76ers

Sixers 130, Bucks 125: Sixers take down NBA-best Bucks, clinch playoff spot

Sixers 130, Bucks 125: Sixers take down NBA-best Bucks, clinch playoff spot

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As far as beating elite teams goes, it doesn't get much better than beating the team with the best record in the NBA.

The Sixers recorded their most impressive win of the season, beating the Bucks, 130-125, at Fiserv Forum on national TV Sunday afternoon.

There's been a lot made of the Sixers' inability to beat the Eastern Conference's best, but in just the seventh game with their new-look starting five, they put the league on notice.

The win not only improves the Sixers to 45-25, but with the Hornets' loss to the Heat, it clinches a playoff spot. More importantly, the victory keeps them in the driver's seat for the East's third seed.

Here are observations from the huge win:

• Well, this was certainly an interesting strategy by Brett Brown. Brown had Joel Embiid cover MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo — and Embiid did all he could. Embiid just gave the Greek Freak a ton of space, daring him to take threes. It worked better in the first half, but Antetokounmpo still scored a career-high 52 points and hit 3 of 8 from three. Still, it’s how you should play him. He’s going to get his. He's really freaking good.

Playing this way forces the Bucks’ role players to step up — which they can do — but it’s wise to let them bomb threes rather than allowing Antetokounmpo to do his thing driving to the basket.

Give Brown credit. It was an outside-the-box approach and it worked well early. Again, you're only going to keep a player like Antetokounmpo contained for so long, though I thought Brown got away from the strategy too often in the second half.

• While Brown appears to have found the personnel for his rotation, he’s still sorting who to play with who.

We got another look at the Embiid-Ben Simmons pairing and the Jimmy Butler-Tobias Harris pairing. The Simmons-Embiid-led unit has taken its lumps, while Butler and Harris played with the bench trio of Boban Marjanovic, Mike Scott and T.J. McConnell.

• There were a few undisciplined moments that were concerning when you’re going up against a team with the best record in the NBA.

The Sixers played a tremendous first quarter, but it ended on a sour note. With just a second remaining, Antetokounmpo grabbed a defensive rebound and pushed the ball to half court for a desperation heave. For some insane reason, McConnell reached in and fouled him. You don’t foul anyone taking a heave, let alone a guy who’s not a great outside shooter.

Most of the eight turnovers in the first half were of the unforced variety. It’s something the team needs to be more cognizant of in general, but especially against a team the caliber of the Bucks. They did a better job with just five turnovers after halftime.

• While Embiid likely has no chance at MVP, this was yet another game that demonstrated how valuable he is to the Sixers. How many seven-foot centers would you trust to put on a player like Antetokounmpo? Probably none other than Embiid.

He got off to a slow start offensively and settled for way too many threes, going 4 of 13 — he did, however, hit an enormous three with under a minute to go. When he put the ball on the floor, he found more success. There was one play in which he crossed up Antetokounmpo and had a beautiful finish on a floater along the baseline.

Again, the chances of him winning the MVP are slim, but he put on a show against one of the favorites for the award on national TV. He finished with 40 points (15 of 31), 15 rebounds and six assists. He also added three steals and a block.

• JJ Redick was sensational. He broke a Sixers franchise record with his 198th made three in the first half. There really wasn’t much Milwaukee could do. It was just one of those games where Redick was hitting everything — threes off screens, pull-up mid-range jumpers, off-balance shots of all kinds.

He poured in 19 points on 7 of 10 and a perfect 4 of 4 from three and was a thorn in the Bucks’ side all day. It's clear his post-All-Star break slump is well behind him.

• Simmons struggled to score with Antetokounmpo on him, but was efficient, going 4 of 8 for eight points.

He did have this ridiculous dunk on Brook Lopez though.

Simmons was OK overall (nine rebounds, nine assists), but Simmons struggling to score against good defensive teams continues to be an issue. He still provides strong defense and you have to hope the Sixers' abundance of firepower will help mitigate that.

• It appears we can put the "Jimmy Butler defers too much" narrative to rest for now. Butler took plenty of shots, going 8 of 16 for 27 points. He wasn't spectacular offensively early, but Butler the closer was huge down the stretch.

Defensively, this was the second game in a row he was a difference maker, getting three steals, but more importantly his activity level was high and he's looked better and better as an on-the-ball defender.

• Harris was quiet in this one, going just 4 of 7 for 12 points, but let's not start a "Tobias Harris defers too much" narrative. The beauty of the Sixers' new starting five is the unselfishness of the group. They all know Embiid is their best player so naturally he's going to put up a ton of shots. But on Sunday, Redick had it going so the other three starters played a lesser role. This is the way it's going to be when you have this much offensive talent. It's a wonderful problem to have.

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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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