76ers

Sixers may be looking for identity but it all starts with Joel Embiid

Sixers may be looking for identity but it all starts with Joel Embiid

The day started with the Sixers losing the coach in charge of their defense.

It ended with the team’s much-maligned pick-and-roll defense shining in a 123-110 win over the Nets at the Wells Fargo Center Thursday (see observations).

Assistant coach Billy Lange, who accepted the head coaching job at Saint Joseph’s, coached his final game with the Sixers. For Lange, who took defensive responsibilities over from the departed Lloyd Pierce this season, it was a nice swan song.

Brooklyn has two guards in D’Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie that punish teams in the pick-and-roll. Through three matchups this season, that guard duo averaged a combined 51 points while both shooting over 55 percent from the field. On Thursday, the two combined for just 26 points and shot 10 of 28.

After two disappointing losses in Atlanta and Orlando, Brett Brown said pregame that his team was still searching for an identity. Thursday’s performance seemed like a step in the right direction.

“We talked candidly, like who are we? And how do I make sure I help us be what you guys want to be?” Brown said. “We all understand what our mission is and we do not have the history, [like] the Warriors and I mean like the Celtics as well. There’s a history there that maybe they can click their heels and all of a sudden, ‘Oh, it’s playoffs,’ and take off. They have the ability to do that. I just feel like we need to experience more time together playing well and understand what playing well looks like.”

The Sixers’ losses to the Hawks and Magic were ugly. In both cases, it looked like the team thought it could just stroll in and roll both teams. The Sixers obviously underestimated a hungry young Atlanta team and an Orlando team fighting for its playoff life.

It didn’t look like they showed up for either matchup, with the defensive end exploiting a lack of effort.

That wasn’t the case Thursday. The Nets have given the Sixers fits all season, but this was a sound performance by the home team. The Sixers led wire to wire.

Another thing to keep in perspective is this was just the 10th game for the Sixers’ new starting five playing together. It boasts an 8-2 mark and it's just scratching the surface of what it can be.

“We’re fine,” Embiid said. “Obviously there’s still a lot to learn with all of us, but we’re fine. We’re playing better. In the last few games, obviously we didn’t play well, mainly because of the defensive end, but it’s fine. When we move the ball and we put the ball in the right [people's hands], I think it’s fine.”

Embiid, who was so upset after the loss to the Magic that he didn't speak to reporters, continues to be the “crown jewel” on offense. He poured in 39 points on 12 of 20 shooting and also had 13 rebounds, six assists, three steals and a block. It was similar to the All-Star center’s game in Milwaukee. 

Per Basketball-Reference, only three players have put up at least 39 points, 13 rebounds, six assists, three steals and one block in a game twice in a season: Embiid, David Robinson and some guy named Michael Jordan.

But on the defensive end is where Embiid’s efforts shined the most. Since he entered the league, his goal has always been to win the Defensive Player of the Year. Before this season started, he said he wanted to win MVP.

He likely won’t win either, but in a game that was a possible playoff preview Thursday, he showed that he has his eyes on a bigger award.

“I’m excited,” Embiid said. “Honestly, I don’t care who we play. I’m excited. It’s going to be my second postseason. Last year I had the mask and I wasn’t feeling well, I was out of shape, but this playoffs I’m coming in better shape and I don’t have the mask to hate, so it’s definitely going to be a different story.”

It’s safe to say the Sixers’ identity — especially on defense — begins and ends with Embiid.

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Is Sixers' Tobias Harris an All-Star? He's making a compelling case

Is Sixers' Tobias Harris an All-Star? He's making a compelling case

Around this time last year, Tobias Harris was leading the surprising Clippers to a strong start. Harris was averaging over 20 points a game while flirting with the 50-40-90 shooting line. He was a borderline All-Star.

Fast forward a year later and the 27-year-old resembles that player more now than he ever has during his tenure as a Sixer.

Harris added another impressive performance to his recent stretch of strong play in the Sixers’ 116-109 win over the Pelicans Friday night (see observations).

It wasn’t the cleanest performance for the Sixers, but Harris’ team-high 31 points helped the Sixers stay a perfect 14-0 at the Wells Fargo Center and become the only undefeated team at home in the NBA.

Every night is an opportunity for me to go out there and do the best I can to help our team win,” Harris said. "I’d love to be an All-Star — it’s a goal of mine as a player. I felt last year I was an All-Star in the beginning of the season. It didn’t happen that way. But I think each and every night, especially with our team, we have a nice amount of talent and I want to play at my best every single night to help us win games.

It hadn’t been the smoothest transition for Harris since he arrived in a blockbuster trade from Los Angeles.

The Sixers had just traded for Jimmy Butler a couple months prior and they were still trying to figure out how to use the mercurial star alongside Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. With Harris, it was another mouth to feed and another piece to fit into the puzzle.

On paper, it looked like a master stroke by GM Elton Brand. Harris had become an elite three-point shooter and a go-to scorer for the Clippers. But the chemistry didn’t develop as quickly as they would’ve liked as Embiid missed a significant amount of time down the stretch with tendinitis in his left knee.

Over the last 16 games — and with Butler in Miami — Harris seems to have found his niche with the Sixers.

“Yeah, there’s definitely a comfort level, just being able to get familiar with guys on this team on and off the floor,” Harris said. “I think as a team, the comfort level from each and every one of the guys that’s on the floor is continuing to increase. I’m able to find ways to play with Ben in different pockets of the game, and Joel, also. There’s been a lot of things that I’ve liked. I’m going into games understanding more of what we need to do, where I’m at, where I’m going to get this play, that play, things like that.”

While the All-Star game doesn’t generally account for defense, that is likely where Harris has seen his most improvement.

In Friday night’s game, he was tasked with guarding former Sixer JJ Redick. As we saw during Redick’s time in Philly, that’s not an easy ask. Redick runs a marathon every game, navigating around screens and running dribble handoffs. Harris did a decent enough job, as Redick went 6 of 15 on the night.

Improving on the defensive end was Harris’ biggest point of emphasis this offseason. He went to Brett Brown before the season began and let him know that he wouldn’t be the weak link amongst a starting five that had elite-level defenders.

The notion of putting Harris on someone like Redick wouldn’t even have crossed his head coach’s mind last season.

“Could Tobias have done something like that last year? I didn't see him like that,” Brown said. “Maybe he could have, but I never saw him or played him like that and this year I do. And I think that it's part of your question about, 'Oh, he's having a great year,' and you go right to offense. I think he's having a hell of a year defensively.”

Harris is 13th in the conference in scoring and fourth among forwards. His 2.6 win shares are second-most among any forward in the East.

Throw in the last 16 games, where Harris has averaged 22.1 points and shot over 50 percent from the field and over 40 percent from three, and the case is making itself.

You don't need much more ammunition," Brown said. "I mean, he's been so steady and just responsible, reliable, go-to guy. I put him kind of in a bunch of different spots — middle pick-and-roll, iso, three balls, making his free throws, plays that back down pound, pound game and can jump over people, smaller people. He's having a hell of a year.

A good enough year to be in Chicago on Feb. 16 for the All-Star game?

There’s a strong case to be made.

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After unusual path, showman Norvel Pelle doesn't 'mess up' his moment

After unusual path, showman Norvel Pelle doesn't 'mess up' his moment

Norvel Pelle is not the typical NBA player.

A native of Antigua and Barbuda, Pelle was a top recruit out of high school — that part was normal. Then his path went sideways.

The wiry center never played college basketball because of eligibility issues. He traveled to Delaware, Italy, Taiwan and Lebanon before signing a one-year, two-way contract with the Sixers this summer and reaching Friday night, where Brett Brown turned to Pelle, in his third NBA regular-season game, as Joel Embiid’s main backup. 

“It’s just knowing that this opportunity is once in a lifetime,” Pelle told NBC Sports Philadelphia. “I worked hard to get here and I can’t mess up. So, just getting the jitters out — obviously there are going to be jitters regardless, but just meditating and staying positive throughout the whole thing.”

In 12 minutes, Pelle was exceptionally active. He had six points, five rebounds, three blocks and a handful of altered shots. Every time Pelle has stepped on an NBA floor, it seems he has been immediately challenged by players on a mission to embarrass him. It hasn’t always gone his way. Julius Randle slammed one in over Pelle in his NBA debut in New York and Kevin Porter Jr. dunked on Pelle last Saturday and then flexed in his face despite the Cavs trailing by more than 40 points. 

A member of the G League’s All-Defensive First Team last season, Pelle sees no shame in taking the occasional ferocious dunk to the face. He’s a showman who enjoys playing to the crowd and feeds off its energy, and he never likes to show any fear. 

“Next play,” he said of his mentality. “Next play, next play, next play. At the end of the day, I’m a shot blocker, so if I get dunked on, I get dunked on — that’s my mentality. Next play.” 

After picking up two early fouls, Pelle waited out a series of pump fakes from former Sixer Jahlil Okafor to record his first block of the night, leading to a Ben Simmons dunk. He then denied a slam attempt by Brandon Ingram, creating a fast break that concluded with a James Ennis three. 

“You know every game he's going to bring you energy,” Simmons said following the Sixers' 116-109 win over the Pelicans (see observations). “He loves blocking shots, just risking his body for those blocks and protecting the rim. I love having him as a part of this team.”

Both Simmons and Brown said Pelle reminded them of Nerlens Noel. Like Noel, Pelle’s offensive game is not too extensive — it’s mostly screening and rolling, lob catching and energy. The defensive package, though, is intriguing.

“Just wanted to see what we have in him,” Brown said. “We had a little taste in New York. I wanted to see more. And I thought he was really good. I thought he was really good. He is sort of Nerlens like to me — rim protector, shot blocker, quick off the floor. I thought he was good.”

It’s uncertain whether Pelle could eventually have a consistent role with the Sixers. The man whose job he temporarily took Friday, Kyle O’Quinn, was signed this offseason to be insurance for Embiid. Al Horford should assume the primary backup center position once he returns from the left knee soreness and left hamstring tightness that’s sidelined him the past two games. 

Pelle’s two-way contract also means he can’t be with the Sixers for more than 45 days between the start of Blue Coats training camp and the end of the G League regular season, and he’s not eligible for the NBA playoffs.

Brown didn’t attribute Pelle’s five fouls vs. the Pelicans to being “undisciplined,” but the big man would likely need to refine his game a bit if he was tasked with a regular role.

Embiid wasn’t worried about any of that. 

“I told him if he got the minutes, he would probably lead the league in blocks,” he said. “He has a chance to become a fan favorite, so he should just keep doing whatever he’s doing.”

After all the empathic dunks and dramatic poses and swatted shots in foreign gyms, Pelle had time to reflect Friday night. 

“This was more than what I expected,” he said. “I’m appreciative of everything and everybody. I’m taking it day by day, moment by moment, opportunity by opportunity and just go out there and do what I have to do.”

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