76ers

Sixers 143, Lakers 120: Sixers crush Lakers behind explosive offense

Sixers 143, Lakers 120: Sixers crush Lakers behind explosive offense

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Two games in and the new-look Sixers are looking like a problem.

LeBron James may have been in the building, but it was the Sixers' stars who shined in a 143-120 win over the Lakers on Sunday at Wells Fargo Center.

The win improves the Sixers to 23-6 at home and 36-20 overall.

Joel Embiid returned to his dominant form, Tobias Harris looked more aggressive in his second game, and the team's starting five looked unstoppable at times.

Here are observations from the win.

• Brett Brown said again pregame that Embiid is still “the crown jewel” and the All-Star center reminded everyone of that in the national spotlight.

After struggling Friday night and being questionable again Saturday while dealing with a stomach bug, Embiid looked spry. There were at least two plays where the Lakers flat out forgot about Embiid — somehow — and it led to easy buckets. That seemed to help Embiid get going early as he had 25 points at the half.

On one play Kentavious Caldwell-Pope got switched on to the All-Star center. Embiid pulled a dream shake-like move and buried a fadeaway. It’s just unfair what this guy can do at over seven feet tall. There were a couple sequences where Embiid got a little overzealous bringing the ball up the floor, which led to turnovers or not great shots. It didn't make the possessions any less entertaining.

He finished with 37 points and 14 rebounds for his league-leading 46th double-double.

• What continues to stand out about Harris is his all-around game. Sure, his elite three-point shooting has already been a very welcomed addition to the Sixers, but he offers so much more. He’s able to pull the ball off the rim and bring it up court, similar to what Ben Simmons does.

The other aspect of his game that stood out early was his physicality around the rim. It’s not something that’s typical from him, but he certainly showed he could play a little bully ball when matched up on smaller players.

The only player that would’ve had any shot at containing Harris would’ve been LeBron James, but James was busy chasing Simmons around. Harris is just one more matchup nightmare for Sixers’ opponents.

Has made first six shots for 14 first-quarter points on his way to a 22-points, six-rebound and six-assist performance.

• There are certainly kinks that need to be worked out, but this starting five shows glimpses of being completely and utterly dominant. 

The ball movement at times is an absolute thing of beauty. If there were any issues with guys not getting enough touches or shots, you wouldn’t know it. The ball never seems to stick and all five guys are playing an unselfish brand of basketball. They also turned the ball over just seven times. If you’re a team that likes to switch, you better be able to do it one through five against these guys.

The versatility and length they now have on defense is scary. The communication is still an issue. On one possession, Simmons literally pushed Harris out to complete a switch. You can see defense is where the biggest growing pains are, not just with the starting five but with all of the new pieces.

• There have been concerns about Jimmy Butler and his place in the offense since he was traded here. With Harris’ arrival, that situation seemed like it was only going to get murkier, but that hasn’t really been the case.

If anything, Butler has been more aggressive, something Brown has said repeatedly he's wanted to see. After hitting 14 of 14 free throws vs. Denver, Butler didn't get to the line as often, but was definitely making a concerted effort to get to the rim, finishing with 15 points on an effecient 6 of 10 from the field in 30 minutes. Surely Harris' presence has helped loosen things up for him.

• I was wondering when I’d get to type this sentence for the first time: Ben Simmons took a three-pointer (see story).

Not a halfcourt heave at the end of a quarter, but a legitimate NBA three. He actually just missed it, as the ball rimmed out. This is a huge development if he continues to put them up. If he makes them, look out.

Overall, Simmons had a rough shooting day. Who knows if it was the matchup against his mentor James, but Simmons was aggressive early. He went just 2 of 9 from the field in the first half and 3 of 13 for the game. The good news is Simmons turned the ball over just two times after he did so nine times against Denver. He does tend to turn the ball over less when he’s decisive and looking for his own shot.

• Speaking of James, he was booed lustily on his first touch. It was his first appearance in Philadelphia as a Laker since he chose Los Angeles. His representatives met with the Sixers over the summer, but it didn't appear that James was ever seriously considering Philadelphia as his destination. He nearly netted a triple-double with 18 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists.

• Kyle Kuzma couldn’t miss early for the Lakers, making 4 of first 5 from three. One of several young players Los Angeles dangled to the Pelicans for Anthony Davis, Kuzma had one of this better games as a pro, pouring in 39 points on 14 of 21 overall.

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Markelle Fultz — and his mom — need to move on from Sixers, focus on Magic

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Markelle Fultz — and his mom — need to move on from Sixers, focus on Magic

Just when we all thought the Markelle Fultz-Sixers saga was over, another weird quote comes out.

Fultz was traded to the Magic ahead of last week’s trade deadline, but that hasn’t stopped Fultz and others from throwing veiled criticism at the Sixers.

This time it was Fultz’s mother, Ebony, who had an interesting comment about where her son came from and how much better his new situation is, per The Athletic’s Josh Robbins.

“I get a great vibe,” Ebony Fultz said. “It’s very refreshing to hear the positivity, the support that they have for (the players) and the fact that they’re constantly saying, ‘We want to do this the right way.’”

Wait … what?

Did Ebony meet Brett Brown? He may be the most positive and patient person in the world. This is a guy that won 10 games just a few years ago and was still effusive in his praise of his players. He managed to get a roster that was assembled to lose to play hard every night.

Brown also gave Fultz a starting spot at the beginning of the season — a spot that was unearned, with all due respect. Brown took JJ Redick out of the NBA’s No. 1 starting unit, one that helped the team win 52 games last season, to attempt to boost the confidence of the second-year guard.

The Sixers organization gave Fultz every opportunity to succeed. There was never a negative word that came out of their camp throughout Fultz’s injury issues and struggles. In fact, quite the opposite. 

Brown said this in November after the team was blindsided by news that Fultz would be seeking outside medical opinions per his agent’s advice:

“This news about his shoulder, it did catch me off guard,” Brown said. “But if it’s that real that he needs to go seek further consultation, then we support him. In my eyes, it’s not complicated. That’s what it is, and we’ll support him.”

Does Fultz’s mom think the organization wanted her son to fail? The player they drafted No. 1 overall after giving rival Boston a first-round pick to move up two spots from No. 3? How are you going to rip the patience of an organization that has developed a reputation for holding out first-round picks for entire seasons because of injury?

Even the Philadelphia fan base — which in case you didn’t know has a reputation of its own — was shockingly supportive of Fultz. He got a standing ovation from the fan base when he made his first NBA three. There were oohs and aahs from the crowd any time he’d shoot the ball outside of 10 feet.

GM Elton Brand may have ran out of patience once he made a pair of blockbuster deals for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris. The Sixers’ window to win is open, but who knows for how long. Considering there was no real timetable for Fultz’s return — and still isn’t, by the way — Brand did what he had to do.

Fultz and his mother got what they wanted with a fresh start in Orlando, where Fultz will face minimal pressure.

Now it’s time for them to move on and stop taking weak parting shots at the Sixers.

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Five things we've learned about Sixers' new starting five

Five things we've learned about Sixers' new starting five

We don’t need to strain for creative nicknames, like “the Phantastic 5.” 

The Sixers’ new starting lineup is, to put it simply, a very good group of five basketball players, albeit one figuring out how to play with each other.

Here are five things we’ve learned about the new starting unit:

Harris fits well into the offense 

In his first four games with the Sixers, Tobias Harris has averaged 17.8 points, 7.0 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game — not a bad start.

He’s fit naturally into the Sixers’ offense. Brett Brown has mostly plugged Harris into actions the Sixers already have installed, and Harris has generally thrived in those settings. The play below is a familiar “screen the screener” action. 

Out of a Horns set — two big men at the elbows, two wings in the corners — Harris sets a ball screen for Ben Simmons, then flares off a screen from Joel Embiid. He gets a mismatch on Nikola Jokic and dips in for a soft floater.

Though Harris is still learning his teammates’ tendencies, he hasn’t seemed too uncomfortable in unstructured situations, either when plays break down or in transition. He ran a nice pick-and-pop with Embiid early in the shot clock vs. the Lakers. 

There is one action the Sixers have recently introduced, a modified “Spain pick-and-roll.”

Jimmy Butler loops up to the top of the key. Off the ball, Joel Embiid sets a back screen for JJ Redick at the foul line, and Redick curls to the rim. Embiid then comes up to give Butler a ball screen, with Redick right behind him. Redick will typically give Embiid a back screen before shooting up to the top of the key — this is the traditional Spain pick-and-roll, that ball screen immediately followed by a back screen.

In the example above, Redick doesn’t make any contact with Embiid’s man, Al Horford, who decides to give a hard hedge on the pick-and-roll between Butler and Embiid. Still, the Celtics’ defense is slightly overbalanced toward Butler and Embiid. Harris, stationed in the weak side corner, takes advantage by driving baseline on Marcus Morris and drawing a foul.

The defense is a work in progress 

The Sixers’ new starting five is a long, versatile, switchable defensive unit. It is, however, still a work in progress.

In their first game together, the Sixers had some miscommunication on a couple of pick-and-rolls, including the one below. Harris and Simmons both take Will Barton, leaving Mason Plumlee open on the roll.

A poor defensive first quarter for the Sixers against the Lakers ended fittingly, with nobody picking up Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

Simmons is shifting his approach 

While the first legitimate three-point attempt of his career Sunday understandably got the most attention (see story), Simmons appears more willing overall to take the open jumpers presented to him.

With LeBron James deep in the paint, he stepped into a jumper from the elbow early against the Lakers.

Simmons is now 14 for 70 (20 percent) this season on shots from 10 feet and out. It’ll be interesting to track whether, even as the playoffs approach, he continues to take shots that have been highly inefficient for him. 

The staples still work 

Brown has had a few shootarounds and just a single practice to incorporate new actions, so he’s mainly had to rely on old favorites.

“12,” the multi-layered action that starts with Redick sprinting up from the baseline, often to give Simmons a ball screen, is still very difficult to guard because of Redick’s threat as a shooter. Plumlee and Malik Beasley botch their coverage on this play and, after a clever hesitation, Simmons attacks the open lane.

“Elbow,” the Embiid-Redick two-man game, is never leaving the Sixers’ offense as long as those two are still around.

The Celtics did a good job denying Embiid the ball at the end of the first quarter, but the Sixers adjusted well. With Mike Scott double-teamed, Embiid flashed to the block and found T.J. McConnell on the opposite side for a lay-up.

Late-game execution will take time 

Boston, as has so often been the case, executed better than the Sixers when it mattered Tuesday night.

The Sixers weren’t quite sharp enough on their late, game-tying attempt off a sideline out of bounds play. 

Butler screens at the top of the key for Redick, who sprints toward Harris, the inbounder. The idea is to make an entry pass to Embiid and play a Redick-Embiid two-man game. But Embiid fumbles the pass, which Brown throws off the timing of the play. Instead of hand it off to Redick, Embiid kicks the ball out to Harris and runs out to set a ball screen, trying to create a sliver of space.

Embiid rebounds Harris' miss and puts it back in, despite the Sixers being out of timeouts and needing a three to tie. Afterwards, he admitted he wasn’t aware the Sixers had no timeouts left and called himself “an idiot” for not kicking the ball out.

These five pieces have only been together for four games — not everything is going to click automatically late in games. Things just need to be more precise come the playoffs. 

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