76ers

Sixers 120, Pacers 96: Sixers kick off brutal stretch with arguably best win of season

Sixers 120, Pacers 96: Sixers kick off brutal stretch with arguably best win of season

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The Sixers kicked off a tough upcoming stretch with arguably their most impressive win of the season.

They took down the Pacers, 120-96, Thursday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

Indiana has been one of the hottest teams in the league, winning nine of their last 11. The Sixers were able to capture a win in the first game of a brutal 12-game stretch.

Here are observations from the win.

• The Sixers have moved the ball extremely well over their last two games. After collecting 40 assists on 55 made field goals on their way to waxing the Timberwolves Tuesday, they recorded 38 assists on 46 field goals against the Pacers, a team that came in with the third-best defensive rating in the NBA. The Sixers have the look of a team that's starting to click offensively.

They also held Indiana, the second-best shooting team in the NBA at 48.3 percent, to just 40 percent.

• Brett Brown has said on more than one occasion he’d like Jimmy Butler to be more assertive. On Thursday, Butler certainly was. He abused Bojan Bogdanovich — who’s out there for his offense — every chance he got.

What stood out in the first half was Butler’s movement without the basketball. On more than one occasion he was able to make a sharp cut to the basket for an easy bucket.

Butler was his usual active self on the defensive end. What’s most impressive is his recovery speed when he tries to cheat for a steal or deny his man the ball. It’s part of what makes him elite on that end of the floor. 

He finished with 27 points on 10 of 17 from the field. He also had eight assists with zero turnovers. You could make the case this was his best game as a Sixer.

• Joel Embiid, who was a game-time decision with a back issue, was clearly in discomfort. He was noticeably grimacing on the floor and trying to stretch on the sideline. 

With that said, the All-Star center gutted it out on both ends of the floor. He recored his league-leading 38th double-double with 22 points and 13 rebounds. He came up just two assists shy of a triple-double and had three blocks. 

• Simmons has been phenomenal lately, but we didn’t see the same aggressive player he’s been since the calendar turned to 2019. Simmons has done an excellent job recently of being aggressive and looking for his shot early.

In this one he took just two shots in the first half. He seemed to fall back into the trend of getting into the paint without a plan which generally has led to turnovers. He committed five in the first half. Simmons is so much better when he goes to the rim looking to score first and pass second. His indecisiveness has hurt him. He did commit just one turnover in the second half and still finished with 11 points, eight rebounds and eight assists.

To Simmons’ credit, he didn’t let his early offensive struggles affect him on the other end. He was charged with guarding the dangerous Victor Oladipo and held the All-Star guard to just 15 points.

• Jonah Bolden has been a revelation off the Sixers’ bench. Sure, he only played 12 minutes tonight, but his impact on the defensive end has been huge. His length, athleticism, quick feet and ability to protect the rim have been a big addition off the bench. Bryan Colangelo’s tenure as Sixers GM didn’t go well, but he may have hit on this second-round pick.

• It’s amazing what Bolden’s emergence and Wilson Chandler’s reemergence (10 points) has done to improve the team’s bench and somewhat solidify the team’s rotation. Using Bolden as the backup five allows Mike Muscala (11 points) to play more four and Chandler to play more three. Both players seem more comfortable at those positions.

This team likely isn’t a finished product as we approach the Feb. 7 deadline, but it appears Brett Brown has finally found a rotation he feels comfortable with.

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Zhaire Smith practices with Sixers 6 months after surgery for Jones fracture

Zhaire Smith practices with Sixers 6 months after surgery for Jones fracture

There were a couple odd sights at Sixers’ practice Wednesday.

First, there was Jimmy Butler sporting Zhaire Smith’s practice jersey. Then there was Smith himself, present and accounted for, at the Sixers’ practice facility in Camden.

“Oh, s---. I forgot I had this mother f----- on,” Butler said when asked why he was wearing Smith’s jersey. “I just wanted to be the better Zhaire today. I felt like I gave him the business today in practice.”

Smith surely would’ve given anything to have an NBA All-Star give him "the business" a few months ago.

It’s been a weird journey in his first pro season. Though this organization’s definition of weird — especially with injuries to first-round picks — differs greatly from other teams, Smith went through a lot.

After being drafted 16th overall by the Suns out of Texas Tech, Smith was part of a swap that sent Philly native and Villanova product Mikal Bridges — whose mom works for the Sixers — to Phoenix and brought Smith to Philadelphia. After a fairly uneventful but productive summer league stint, Smith went to work preparing for Sixers training camp.

Unfortunately, Smith then suffered a Jones fracture in his left foot on Aug. 6 during a development camp in Las Vegas and had successful surgery on Aug. 10 in New York City.

Smith then underwent a successful thoracoscopy on Sept. 27 to address an issue from an allergic reaction to a food product. Because of all this, Smith’s physical condition deteriorated. He lost weight and needed to regain his strength and conditioning.

But give Smith credit. He’s been working out with the Sixers’ G-League affiliate in Delaware, trying to get back on the court. Make no mistake, Wednesday’s practice was a big step.

“He’s handling it well,” Butler said. “Every time I see him he’s in here working on his game as much as he can, in the weight room trying to get stronger or doing the rehab he’s supposed to be doing.”

Lost in all of the craziness is that Smith seems like a legitimate prospect that could’ve helped the Sixers this season. His athleticism and ability to play tough defense on the ball would’ve been welcomed additions to the Sixers’ bench — especially prior to the trade deadline.

Alas, Smith didn’t get the opportunity to shine, and with just 24 games left in the regular season, it’s hard to imagine he’ll be able to play in an NBA game this season.

But still, he’s just 19 years old and could become a player for the Sixers yet. 

“It was great to see him,” Brett Brown said. “You’re reminded how of how athletic he is. He had a bounce today. It was just good to have him included with his teammates.”

Enough bounce to play a game this season?

“I don’t know," Brown said. "It wasn’t my expectation and still really isn’t, but I think to see him move around with his teammates, from a human standpoint, was pretty cool.”

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Joel Embiid's injury a blow, but lofty goals remain when he returns

Joel Embiid's injury a blow, but lofty goals remain when he returns

The news of a Joel Embiid injury is not what Sixers fans wanted coming out of the All-Star break.

While the All-Star center’s left knee soreness may seem alarming, his head coach downplayed it at the team’s practice facility Wednesday, referring to it as tendinitis (see story).

Brett Brown mentioned that Embiid had been dealing with a knee issue “for a few weeks” and that his playing in the All-Star game did not affect the injury.

“It’s a natural dot connector and it shouldn’t be to think that had anything to do with it,” Brown said at the team’s practice facility. “The bottom line is nobody needs to read into anything here. This is an NBA athlete that has some soreness in a knee, he’s had an MRI and we all should move on. 

“We’ll miss him obviously, playing wise, but it’s not anything that isn’t completely pointed toward keeping him ready and especially ready when it matters most at the end of the year.”

But with Embiid being out for at least a week, Brown and company have to move on without him.

What that initially means is more minutes for fan favorite Boban Marjanovic. Marjanovic certainly brings something to the table with his massive frame, efficient play around the basket and his abilities to screen and roll. Defense will be the issue when he’s asked to cover more fleet-footed fives.

That’s where rookie Jonah Bolden could come in. Bolden lost the backup center role through no fault of his own. He’d been playing well, providing rim protection with quick feet on defense and also hitting the occasional three. 

“You’d think Jonah’s got a chance to reclaim some of his court time that he had prior to the trade,” Brown said. “That is in my mindset, I had him on my second team today. It’ll be good to see him again.”

Other than missing a MVP-caliber player, the biggest disappointment is that the Sixers won’t get to further develop the chemistry of their new starting five. With the playoffs looming, getting that unit to play at its peak is more important than wins and losses.

There are loftier goals that lie ahead of the next last 24 regular season games.

“I’ve been on different teams where the goal is to get into the playoffs,” Tobias Harris said. “Here the goal is to win in the playoffs and to win big. I think we’d be doing ourselves a disservice if we just said, 'Let’s get out of the first round.' We’re trying to go for a championship here.”

It’ll be up to Harris and the other starters to carry more of that scoring load in Embiid’s absence. The player that may bear more of that burden is Jimmy Butler.

Butler can score on all three levels and create his own shot better than any player on the Sixers with Embiid out. Butler put up back-to-back 38-point performances back in early December. One of those games was with Embiid struggling mightily in Toronto and the other was with Embiid sidelined in Detroit.

While he won’t alter his approach with Embiid out, he knows what’s at stake in general.

“I’m going about it the same way,” Butler said. “It’s time to pick it up a little bit. This is the final stretch. I’m ready, man. My mind, my body. I’m relaxed, calm and collected, ready to win some games.”

Once Embiid's body is ready, the Sixers will look to take another step toward their championship goals.

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