76ers

Sixers 112, Raptors 101: Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons back Jimmy Butler to force Game 7

Sixers 112, Raptors 101: Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons back Jimmy Butler to force Game 7

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Two days after enduring the second-worst playoff loss in franchise history, the Sixers ensured that the two sweetest words in sports apply to their second-round playoff series against the Raptors: Game 7.

The Sixers beat the Raptors on Thursday night in Game 6 at Wells Fargo Center, 112-101, in a game they led by as many as 24 points. Game 7 will be Sunday in Toronto.

Here are observations on Game 6:

• Carving out space for rebounds, shrugging off defenders to navigate over screens, bodying up when an opponent tries to post him up — just about everything Jimmy Butler does is physically imposing.

Butler made a series of excellent plays late in the second quarter. He followed his own miss, leaping high for a contested rebound, then tossed it in from about eight feet away as he was falling to the ground with Kyle Lowry draped all over him; he scored inside on Patrick McCaw; and he snatched a steal and laid it in with 0.4 seconds left, giving him 19 first-half points and the Sixers a 15-point lead.

It was the performance of a man who seemed to be either disgusted by the possibility of the Sixers’ season ending by blowing a 19-point first-half lead or who simply wouldn’t consider it.

• Brett Brown promised on a conference call Wednesday that we’d see a more aggressive Ben Simmons in Game 6. Passive, ineffective and generally inconsequential to the Sixers’ offense for most of this series, Simmons delivered on his coach’s expectations (see story).

Playing without his usual arm sleeve, Simmons still did not attempt any jump shots. He did, however, have a stellar performance, resembling the Simmons we saw in the regular season and first round of the playoffs. He was much more eager to push the ball in transition than he’d been throughout this series.

Simmons’ decision-making was also sensible when Toronto stopped him in his tracks. He had 21 points, eight rebounds, six assists and no turnovers.

The assignment against Kawhi Leonard remains a daunting challenge, but Simmons again did well to limit the Raptors’ star. By the very high standards he’s set in this series, Leonard had his second straight off game, with 29 points on 9 for 20 shooting, 12 rebounds, five assists and four turnovers.  

Like this Sixers team, Simmons has obvious flaws, is unpredictable and is sensational when he’s at his best (see story).

• Boban Marjanovic came into the Sixers’ rotation in the first half. While you can understand Brown wanting to try something different, Marjanovic simply didn’t have the foot speed to be anything besides a defensive liability, and the Sixers were unable to find him offensively — he was called for traveling on the one non-garbage time occasion when he had the ball in good position near the rim.

Toronto cut the Sixers’ lead down to seven points with Marjanovic in the game in the second quarter, forcing Brown to call a timeout and reinsert Embiid.

It was a hopeful move by Brown that backfired, motivated by the Sixers’ lack of dependable backup centers and his search for solutions with the season on the line. He turned to Mike Scott as a small-ball center to spell Embiid for less than a minute in the second half before realizing he needed a rim protector and putting Embiid back into the game in place of Tobias Harris.

• As you might guess by their struggles to stay afloat when Embiid went to the bench, and by the fact that they won by 11 points, the Sixers crushed the Raptors when Embiid was on the court. In fact, Embiid was an unfathomable plus-40.

Embiid wasn’t dominant offensively — he had 17 points, 14 after halftime — but his defensive impact is massive. The Raptors were happy to drive to the rim when Embiid was off the floor and very reluctant to do so when he was looming in the paint.

With 4:47 left in the game, Embiid was called for a Flagrant 1 foul for a “hostile act” — he hit Marc Gasol in the face as the two were boxing out on a free throw, and Gasol sold the contact. The play is significant because Embiid now has three flagrant-foul points in the playoffs and would receive a one-game suspension if he picks up four.

• The Sixers’ defense as a whole was very good, and they helped themselves by cutting down on the live-ball turnovers that created transition opportunities for the Raptors in Game 5. They held Toronto to nine fast-break points.

• A player with a plus-minus almost as mind-boggling as Embiid’s was Scott. He was a plus-29 in 20 minutes and had 11 points on 4 for 5 shooting.

Scott doesn’t look hampered by the plantar fasciitis and heel contusion that caused him to miss the first two games of the series. In James Ennis and Scott, Brown knows he has two bench players he can trust.

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Can Elton Brand and the Sixers fix what went wrong with roster construction?

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USA Today Images/Bill Streicher

Can Elton Brand and the Sixers fix what went wrong with roster construction?

The Sixers had so many options heading into free agency last July.

We don’t know yet exactly when free agency will begin this year because of the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic and the suspended NBA season. Whenever it does happen, though, the Sixers won’t have as many possibilities. 

The decisions to give Tobias Harris a five-year, $180 million contract and guarantee Al Horford $97 million over four years are the two clear, primary reasons the Sixers won’t be in an especially flexible position. In Year 1, those moves haven’t panned out as GM Elton Brand and the front office would have hoped.

In one major way, Horford has actually provided what the Sixers expected. As a backup center, he’s been quite good — the Sixers have a plus-5.2 net rating when Horford is on the floor and Joel Embiid is off it. He’s been much better than a hodgepodge of Amir Johnson, Boban Marjanovic, Greg Monroe and Jonah Bolden. 

However, many of the reasonable concerns that came with signing Horford have come to fruition. The Horford-Embiid pairing has the worst net rating of any two-man Sixers lineup that’s played at least 500 minutes together. If you want an idea of just how poor the offense has been when the two have shared the floor, consider this: Their 100.6 offensive rating together is almost six points worse than any of the Sixers’ two-man pairings last season (minimum 500 minutes). 

Though Brett Brown was talking about aiming to further develop Horford and Embiid together as recently as the day before the season was suspended, that combination is a problem. It’s not what the Sixers would have planned when they signed Horford, but the decision to move him out of the starting lineup in February was very sensible.

Horford has shot more three-pointers than ever in his career, but not at an efficient rate (33.7 percent, his worst mark since the 2014-15 season). We thought he’d likely decline in the later years of his contract and be costing the Sixers money at 35 or 36 years old. To put it bluntly, he’s cost the Sixers money in his first season, and has not fit well. 

Harris, in his ninth NBA season, has improved defensively, is second on the Sixers in scoring (19.4 points per game) and, after an 0-for-23 nightmare of a stretch, has shot 39.1 percent from three-point range. He’s the only Sixer to have played in every game, and younger players like Matisse Thybulle and Marial Shayok have praised his mentorship. All of that matters and is positive, but Harris has not been worth $32.7 million this season.

The main question now — outside of when basketball will return, of course — is whether the Sixers can repair their mistakes.

Is there a team out there that would be willing to take on Horford’s contract and give up any value in return? The Kings, who reportedly were expected to make a “massive offer” to Horford in free agency, are one team it would make sense to engage. Sharpshooter Buddy Hield would presumably be the name of interest.

Trading away Harris looks much less likely, although we’ve learned not to rule anything out during Brand’s brief tenure. It’s difficult to imagine the Sixers receiving a worthwhile return, and Brown and Brand have often portrayed Harris as being an emerging player. They believe he’s going to get more and more comfortable and effective as a primary scoring option.

Josh Richardson, who’s suffered a variety of injuries in his first year a Sixer, is on a team-friendly deal. He shouldn’t be untouchable, but his perimeter defense and shot creation are important for this team, and they come at a good value.

Ben Simmons and Embiid are not what’s wrong with the Sixers and should not be traded at this stage. The pieces around them are the issues. Of course, judgement of whether those are issues the Sixers can overcome is incomplete. We don’t know yet how this roster would fare in the playoffs, and Brand has insisted his team was built with the postseason in mind. 

The Sixers would currently have a first-round pick in the draft — the top-20 protected Oklahoma City Thunder pick they acquired in the Markelle Fultz trade would convey — and that’s one of the ways they should be able to improve their roster. They’ve hit on Landry Shamet, Shake Milton and Thybulle in the draft over the last couple of years. With how Brand has constructed the team, targeting a perimeter player who can shoot, capably create his own shot or do both would appear an obvious priority.

Fundamentally, nobody envisioned this NBA season unfolding the way it has. Whatever is next and whenever the offseason eventually begins, the Sixers will have to discern the best methods to address the unpleasant surprises of this season. 



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Matisse Thybulle is a much better defender in real life than in NBA2K

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Matisse Thybulle is a much better defender in real life than in NBA2K

Matisse Thybulle is known for his defense in real life. In NBA2K, that is definitely not the case.

With the NBA season suspended because of the coronavirus outbreak, Thybulle and the Suns’ Mikal Bridges played each other in 2K on Friday night and streamed the action on Twitch.

Though Thybulle gave Bridges a little bit of a scare with a big third quarter, the virtual Suns beat the virtual Sixers, 75-64. 

While the intensity obviously didn’t compare to a typical game night at Wells Fargo Center, both Thybulle and Bridges — a Villanova product and a Sixer for about 20 minutes before a draft-night trade two years ago — were very into it.

Thyulle decided to sub himself into the game after just 28 seconds, and Bridges did the same 30 seconds later. 

“Which one’s shoot again?,” he asked. “Square?” 

As his team fell behind, Thybulle had some stern words for his players.

“Al, you’re better than that,” he said when Al Horford bit on a pump fake. “You’ve been in the league too long to be making those mistakes.” 

When Ben Simmons had a floater blocked, Thybulle wasn’t thrilled. 

“Ben, you’re 7-foot,” he said. “Just dunk it.” 

And a Mike Scott lay-up early in the third wasn’t what Thybulle was hoping to see. 

At one point, he tried begging for mercy from Bridges.

“Stop running pick-and-roll, I don’t know how to guard it,” he said. “Please. Come on, man.” 

Unfortunately for Thybulle, Bridges did not stop and the rookie left with a loss, albeit an entertaining one.

“I apologize to the Sixers, to my family, my friends, the people of Philadelphia,” he said. “This is not acceptable.” 

After personally finishing with no points on 0 for 3 shooting, Thybulle promised he'll be practicing.



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