76ers

Sixers' big three — plus JJ Redick — keep shining, but they need help ahead of NBA trade deadline

Sixers' big three — plus JJ Redick — keep shining, but they need help ahead of NBA trade deadline

The Sixers had a hell of a week during their West Coast swing. They went 2-2, which is solid for that type of trip, but the context makes it more impressive. They were missing multiple starters in both losses and were able to end the Warriors’ 11-game winning streak.

Joel Embiid just won Eastern Conference Player of the Month. Ben Simmons had arguably his best game as a pro vs. Golden State and followed it up with another strong performance in Sacramento. Jimmy Butler almost single-handedly stole the final game of the road trip against the Kings with his fourth-quarter heroics.

For all of the talk about fit and possible off-the-court drama, these guys are playing outstanding basketball together. The Sixers are now 21-10 with Butler in the lineup. They’re 20-8 when all three players are playing. 

Then there’s JJ Redick. For anyone who doubts his value, go back and watch that Sacramento game. The team was an abysmal 7 of 33 from three. Sure, there's no guarantee that percentage goes up with Redick in the lineup. He’s shooting 38 percent from three, not one of the highest marks for his career, but it goes way beyond that.

The spacing he provides the other three players is invaluable. You could see the Kings' players basically had one foot in the paint all night. The two-man game with Embiid and Redick has become such a key component to both players’ games and really the entire offense. We've seen the team run it with different pairs with varying degrees of success, but Embiid and Redick have it down to a science.

There's not a team in the Eastern Conference that has a top four like the Sixers. There's no team in the entire league outside of the Warriors that does. But what teams like the Bucks, Raptors and Celtics have that the Sixers' lack is depth.

While Wilson Chandler, T.J. McConnell, Landry Shamet, Jonah Bolden and Mike Muscala have all had their moments, this team just needs more. It’s to the point where Brett Brown has turned to two-way player Shake Milton on multiple occasions recently — granted the rookie has impressed, but it should’ve never come to this.

Elton Brand is going to have to add at least one, if not two, solid NBA pieces. There’s no need to make a splash and make a play for someone like Jrue Holiday — though that would be interesting — but a wing like the Pistons’ Reggie Bullock or buyout candidate Wesley Matthews could add so much to this team’s core.

With all that said, Brown has done a pretty good job managing the minutes of his big three and Redick. Many complain about Brown’s “rotations” and "rest" games, but come April, when the starting five is getting big minutes and the bench gets shortened, losses in Sacramento and Denver in the middle of the season won’t matter. Acquiring another player or two will only help Brown soften the load on his starters before the playoffs and will make shortening the bench a whole lot easier.

Brand made a bold move in acquiring Butler, but the trade weakened an already thin bench. Now it's time for the Sixers' GM to complement his stars, who are playing so well together, in their quest to win the East.

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2020 NBA draft: Sixers will own a first-round pick, thanks to Mike Muscala

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2020 NBA draft: Sixers will own a first-round pick, thanks to Mike Muscala

The Sixers will own a first-round pick in this year’s draft, and they have Mike Muscala to thank.

Muscala’s go-ahead three-pointer Wednesday night with 5.2 seconds remaining lifted the Thunder to a 116-115 win over the Heat. The shot ensures that the Sixers will have a first-round pick because Oklahoma City will finish with a top-10 record. In the Markelle Fultz trade last February, the Sixers acquired the Thunder’s top-20 protected first-rounder, in addition to Jonathon Simmons and a second-round selection last year. 

For many reasons, it’s an improbable turn of events. (Did we mention Oklahoma City trailed by as many as 22 points?) Muscala came to the Sixers as a part of a three-team trade in July of 2018, and he didn’t have an illustrious tenure here. After averaging 7.4 points and 4.3 rebounds in 47 games, he was dealt to the Clippers in the Tobias Harris trade, then shipped to the Lakers a day later. 

Muscala signed this past summer with Oklahoma City, who many projected to have a steep short-term decline following the departures of Russell Westbrook and Paul George. Instead, 35-year-old Chris Paul, 22-year-old Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Sixth Man of the Year finalist Dennis Schroder excelled in clutch situations and performed well above expectations. Former Sixer Nerlens Noel has had a solid year for the Thunder, too. 

The Sixers will own four second-round picks along with their improbable first-round. If the selection had not conveyed, it would’ve turned into second-round picks in 2022 and 2023. 

That’s not a bad return, but the Sixers will prefer having a first-round pick in a draft that, while not considered very strong at the top, should have future rotation player options in the 20s. 

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Short night (and negative X-rays) for Joel Embiid, encouraging game from Tobias Harris in Sixers’ loss

Short night (and negative X-rays) for Joel Embiid, encouraging game from Tobias Harris in Sixers’ loss

BOX SCORE 

Minutes before the Sixers tipped off Wednesday vs. the Raptors, we learned that their game that night was, for all intents and purposes, meaningless. The Pacers’ win over the Rockets ensured that the Sixers will play the Celtics in the first round of the playoffs. 

So, while Wednesday’s result was irrelevant and the game was decided entirely by the reserves in the fourth quarter, it's worth noting that the Sixers did lose to the Raptors, 125-121. A short Stanley Johnson jumper in the lane with 4.9 seconds remaining was the winning basket for Toronto. 

The Sixers' final seeding game is Friday night at 9 p.m. against the Rockets. 

Here are observations on the game: 

A short night for Embiid  

Joel Embiid’s decision-making against double teams had been a major positive in Florida, but he committed a handful of mistakes in the first half, turning it over five times. One of those turnovers came when he was slapped on the right wrist by Marc Gasol, which appeared to cause Embiid some pain. He checked back into the game later in the first quarter but did not play the second half.

Embiid had X-rays on his right hand that were negative, according to a team spokesperson, and was scheduled to play limited minutes.

This didn’t resemble a playoff environment — Serge Ibaka was out because of a right knee contusion and the Raptors, like the Sixers, limited their starters’ playing time — but it was solid experience for Embiid (albeit brief) against Gasol, a player who has had success against him in the past, and against a defense that double teams unpredictably and aggressively. He couldn’t find many opportunities to attack, scoring just five points on four field-goal attempts, and didn’t have the poise or rhythm he’d shown in the Sixers’ first few seeding games. 

As always, Embiid’s health is paramount. He will, in all likelihood, need to be brilliant and able to play major minutes for the Sixers to go far in the playoffs. 

Starters gelling 

The Sixers’ first-choice lineup without Ben Simmons started Wednesday after every member besides Shake Milton missed Tuesday’s game because of either rest or minor injuries. 

On a night when there were many excuses available to coast through the action, the high intensity early on stood out as the Sixers built a 18-8 lead before their first substitution. The offense flowed well, with Tobias Harris hitting his first three shots and the team converting 6 of its first 7. 

Defensively, there was sustained effort throughout the shot clock, something that hasn’t been present at times in the seeding games. Everyone seemed to be on the same page and sharp in rotations. And, against a team like the Raptors with a small starting backcourt of Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet, you’re reminded just how much of a nuisance the Sixers’ size and length can be, even with Simmons out. 

Brett Brown said before the game he was looking for “common denominators,” areas that could apply to both the final seeding games and the playoffs. Defensive fundamentals would fall under that category, and they were strong overall from the starters in this one. 

Along with Harris, who had 22 points, six rebounds and five assists, Al Horford (nine points, five assists, four rebounds in 18 minutes) looked especially good. He made 2 of 5 threes vs. Toronto and is 8 for 16 from long range at Disney World. 

Ironing out the rotation 

Injuries have prevented the Sixers from fully solidifying a playoff rotation. Neither Alec Burks (left foot soreness) nor Glenn Robinson III (left hip pointer) was available Wednesday. 

Brown has indicated the rotation will likely be dictated in part by matchups. For instance, Mike Scott would probably be on the bench against a smaller Celtics lineup that would have him face a player like Gordon Hayward. In addition to Scott, who it appears could be classified as a situational player, Burks, Robinson, Matisse Thybulle and Furkan Korkmaz are in the conversation. 

Korkmaz had a strong shooting night, posting 21 points and making 5 of 9 three-point attempts, but his defense may be worrisome against Boston’s wings. If Robinson’s lingering hip injury isn’t a problem, Brown has said he likes his “clean” 3-and-D skill set. Thybulle, meanwhile, will surely have value because of his defensive talents. Burks has boosted his stock with efficient scoring and sensible playmaking. Since he turned it over four times against the Pacers on Aug. 1, he has 12 assists and two turnovers. 

Raul Neto is a ball handling option, but Brown said after the Brazilian’s 22-point performance Tuesday that he did not see him as part of his postseason rotation. In 27 minutes vs. Toronto, Neto had 17 points and five assists. 

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