Sixers close in on 'something special' with great escape

Sixers close in on 'something special' with great escape


CHICAGO — If the Sixers end their playoff drought this season, it’ll be because of the franchise’s big two.

All-Star Joel Embiid and rookie Ben Simmons showed just how much fun that could be Thursday night.

Embiid forced a turnover in the final seconds, Simmons scooped up the ball and made a pair of free throws with 5.6 seconds to play and the Sixers scratched out their sixth straight victory, 116-115, over the Bulls (see observations).

The win halted a four-game road skid but, more important to the Sixers’ fortunes, had Embiid and Simmons’ fingerprints all over it.

Simmons finished with a career-high 32 points and had 11 assists and seven rebounds to come close to his second straight triple-double while Embiid added his ninth straight double-double — 30 and 13 rebounds with four blocks — to pace the Sixers on a night when they didn’t get much else.

“Joel and Ben carried us,” coach Brett Brown said after his team won on the road for the first time since Jan. 26. “I thought everyone else really had subpar performances. You felt like we came out of a break.”

The tanking Bulls — starting center Robin Lopez was a healthy scratch as Chicago joins the dash for better NBA draft odds — made 18 three-pointers in both teams’ return from the All-Star break and appeared to have the Sixers on the ropes after Zach LaVine’s triple with 1:02 to play made it 115-110.

That was the last time Chicago scored.

Simmons followed his miss with a layup and JJ Redick made a pair of free throws with 8.0 seconds left to set up the final defensive sequence that put Simmons at the line.

“First of all, we needed a steal and I saw Joel get it and he kind of lobbed it to me and I said, ‘S---, I better get it,’” Simmons said. “Stepping up to the line, I knew I was going to knock ‘em down. You have to have that mentality. I was put to the line and I can’t be thinking I’m going to miss ‘em.” 

With 26 games to play, the Sixers can move into the upper half of the Eastern Conference with a late surge, but will need solid play — and the workloads that come with it — from Embiid and Simmons. If their contributions Thursday (both players were on the court for at least 30 minutes) are any indication, Sixers fans might have more postseason success to celebrate in the spring.

“We stole that win. Sometimes you need those and that’s what we did tonight,” Embiid said. “It’s fun when you win games like that.”

It’ll be even more fun when games like that happen in the postseason … which looks much more plausible every game lately thanks to the big two.

“They feel something special is close. They feel something special that we’ve worked hard for for four years is just around the corner and no one is taking that for granted,” Brown said.

“There’s no entitlement. We just fight for everything we can get.”

Sixers vs. Magic: Live stream, storylines, game time and more

Sixers vs. Magic: Live stream, storylines, game time and more

Welcome to the NBA.

Joel Embiid hammered that tough message home to Chicago rookie Wendell Carter Jr. on Thursday with one basket after another. Embiid was a perfect 5 for 5 and scored 14 points in the first quarter alone en route to a 30-point double-double in the Sixers’ 127-108 win over the Bulls in their home opener.

“Just be aggressive,” Embiid said of his plan. “I thought against Boston I was really passive at times, especially when I was in the post. I was in a different mindset. I wanted to dominate, but at the same time, I wanted to try to use my strength and not my head. Tonight, I just decided to pick my spots and figure out what I’m good at and when to use my strength and when to use my finesse.”

So what does Embiid get for his masterful effort? A chance to take on yet another rookie. Well, at times.

The Magic start former Sixer Nik Vucevic at center. However, rookie and Embiid protege, Mo Bamba, will man the middle for stretches of the Saturday night’s game.

You can expect plenty of banging on the block and trash talk between the two good friends. Just look back at what transpired when they faced off in the preseason (see story).

• As for mixing things up on the block, the Sixers would be well served to continue that trend.

They connected on 27 of 30 free throws in their victory over the Bulls. That came two days after the Sixers made 14 of 23 at the charity stripe.

While the makes are important, the Sixers are also focused on the attempts. They finished 10th in the league in free throws attempted last season with 22.8 a night and want to improve on that mark.

“Live at the line” as Embiid likes to say.

• In case you haven’t heard by now, Markelle Fultz did some things on the basketball court the last time out.

The second-year guard put up a team-high 15 shots against the Bulls. Fultz made five, including one weight-lifted-off-his-shoulders three.

“I’m never afraid to take shots,” Fultz said. “I worked hard this summer. Tonight, I didn’t make a lot of shots, but I am going to keep shooting. If I see an open shot, then I’m going to shoot it.”

Fultz should have plenty of opportunities to get his offense going against the Magic. Orlando has allowed a combined 68 points to opposing starting backcourts in just two games (Miami’s Goran Dragic and Rodney McGruder and Charlotte’s Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb).

Below are the essentials for Saturday night’s matchup.

When: 7:30 p.m.
Where: Wells Fargo Center
Broadcast: NBC Sports Philadelphia (Pregame Live starts at 7 p.m.)
Live stream: NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com 

Jerryd Bayless, G, 6-3/210, No. 0 
Jonah Bolden, F, 6-10, 220, No. 43  
Wilson Chandler, F, 6-9/225, No. 22 
Robert Covington, F, 6-9/225, No. 33 
Joel Embiid, C, 7-0/260, No. 21 
Markelle Fultz, G, 6-4/200, No. 20 
* Demetrius Jackson, G, 6-1/200, No. 11 
Amir Johnson, F/C, 6-9/240, No. 5 
Furkan Korkmaz, G/F, 6-7/185, No. 30 
T.J. McConnell, G, 6-2/190, No. 12 
* Shake Milton, G, 6-6/205, No. 18 
Mike Muscala, F/C, 6-11/240, No. 31 
JJ Redick, G 6-4/195, No. 17 13
Dario Saric, F, 6-10/250, No. 9
Landry Shamet, G, 6-5/190, No. 23
Ben Simmons, G/F, 6-10/230, No. 25 
Zhaire Smith, G, 6-4/200, No. 8

* Two-way player

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Nothing wrong with fans encouraging Markelle Fultz

Nothing wrong with fans encouraging Markelle Fultz

When Markelle Fultz rose up to take a 13-foot jumper with 9:18 left in the second quarter, the ball seemed to hang on the rim forever.

When it finally tickled the twine, the crowd at Wells Fargo Center erupted. 

For context, this place was loud when Meek Mill, fresh out of prison, came out to ring the bell before a Sixers’ playoff game. The applause for Fultz’s first NBA three in the fourth quarter Thursday actually rivaled that.

Fultz led the team with 15 shots but made just five. Does that type of performance deserve that kind of reaction from the fans? Absolutely.

The irony in all of this is that Philly fans are constantly chided for being too hard on coaches and players. Whether it’s #FireBrett or the super lazy “Robert Covington hasn’t hit a shot since he got his extension” narrative, the fans here can be brutal.

But they got it right here. After I sent out a tweet about the reaction to Fultz’s 13-foot hesi-pull-up jimbo, I got a response that the fan reaction “came off desperate.” Hell yeah, it’s desperate.

In the NBA you need stars — generally at least three. With Joel Embiid emerging into an MVP candidate and Ben Simmons likely to get his first All-Star nod, fans are desperate for Fultz to complete the triumvirate. We all know the background up until this point. We know what the Sixers gave up to get him at No. 1, we know Jayson Tatum looks like a star and that Fultz’s confidence needs a boost.

We all focus on the jumper and believe me, I get it. If Fultz is going to play big minutes with Embiid and Simmons, he needs defenses to respect him from distance. He doesn’t need to become JJ Redick, but if he can just shoot league average (around 35 percent) that should be enough. 

He has so many other tricks in his bag. With a team that’s turned the ball over at an alarming rate during Brett Brown’s tenure, there’s no doubt value in the way Fultz takes care of the basketball. Fultz had five assists to just one turnover last night. Per Brian Seltzer of Sixers.com, in the 19 games since Fultz returned to the lineup last March, he’s posted 58 assists to just 16 turnovers. That’s good for a 3.625 ratio. That figure would be among the league leaders if it held for an entire season.

And these aren’t your garden variety assists either. Check out this beauty.

From the post, he puts a pass through the legs of Wendell Carter Jr. for an Amir Johnson layup.

Joel Embiid echoed that sentiment to reporters after the game.

Everybody always gets excited when he shoots a three.  He’s going to make those, he’s worked on his shot the whole summer so that’s nothing to worry about. I think the way he can help us is just being a playmaker. When I’m on the floor with him I really feel comfortable. He really knows how to find guys and understands when someone needs the ball, that’s where he’s going to help us a lot.

As much of what Fultz went through he attributes to his shoulder injury, there’s no doubt he also needed to get his swagger back. He’s still got a long ways to go, but feeling confident enough to jack 15 shots — and getting cheered for it — is a pretty good start.

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