76ers

NBA summer league: How Matisse Thybulle shined in Sixers' loss to Pistons

NBA summer league: How Matisse Thybulle shined in Sixers' loss to Pistons

The Sixers finished their regular season summer league slate on a losing note.

Matisse Thybulle had his best performance, but the Pistons remain undefeated after a 96-81 win Wednesday afternoon at Cox Pavilion in Las Vegas. The Sixers fell to 1-3.

Here are observations from the loss.

• It didn’t take Thybulle long to get his hands on the ball on defense. On the first possession, Thybulle nearly created a fast break on a steal. A few minutes later, he did just that.

He continues to look every bit the disruptive player he was at Washington. While most gave credit to the zone for Thybulle’s crazy steal and block stats, the Sixers’ 2019 first-round pick anticipates as well as anyone and is incredibly quick once he recognizes where the ball is going. He had a pair of steals and a number of deflections.

The one clear weakness in Thybulle’s game is ball handling, but he’s looked more comfortable in that regard as the summer league has gone on. He carried out a fake dribble handoff at the top of the key that he then took to his left for a two-hand dunk.

He also had a nice dribble drive before halftime that he dished off to Zhaire Smith, who drew a foul. He had three assists and just one turnover.

His shooting stroke continues to look good. He was 2 of 4 from three and 2 of 2 from the line. He finished with 12 points on 4 of 8 overall.

• Marial Shayok returned to the lineup after missing Monday’s loss with a knee injury. The 2019 second-rounder and recent recipient of a two-way deal continued to show off his offensive ability. He made two threes, including a nice pull-up in transition.

He’s also shown the ability to operate as a ball handler in the pick-and-roll. There’s still a rawness to Shayok’s game. He needs to work on his decision making and shot selection (he finished just 4 of 14), but there’s plenty to like here.

• Smith got off to a slow start offensively but made a couple plays that should excite Brett Brown and the Sixers.

He made a pair of threes, but his most impressive shot came midway through the third quarter. He pulled up around a screen and nailed a midrange jumper off the dribble and looked natural doing so. One of his threes was also off the bounce. 

We all know about Smith’s elite athleticism and defensive prowess. If he can become a confident and consistent shooter, that could make him a legitimate contributor this season. He was 4 of 8 for 11 points.

• Norvel Pelle and Christ Koumadje continue to commit fouls at an unfathomable rate. Both players show ability on the defensive end with their ability to protect the rim and on offense as rollers and finishers. But they both lack discipline and have a long way to go if they want to help an NBA team. They combined for five blocks, but 13 fouls.

• Shake Milton was out with an ankle injury he suffered Monday against the Thunder. It was clearly not the summer league output he would’ve liked to have. He showed his ability to run the offense but struggled mightily with his shot — a skill he showed off frequently last season in the G League. Milton is locked in for the next four years and will have plenty of time during training camp and the preseason to prove he belongs. 

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2020 NBA restart: The 5 most fascinating veterans in Disney World, starring Al Horford

2020 NBA restart: The 5 most fascinating veterans in Disney World, starring Al Horford

Assuming the NBA season can continue in Orlando (fingers crossed), some of the league’s best players have the chance to add exciting new chapters to their career stories.

Both Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James could become the first player to be named NBA Finals MVP with three different teams. But their legacies as all-time playoff greats are already secure. 

We’ll get our first look at Luka Doncic in the playoffs, but he’s just getting started. It will be fun to see Zion Williamson and Ja Morant in their first truly meaningful NBA games, but they should get plenty of chances in the years to come.

Here are five veteran players with a chance to shine in the playoffs and change how they are viewed around the league.

5. Kemba Walker

Walker missed seven games in February with a left knee injury and didn’t look totally right even when he returned, shooting 28 percent from the field in his final three games before the COVID-19 shutdown. In Walker’s absence, Jayson Tatum ascended to the role of Boston’s top offensive option.

Walker says he is healthy and will head to Orlando with the chance to win a playoff series for the first time in his nine-year career. In Charlotte, he was the proverbial “good player on a bad team.” Now, he needs to prove he can make winning plays in the playoffs.

Tatum’s emergence as a go-to scorer could help Walker immensely. Instead of having to carry the offense, he’s more likely to get some open looks, great news for one of the NBA’s best high-volume three-point shooters (37.7 percent on 8.8 attempts per game).

If he can make some clutch threes, Walker could provide Boston with the perimeter threat that made Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet so crucial in Toronto’s title run last season. The undersized Walker will also need to defend well enough to be on the floor for those moments.

In his only Game 7, back in the first round in 2016, Walker shot 3 for 16 from the floor in a 33-point loss to Miami. There’s no doubt he’d like a chance to redeem himself. 

4. Anthony Davis

Davis is talented enough on both ends of the floor to be the NBA Finals MVP. He just needs to prove himself on that stage.

If the Lakers and Clippers meet in the Western Conference Finals, Davis needs to dominate, because James will have his hands full with Leonard and Paul George. Davis is too big for Montrezl Harrell and too quick for Ivica Zubac. If the Clippers put George on him, Davis has to win that matchup decisively.

The Lakers aren’t going to win a championship unless both James and Davis have incredible playoff runs. The gap is too great between those two superstars and the third-best player on the roster (take your pick of Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kyle Kuzma). 

Davis has shown he can be a playoff monster. Two years ago, he averaged 33.0 points, 11.8 rebounds, 2.8 blocks and 1.8 steals to lead New Orleans to a playoff sweep over the higher-seeded Portland Trail Blazers. He may need to put up those numbers for four rounds to win a championship this season.

3. Giannis Antetokounmpo

Antetokounmpo and the Bucks dominated the regular season like few teams before them, winning by an average of 11.2 points per game on their way to an NBA-best 53-12 record.

But plenty of questions loom after their Eastern Conference Finals loss to Toronto last season.

Khris Middleton has had an outstanding season, but can he knock down shots for four rounds? Can Eric Bledsoe erase the memories of that series loss to Toronto, when he shot 29 percent from the field and 17 percent from three-point range in six games? Can Antetokounmpo make enough perimeter shots to keep defenses honest? 

Antetokounmpo may have the most pressure on him of any player going into this NBA restart. He has been, by far, the best player in the Eastern Conference this season. It isn’t even close. There is no proven playoff performer like Leonard blocking his path to the Finals. This is his time.

Antetokounmpo is almost certainly going to win back-to-back league MVP awards. He’s a free agent after the 2020-21 season. If he and the Bucks don’t get to the NBA Finals this season, will Antetokounmpo think about leaving Milwaukee for greener pastures?

2. Russell Westbrook

For the first three months of the season, the offseason trade to bring Westbrook to Houston in exchange for Chris Paul looked like an abject disaster.

While CP3 became one of the league’s best clutch shooters in Oklahoma City, Westbrook struggled to find his footing as the second banana to James Harden, shooting under 43 percent from the field in 30 games through December.

But just as people began to write him off, Westbrook’s efficiency numbers skyrocketed. In his final 23 games before the season paused because of COVID-19, Westbrook shot over 52 percent from the floor and averaged 31.7 points.

Rockets GM Daryl Morey decided to go all-in on the Harden/Westbrook brand of small ball, jettisoning center Clint Capela and bringing in Robert Covington. Either the 6-foot-7 Covington or 6-foot-5 P.J. Tucker are tasked with defending opposing big men. We’ll see if that works in a playoff series.

For that style of play to have any chance of succeeding in the playoffs, Westbrook will have to hit the defensive glass like a monster and score as efficiently as he did later in the season. 

1. Al Horford 

There’s no sugarcoating the fact that Horford’s four-year contract for $97 million guaranteed looks like a mistake to this point. But the final three words of that previous sentence are the most important. 

To this point.

Yes, the on-court fit with Joel Embiid hasn’t worked. The Sixers have a negative net rating with Embiid and Horford on the floor together. But that doesn’t mean Horford can’t be valuable when the playoffs begin.

When he was with the Celtics, we saw firsthand how many winning plays Horford made in the playoffs. Maybe he can combine with Embiid and Ben Simmons to frustrate Antetokounmpo just enough to squeak by the Bucks in a series. Maybe he makes a couple of clutch three-point shots to win a key playoff game. 

Or maybe the playoffs show that Horford is simply a square peg in a round hole on this Sixers roster.

But if he has some big moments in a deep playoff run, the narrative of his time with the Sixers will be vastly different than it appears right now. If he plays well, maybe it’s easier to trade him if the front office doesn’t like the long-term fit. 

There’s no use coming to final conclusions on Horford’s time in Philadelphia just yet. 

It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.

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Sixers injury update: 'More explosive' Ben Simmons feeling healthy, stronger with added muscle

Sixers injury update: 'More explosive' Ben Simmons feeling healthy, stronger with added muscle

For months now, we’ve wondered if Ben Simmons would be healthy enough to play if the NBA season resumed. The Sixers for the most part have been consistent with saying the All-Star is healthy.

On a video conference call with reporters Thursday, Simmons put to rest any notion that the nerve impingement in his lower back would still be a problem in Disney World.

“I’m feeling even better than I was when I started the season,” Simmons said. “I’ve been working since I had the injury, working until now to be prepared for whatever happens, wherever we go. So I’m feeling great, been rehabbing this whole time, so I’ve been feeling ready and very comfortable.”

While the NBA stopping play amid the coronavirus pandemic wasn’t an ideal scenario, the silver lining for the Sixers is Simmons’ health. He basically got the equivalent of an offseason to not only rehab his injury, but also get stronger. 

If you follow Simmons on social media, you’ve likely seen images of him in the weight room. That wasn’t just a show. Simmons said he’s added “a lot more muscle” which was his focus during the time off.

Now, his back is fully recovered and he’s ready to go when the league resumes play.

“Overall, just more strength,” Simmons said when asked to put his muscle gain in context. “It’s hard to keep that size on during the season so this was kind of like a resetting point. I was able to get Pilates in almost every day. Lifting weights, taking care of my body and getting back to 100 percent. I’ve just been trying to go overboard with that and being prepared to be down there and play.”

Is he feeling more explosive?

More explosive, definitely, but just more control,” Simmons said. “I feel a lot more control when I’m out there on the floor and knowing what I’m capable of with my body. It just feels very good and overall, I just feel like I’m back to 100 percent. It’s just a good feeling.

Speaking of health, the Sixers are preparing to head down to Florida next Thursday and head into the NBA’s “bubble.” Since Phase 2 of the league’s health protocols began on June 23, 25 of the 351 players that have been tested were positive for COVID-19.

While there is apprehension and uncertainty surrounding the NBA’s return to play, Simmons is putting his trust in the league and players like LeBron James and Chris Paul to lead the way. Though Simmons respects other players' decisions for opting out, as long as his teammates were going, he was “all in.”

As for his role on the court once they get down there, some questions remain.

We’ve seen Brett Brown use Simmons more as a screener and roller this season. The results have been fruitful at times. Brown has said he will look to use Simmons more in that capacity in the playoffs, unlike last season when Simmons was relegated to the dunker spot.

Brown has lauded Simmons’ versatility and his young All-Star is on board for whatever role he’s assigned.

I think I’m the type of player who can be in multiple positions and different spots to help the team,” Simmons said. “I feel like I have a very high IQ on the court and see things a lot differently. I’m able to pass the ball very well, so that’s always a threat. But I love playing in that pick-and-roll, that situation — or pick-and-pop, whatever it is. It just gives us so many different options and it’s tough to guard.

Simmons has played some of the best basketball of his career this season, in part because of Brown being creative in the way he’s used the 6-foot-10 point guard. Unfortunately, that hasn’t translated as much to wins as the Sixers would like. After such lofty expectations to start the season, they find themselves as the Eastern Conference’s sixth seed.

While there may be doubters on the outside, Simmons knows what his team can do at its best.

“We’re not worried about what other people are saying,” Simmons said. “We’ve got to focus on ourselves and get ready to compete. We’ve beaten the best teams in the league so we’re ready to compete. We’re a young, healthy team right now so we’re looking forward to grabbing this opportunity and going all the way. We’re not going to go out there doubting ourselves. We know what we’re capable of.”

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