76ers

Sixers 127, Bulls 108: Markelle Fultz's 1st regular-season 3-pointer and Ben Simmons' triple-double headline win

Sixers 127, Bulls 108: Markelle Fultz's 1st regular-season 3-pointer and Ben Simmons' triple-double headline win

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When Markelle Fultz got the ball, it felt a little bit like the Flyers were on the power play — there was a chorus of “shoot!” from the Wells Fargo Center crowd. Two minutes into the game, despite the Bulls' Cameron Payne playing well off him, Fultz turned down a generous invitation at a wide-open three-pointer from the left corner and dribbled into traffic instead.

It wasn't what the crowd came to see, and it wasn't an encouraging sign for Fultz or the Sixers. To Fultz's credit, however, he didn't stop shooting.

The fans went wild when he made his first regular-season three-pointer early in the fourth quarter.

He finished with 12 points on 5 for 15 shooting after an extended fourth-quarter stint with the game out of Chicago's reach.

Fultz was the man in the spotlight Thursday night, but the Sixers' two dependable stars led the team to a home-opening win, 127-108. Here are some observations from the first victory of the season:

• Ben Simmons recorded his first of what will be many triple-doubles this season, posting 13 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists, and it almost doesn't feel worthy of more than a cursory note — that's how easy he makes it look. Outside of his reliable stat-sheet stuffing, Simmons' defense has been incredibly impressive. Brett Brown's preseason goal of Simmons making an All-Defensive team seems very attainable.

• Joel Embiid attempted only five free throws in the opener against the Celtics. That’s not going to happen very often this season. Embiid was his usual dominant self in the low post against the Bulls and rookie Wendell Carter Jr., posting 30 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks. He made 12 of his 14 free throws. 

• The Sixers' best five is still clearly last season's starting lineup. The 18-0 run that group went on early in the third quarter turned a surprisingly close game into the blowout most expected.

• Bobby Portis and Zach LaVine were on fire early for the Bulls. The two combined for 28 points on 11 for 12 shooting in the first quarter, as the Bulls posted 41 points in the period. The Sixers didn’t allow 40 or more points in a first quarter all of last season. 

• Brown’s usage of Fultz against the Bulls was much closer to the plan he outlined at the beginning of the season, with the emphasis on getting Fultz as many minutes as possible at the point. Brown mostly either played Fultz when Simmons sat or put Simmons at the four when Fultz was in the game. Fultz ran the point late in the first and early in the second quarter for an intriguing lineup with shooters JJ Redick and Landry Shamet on the wings. 

• Brown told reporters pregame he expects to be without new acquisitions Wilson Chandler and Mike Muscala “for a while.” Chandler is out with a hamstring strain suffered in the Sixers’ first preseason game, while Muscala is sidelined with an ankle sprain. 

Those absences have opened up a spot for the rookie Shamet, who played well against the Bulls after scoring just one point in 12 minutes in his NBA debut. Shamet had 12 points on 4 of 7 shooting from three-point range on Thursday.

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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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