76ers

No excuses, but Al Horford makes a notable admission about his health this season

No excuses, but Al Horford makes a notable admission about his health this season

Way back on Nov. 12, well before the coronavirus was impacting all facets of life, Al Horford took a night off.

It did not appear a massive development at the time, though Horford said “there was definitely some pushback” on his end about the concept of load management.

He rested again on Nov. 29 against the Knicks. Horford also missed games on Dec. 12 and Dec. 13 because of left knee soreness and left hamstring tightness, and sat out Jan. 30 in Atlanta with left knee soreness. 

While playing 60 of 65 games looks fine on paper, Horford on Friday admitted he was not at his best physically this season. 

I probably wasn’t where I wanted to be,” he said. “I’m not going to make excuses but right now I’m in a much better place. The time off for me was beneficial. And getting to work now, the biggest challenge for us with the season coming back is doing everything at game-intensity level. 

“Going from not being able to get in the gym to start working out individually, and when we get to Orlando, we’ll start doing it together and then a quick transition to games — it’s really a process. So for me it’s really making sure that I continue to make strides and that I’m at my best, more specifically when the playoffs are ready to go.

For Horford, a veteran who tends to prefer keeping things close to the vest, it was a notable comment. While much of the disappointment about his first season with the Sixers so far stems from Horford’s well-documented struggle to be effective alongside Joel Embiid, his health is another factor to consider. 

Horford dealt with patellar tendinitis in his left knee last season with the Celtics. He’s 34 years old. At times this year, he appeared to have limited remaining supplies of explosiveness and agility. None of those realities are excuses, as Horford himself said, but they’re all relevant in thinking about Horford’s future with the team. 

In the short term, Horford again faces questions about what his role will be for the Sixers when the season resumes in Orlando and whether he’ll come off the bench. He was diplomatic on that subject, as usual. 

“For me, I just want us to be playing well and playing at a high level,” he said. “I’m going to continue to work … I do know that for us to be successful I have to play with Joel sometimes, I have to play with different people. It really doesn’t matter. I just think that this time off is going to benefit all of us, especially for Ben (Simmons), being able to be healthy now and being able to come in and have an impact. I really don’t think that’s going to matter that much, in my opinion.

“The way I’m going to look at it is I’m going to make the most of my situation, stay prepared, stay ready. Coach will have to decide how and when to play me, how much to play me, and I just have to be ready.”

A recurring line for the Sixers before the coronavirus hit the United States was that the team was “built for the playoffs.” Brett Brown used it again Wednesday, and Horford is still fond of it, too. 

I think it’s a great opportunity for our team,” Horford said. “The way the season was going, before it stopped, we had some positives. We got it going there toward the end, we felt, especially that last game we played. Ben’s future was uncertain, and now he’s going to be good to go. We have our full team and our full roster. I believe that our group is built for the playoffs. The regular season is always tough. We have new guys and everybody trying to mesh, but I believe this is a second chance for us and a great opportunity.

The Sixers do indeed have a healthy team, with the exception of Zhaire Smith, who will miss the rest of the season with a bone bruise in his left knee.

There are also, of course, gray areas during a season when players are able to play but below optimal health. It seems Horford fell into that category at times, and he’s surely not the only NBA player who will be fresher and feel better physically as a result of the hiatus.

We shouldn’t forget that he was playing well before the season was shut down, with the major caveat that he thrived when Embiid was out for five games because of a left shoulder sprain. Horford averaged 15.8 points, 9.0 rebounds and 6.2 assists in the Sixers’ last six contests. 

He has not deviated, however, from believing that those distant regular-season performances matter much less than the postseason. 

“I do believe that there’s another level in the playoffs as far as the quality of the basketball goes,” he said. “My mindset is to make sure that I’m at my best on Aug. 17, when the playoffs start.”

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Sixers' Ime Udoka is ‘biggest name to watch’ in Bulls’ head coaching search

Sixers' Ime Udoka is ‘biggest name to watch’ in Bulls’ head coaching search

Sixers assistant coach Ime Udoka is, according to NBC Sports NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh, “the biggest name to watch” in the Bulls’ search for a new head coach.

Chicago fired Jim Boylen on Friday. NBC Sports Chicago’s K.C. Johnson reports former Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson, Nuggets assistant Wes Unseld Jr., Mavs assistant Stephen Silas and Bucks assistant Darvin Ham are also expected to be included in Chicago's search. Bulls GM Marc Eversley used to be the Sixers’ vice president of player personnel. 

Udoka joined the Sixers this season after spending seven years as an assistant with the Spurs. In September, he said that he was responsible for game planning and strategizing against “eight or nine” opponents under Gregg Popovich. Brett Brown assigned him to be in charge of the Sixers’ defense, which is rated eighth in the NBA, and he's looked to install more aggressive defensive concepts. He’s a well-respected former player who, according to The Athletic’s Shams Charania is also a candidate for the Nets job.

From the Sixers’ perspective, part of what may complicate this situation is Brown’s status. Here’s what Haberstroh wrote on that subject:  

Over the next few weeks, league insiders are keeping an eye on the situation in Philadelphia as the Sixers have underwhelmed for the second straight season. If the short-handed Sixers lose in the first round, Udoka could be in line for a promotion with the Sixers.

“The Sixers may not want another coach to leave their organization. Brown’s top assistant job has been a springboard to head-coaching positions throughout the NBA. Houston’s Mike D’Antoni, Phoenix’s Monty Williams and Atlanta’s Lloyd Pierce’s last stops before their current gigs was the bench in Philly. 

In response to rumors last May that the Sixers’ second-round loss to the Raptors may have put Brown’s job in jeopardy, his players defended him vehemently. The team’s supersized roster has disappointed in this highly unusual, pandemic-affected season, as the presence of Al Horford has boosted the Sixers’ backup center play but generally not helped the team otherwise. Brown’s new-look starting lineup with Shake Milton at point guard and Ben Simmons at power forward only had three games together before Simmons injured his left knee. 

The Sixers’ first-round series against the Celtics begins on Monday night (see series schedule).

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How to watch Sixers at Rockets: Storylines, live stream, game time and more

How to watch Sixers at Rockets: Storylines, live stream, game time and more

For the first time since the 2011-12 lockout year, the Sixers will play fewer than 82 games in a “regular” season. Their 73rd and final game before the postseason is Friday night against the Rockets.

Joel Embiid (left ankle soreness) and Glenn Robinson III (left hip pointer) are questionable, and Russell Westbrook is out for Houston with a right quad strain. 

Here are the essentials:

When: 9 p.m. with Sixers Pregame Live at 8
Where: AdventHealth Arena
Broadcast: NBC Sports Philadelphia Plus
Live stream: NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com and the NBC Sports MyTeams app

And here are three storylines to watch: 

All about Monday 

Health and “spirit” are the two things Brett Brown has consistently said he hoped the Sixers would have intact for the postseason. The team’s health is significantly compromised with Ben Simmons out after undergoing surgery on his left knee, which is probably more important than an intangible quality like spirit. That said, the Sixers’ morale doesn’t seem too bad given the circumstances. There’s been a little time for everyone to wrap their head around Simmons’ injury and what it means, and the starting lineup enjoyed cheering on the reserves in the fourth quarter of Wednesday’s loss to the Raptors.

The Sixers’ first-round series vs. the Celtics begins Monday night (see series schedule). It sounds simple enough … but just get to tip-off of Game 1 with the healthiest version of the current team. 

Is hot outside shooting sustainable? 

Before the NBA’s hiatus, the Sixers were shooting 36.2 percent from three-point range. They’re at 40.6 percent in Disney World, and Joel Embiid and Shake Milton are the only rotation players below their season averages from long range. 

That large of an increase is likely attributable to a small sample size, at least in part, but it does seem that players like Al Horford, Furkan Korkmaz and Alec Burks are comfortable and shooting with confidence. Perhaps it will carry over to the playoffs. 

Small-ball prep 

The Rockets will finish either No. 4 or No. 5 in the Western Conference, a distinction that means very little when there are no true home games. It would therefore be unsurprising if minutes were limited for Houston’s key players. 

One thing that will be interesting to watch regardless is how the Sixers will handle a team without a conventional center. Houston is an extreme practitioner of small ball, but the Sixers’ top lineups will generally be larger than the Celtics’. Horford’s perimeter defense will be tested by Boston.

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