the EuroLeague ... or maybe not. Bjelica certainly wasn’t a star but he appeared to be a solid bench piece that might’ve actually been an upgrade from Ersan Ilyasova. So what should the Sixers do with their MLE?

Nothing — again, at least this year.

Who do you want that’s left? Joe Johnson? Michael Beasley? Jamal Crawford? That’s three hard no’s for me.

The Sixers should go into camp with what they have and let the competition play out. Maybe they’ll figure out what to do with Jerryd Bayless’ deal or waive Richaun Holmes or sign Jonah Bolden or make a small trade, but this roster is mostly set. And that’s fine.

This team, that again won 52 games, should be better. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons should only improve. Markelle Fultz can only go up. Dario Saric took a huge leap in Year 2 and we know the kind of worker he is. Wilson Chandler is an upgrade over any player the Sixers had on the bench last year, especially when you factor in defense.

They’re not the favorites to win the East, nor should they be. But that’s fine. With the Warriors continuing to load up and James now out West, what chance does any team in the East have? (Zero is the answer, by the way). 

Fast forward to next offseason. Leonard, Butler, Klay Thompson, Kemba Walker and Kyrie Irving are among a loaded free-agent class. Any one of those players would be a fit and a huge upgrade for the Sixers and they’d be joining the team at the right time. Embiid and Simmons will both be a year more mature and developed and the Warriors will be a year older with their cap situation tighter.

As for the MLE, if the Sixers go star hunting again next offseason and wind up with someone like Leonard, they could use it on a ring-chasing, veteran mercenary. That’s much more valuable than one year of Johnson, Beasley or Crawford on a team that doesn’t have a realistic shot at a title next year.

Brett Brown may have set a tough bar for the offseason. When he did his now infamous star-hunting presser, it raised expectations from the fan base. Since the Sixers came up empty in their quest, most look at the offseason as a bad one.

There’s no nice way to put it: Missing out on James and Leonard sucks for the Sixers. But all is far from lost. Name another team in the NBA that has two superstars the caliber of Embiid and Simmons both under the age of 24. You can’t because such a team does not exist.

Would the Sixers have been better off if they landed a star this offseason? Of course. But now knowing that they swung and missed, their best course of action is inaction — for now.

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