76ers

Sixers 121, Pelicans 120: Joel Embiid dominates duel with Anthony Davis, Sixers hold on late

Sixers 121, Pelicans 120: Joel Embiid dominates duel with Anthony Davis, Sixers hold on late

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Unlike the Sixers, the New Orleans Pelicans have just one star — Anthony Davis. Their chances of winning aren’t very high when he scores only 12 points, a season low, and turns it over six times, a season high.

Despite a late comeback by New Orleans, the Sixers held on to win Wednesday night at the Wells Fargo Center, 121-120. The Sixers led by as many as 16 points in the fourth quarter. Joel Embiid fouled Davis on a three-point attempt with 2.5 seconds left. Davis made his first two free throws and missed the third.

Embiid scored 31 points, grabbed 19 rebounds and made life difficult for Davis, while Ben Simmons had 22 points. The Sixers are 13-7 on the season, 10-0 at home.

• About 30 minutes before tip-off, more news broke about Markelle Fultz, and not the kind the Sixers wanted to have to handle.

According to a report by The Athletic, Fultz has been dealing with a wrist issue in addition to his previously diagnosed shoulder injury. Fultz reportedly would “prefer a fresh start with a new team," (see story).

Head coach Brett Brown said that Fultz participated in the Sixers’ light walkthrough before the game. Fultz was on the Sixers’ bench in street clothes.

Fultz’s agent Raymond Brothers responded to the report, telling ESPN his focus is on getting his client healthy and that he has not indicated that Fultz would like to be traded.

There’s been plenty of drama surrounding Fultz in his year-plus with the Sixers, and it looks like we’re nowhere near the end of it. 

• We only got to see the much-anticipated Embiid vs. Davis on one end of the floor. While Embiid guarded Davis, Nikola Mirotic defended the Sixers’ big man, with Davis guarding Simmons and roving in the middle.

Embiid had his way with Mirotic early. He drained a smooth fadeaway jumper over Mirotic at the first-quarter buzzer, giving him 15 points and the Sixers a 38-23 advantage. 

Davis had just two first-quarter points. He reached 10,000 career points in the second quarter, becoming the eighth-youngest player to reach that milestone. 

• Given the Sixers’ recent history of blowing big leads, it’s a positive that they didn’t immediately squander their 15-point first-quarter advantage. The Pelicans went on a 19-7 run at the start of the second quarter, but the Sixers recovered before completely relinquishing the lead. Simmons’ aggression attacking the rim in his second stint was key; with the Pelicans making a run, he wasn’t going to allow the Sixers to settle for mediocre shots.

However, letting New Orleans back into it again in the fourth period is obviously concerning.

• As usual, T.J. McConnell received loud cheers from the Wells Fargo Center crowd when he checked into the game. The noise rose to another level when he knocked down a three-pointer with one minute left in the first quarter, his first long-range make of the season.

McConnell had three points and an assist in 17 minutes. Given the situation with Fultz, he’s the Sixers’ backup point guard for the foreseeable future.

• Moving forward, the Sixers will likely start to use Jimmy Butler’s ability in isolation more. We saw a new play in the second quarter, as the Sixers got the ball to Butler in the mid-post and cleared out the entire left side of the floor. Butler nailed a turnaround jumper over Jrue Holiday. 

Butler had an off night, scoring 13 points on 5 for 16 shooting. 

• Landry Shamet’s skill at drawing fouls on jumpers is well beyond his years. He did it again in the third quarter Wednesday night, exploiting an out-of-control closeout by Davis and making all three free throws. 

Shamet posted a career-high 15 points on 4 for 6 shooting.

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2020 NBA playoffs: Looking at where Sixers sit in Eastern Conference picture

2020 NBA playoffs: Looking at where Sixers sit in Eastern Conference picture

Though they’re calling “seeding games,” the Sixers’ primary concern in the contests leading up to the playoffs is not seeding.

“How do you go into the playoffs … how can you go into that date feeling like we’re the best we can be?” Brett Brown said on July 12. “Worrying too much about moving up because you could play this team or avoid that team, I stay away from that.” 

Through three games at Disney World, Brown wishes the Sixers were playing at a higher level. The team has gone 2-1, but that record includes a fourth quarter in which the Sixers allowed the Pacers to score 46 points, a game-saving shot from Shake Milton vs. the Spurs and a win over the 24-44 Wizards that was tight until the end. Ben Simmons exited Wednesday’s game against Washington early with a left knee injury

It’s been slower coming than I would’ve thought,” Brown said Wednesday. “I liked our practices, I thought … the preseason games you saw at times a dominant defense. We’ve started these three games, I think, very inconsistently. I think we do some good things offensively, defensively, and then you see head-scratching stuff. It hasn’t gone as quickly as I had hoped. But I see where I think it can end. 

“We’re still figuring out some things with how we’re playing the team and Shake (Milton) coming in and so on. But I think, for the most part, we’re trending in the right direction, just not as quickly as I wished.

Here's where the Sixers sit in the Eastern Conference: 

3. Boston Celtics 45-23 GB: 9 
4. Miami Heat 43-25 GB: 11
5. Indiana Pacers 42-26 GB: 12
6. Sixers 41-27 GB: 13 

Boston technically still has a chance to surpass the Raptors for the No. 2 seed and the Sixers aren’t eliminated from contention for the No. 3 seed, but both outcomes are very improbable. Kemba Walker sat out the latter half of a back-to-back Wednesday, a 149-115 Celtics win over the Nets, as the All-Star guard works through a left knee issue. After playing Toronto on Friday night, the Celtics will face Orlando, Memphis and Washington.

The current No. 4 and No. 5 seeds play each other twice in the remaining seeding games, which should be interesting. The Heat’s other opponents are the Bucks, Suns and Thunder, while the Pacers’ are the Suns, Lakers and Rockets. Before the NBA’s hiatus, Miami was 2-0 against Indiana. In case you were curious, T.J. Warren hasn’t dropped off much after his 53-point performance vs. the Sixers. He leads all scorers at Disney World with 39.7 points per game. 

Despite having the sixth-easiest strength of schedule, the Sixers don’t have great odds of rising. Basketball Reference’s Playoff Probabilities Report gives them a 72.8 percent chance at the No. 6 seed, 23.0 percent at No. 5 and just 4.1 percent at No. 4. Those probabilities are intuitive when you consider the Sixers have lost their season series vs. the Heat and Pacers. 

The Celtics are the Sixers’ most likely first-round opponent at the moment by a good margin, which would potentially leave the Sixers a path of Boston-Toronto-Milwaukee. One could make the argument that such a road is best for the Sixers, since the team won its season series over Boston, 3-1, and wouldn’t have to face the top-seeded Bucks until the Eastern Conference Finals, but nothing’s going to be easy for a No. 6 seed. 

We analyzed the Celtics, Heat and Pacers as possible first-round opponents for the Sixers here

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Sixers injury update: Ben Simmons reportedly had clean MRI on left knee

Sixers injury update: Ben Simmons reportedly had clean MRI on left knee

When Ben Simmons flexed his left leg after lobbing a pass for Al Horford and immediately headed off the floor Wednesday during the Sixers’ win over the Wizards, it was logical to be concerned. But, according to a report, Simmons’ knee injury is not as severe as one might have feared watching him walk toward the locker room. 

An MRI on Simmons’ knee was clean and he’s expected to be day-to-day, per Shams Charania of The Athletic and Stadium. It's worth noting this is not an official update from the Sixers, who Brett Brown said postgame he expected to issue an announcement soon about Simmons' status. 

The 24-year-old recovered from a nerve impingement in his lower back over the NBA’s hiatus, and he felt strong and explosive heading into the league’s restart. He’s now serving as the Sixers’ starting point forward, an adjustment Brown thinks he’s approached well.

“I do feel like Ben has been amazing,” Brown said before Wednesday’s game, “in regards to just being mature on ‘Put me wherever you think I can best help the team.’ At times maybe he hasn’t gotten a touch the way he needs to get a touch, sometimes — which was easier when he was always the primary ball carrier. And so I applaud him tremendously on being a great teammate, trying to accept a new type of ecosystem that we’re trying to use him in.”

Simmons looked for his shot often in Wednesday’s game, though with little success. He missed an open corner three-pointer in the first quarter, his first legitimate regular-season try from long distance since Dec. 7, and made 2 of 10 field goals overall in 23 minutes. 

If Simmons misses any games, Brown will have a few options for reshuffling his starting lineup. There’s a case to be made for just about every member of the current rotation, which Brown cut down to nine players on Wednesday. Al Horford could slide into the frontcourt if Brown wants to work on the Horford-Joel Embiid pairing, which has a plus-15.6 net rating in 40 minutes together at Disney World after being the Sixers’ worst regular duo pre-hiatus.

Matisse Thybulle, Furkan Korkmaz and Glenn Robinson III have all started games this year, though Robinson is dealing with an injury himself, having missed the team's first three seeding games with a left hip pointer. Perhaps Brown could go with Alec Burks if he’s looking for an extra ball handler and more time to evaluate his potential backup point guard in the playoffs.

The main takeaway here, however, is not the potential ripple effects on the Sixers' seeding game rotation. Rather, it's that a player the team will surely need to have available in order to make a deep playoff run reportedly has avoided a serious injury.

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