76ers

Sixers 108, Thunder 104: Tobias Harris, Jimmy Butler star as Sixers finally beat Thunder

Sixers 108, Thunder 104: Tobias Harris, Jimmy Butler star as Sixers finally beat Thunder

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By day, Philadelphia was overcome by Bryce Harper hysteria, but it was the Sixers' two newly-acquired stars that shined by night.

Tobias Harris and Jimmy Butler led the way as the Sixers snapped a 19-game losing streak to the Oklahoma City Thunder in a 108-104 win at Chesapeake Energy Arena.

The last time the Sixers beat the Thunder was Nov. 15, 2008, a game that featured GM Elton Brand in the starting lineup.

All-Stars Joel Embiid (knee) and Paul George (shoulder) were both out Thursday night.

The victory brings the Sixers to 40-22 on the season.

Here are observations from the win:

• The Sixers’ ball movement was extraordinary at times. The unselfish brand of basketball they're playing is leading to some pretty buckets.

They had 13 assists on 16 makes in the first quarter and 21 on 25 in the first half. To the Thunder's credit, they turned up the defense in the third, going on a 16-4 run late in the period to get them within two and eventually tie the game in the fourth. The Sixers held on and still finished with 33 assists on 42 made field goals. Impressive against a strong defensive basketball team in OKC.

• Before the Phillies got Harper, the Sixers landed Harris. Sometimes you don’t realize how good a player is until you get to watch him on a nightly basis. That is definitely the case for me with Harris. I knew he could play, but man, this guy is really freaking good.

He dropped a Sixers-high 32 points (11 of 19, 5 of 7 from three) after dropping 29 the other night in New Orleans. He hit some enormous buckets down the stretch. He also made two fanastic defensive plays at the rim late in the fourth quarter to help keep the Sixers in front. This was easily his best performance as a Sixer.

As mentioned many times, there is nothing flashy about his game. He can score on all three levels and do so at an elite level. He’s good with the ball. He’s good off the ball. His skills also fit in so well with Ben Simmons’ and Embiid’s. 

Brand pulled a master stroke with this trade and, like Matt Klentak with Harper, will likely look to lock up the 26-year-old for a long time this offseason.

• There’s been a lot of talk about Butler needing to take more shots. Sometimes, that may be the case, but perhaps Butler is fine just the way he is, playing efficient basketball and picking his spots to be aggressive.

Butler isn’t Allen Iverson. He’s not the type of player that needs to jack up 30-plus shots in order to get his. It also looks like Butler has fully embraced the role of facilitator and initiator of the offense. He nearly recorded a triple-double with 20 points, eight rebounds and eight assists.

• Brett Brown has found something with the way he’s been using Simmons recently. Simmons is a doing a ton of damage in the post and that continued against the Thunder.

He was able to bully former Sixer Jerami Grant for an early bucket and consistently took the smaller Russell Westbrook into the weight room. He recorded his ninth triple-double this season with 11 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists.

Simmons also went with the exact same defensive strategy teams use on him against Westbrook. He sagged way off the All-Star guard and allowed him to take as many outside looks as he wanted. It seemed to work as Westbrook went just 8 of 24 for 23 points.

• Jonah Bolden got the start and turned in a solid performance Thursday. He tied a rookie career high with 14 points on 6 of 7 from the field and 2 of 3 from three. More importantly, he played solid defense and, even more importantly, he played disciplined basketball.

The rotational issue that is fair tonight is the decision to play Amir Johnson and not just see what you have in Justin Patton. 

Brown has an allegiance to Johnson and wants to reward the veteran for being a great teammate and continuing to be ready to play. But we all already know what Johnson is. Give the kid a chance and see if he can give you something. You can just as easily pull him out of the game if he looks overmatched.

• With no Embiid and Steven Adams being a beast on the glass, this seemed like a board battle the Sixers would lose, much like last Saturday against the Blazers. But the Sixers did a great job of team rebounding as each team finished with 44 rebounds. Adams had eight offensive boards, but nobody else on the Thunder had one.

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How will all the pieces fit? More ‘fair questions’ face Brett Brown, Sixers’ offense

How will all the pieces fit? More ‘fair questions’ face Brett Brown, Sixers’ offense

There are a good number of “Brett Brown-isms” — phrases distinct to the Sixers’ head coach or terms he’ll turn to often in talking with the media. Out of them all, “It’s a fair question” might best encapsulate the second half of the 2018-19 season.

Brown faced a lot of fair questions about Jimmy Butler’s role in the offense, his efforts to add more pick-and-roll and isolation, where Tobias Harris fit and much more.

Some games, it all made sense. Butler ran the show at the point with a heavy emphasis on ball screens, Ben Simmons did damage in transition and Joel Embiid was a weapon in the post. But often, the pieces didn’t quite work together. The half-court offense was nightmarish in the final few minutes of that devastating Game 7 in Toronto, when the shot clock seemed to always be ticking down the last couple of seconds.

Not as well as they should’ve,” Harris said Friday when asked whether all the pieces ever connected. “We had good little spurts of it, but they weren’t really consistent for us. I felt like we got out of it as much as we could’ve in that timeframe with the different types of games, different types of personalities or whatnot. We needed more time. We needed more time, we needed more cohesiveness. That’s something that we have now, so we have to really maximize that fully.

The Sixers do indeed have time now, with their new starting five all under contract through at least the next two seasons, and they have some different questions to answer.

“I look forward to training camp, figure all that out,” Elton Brand said Friday. “Defensively, of course that’s where we’re going to hang our hat. We should be one of the top defensive teams in the league, in my opinion. But we’ll figure out the spacing. We have a lot of versatility. Al Horford can space, Joel Embiid can space, Ben’s working on his game, Josh is a high-level scorer and Tobias is a high-level shooter and scorer also, so we’re looking forward to making that work in training camp. But it’s going to take some time. It should take some time.”

Brand is probably right that a lot of “figuring it out” will happen in training camp, when his new team will be together for the first time. Still, you’d think Brown and his staff have already started to think about offensive schemes and fit.

Simmons and Harris will likely spend more time with the ball in their hands as a byproduct of Butler’s departure. Harris had occasional opportunities to run late-game, middle pick-and-rolls, but those were mostly a Butler staple. Harris only averaged 3.7 fourth-quarter points per game in the regular season with the Sixers, 2.5 in the playoffs. And, in the rare moments when he was in the spotlight, his pick-and-roll partner was often Boban Marjanovic. Out of all the things that will likely “take some time,” Harris’ pick-and-roll chemistry with Embiid is among the most important. 

For Harris, it will also be key to prove his subpar three-point shooting numbers with the Sixers last season (32.6 percent in the regular season, 34.9 percent in the playoffs) were just a blip. Richardson shot a tick over league average from three at a high volume last year, while Horford should have no problem sliding into a stretch-four role. Embiid’s soft touch and good free throw shooting (80.4 percent in 2018-19) have not translated to efficiency from the outside. Simmons has yet to show — in a game setting — that he should be part of the conversation about the team’s three-point shooting. 

Some of the strategy for Brown won't be too difficult to figure out. His team is huge and has multiple post-up threats, so we should see the Sixers play more “inside-out,” with the offense revolving around Simmons, Embiid or Horford down low. Brown already has post offense principles and spacing in place that aim to play to Embiid and Simmons’ respective strengths (see film review). 

Many elements of the Sixers’ offense will be “organic,” another favorite Brown term. The Sixers should force more than the 12.7 turnovers per game they did last season — 27th in the NBA — and their transition offense should prosper as a result. Zhaire Smith and Matisse Thybulle are two young players who could make a unique impact in that area. 

Other questions for Brown and the Sixers will remain open well into the season. This time around, there’s much greater freedom to explore what does and doesn’t work, and much less pressure to hit on answers immediately.

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Sixers Talk: Ben Simmons not playing in the World Cup; Mike Scott living his best life

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Sixers Talk: Ben Simmons not playing in the World Cup; Mike Scott living his best life

Ben Simmons will not be playing for Team Australia in the World Cup while Mike Scott is living his best life on his 31st birthday. Danny Pommells and Paul Hudrick talk that and sneaky teams in the East on this edition of Sixers Talk.

Simmons is choosing to work on his game for the upcoming NBA season instead of playing in the FIBA World Cup. What are the pros and cons?

Scott and the hive are having a great time on Twitter. Plus, we found out that the Sixers' forward didn't do so hot in French class at UVA.

The Sixers and Bucks appear to be the two top teams in the East. Which team could sneak up on them?

That and more below on this edition of Sixers Talk.