76ers

Sixers 'not bulls---ting,' looking like a team that's starting to click with win over Pacers

Sixers 'not bulls---ting,' looking like a team that's starting to click with win over Pacers

It’s been a weird couple weeks for the Sixers.

Between drama surrounding the fit of the team’s stars, the poor performance of the bench and just some overall bad basketball, they've had a rough go recently.

But here we are on Jan. 18 with the Sixers at 30-16, just 3½ games out of the top spot in the East after a 120-96 win — perhaps their best of the season (see observations) — over the Pacers Thursday night.

The Sixers have the look of a team that’s starting to figure things out.

We’re growing, we’re learning,” Ben Simmons told reporters postgame. “Everybody’s trying to play the right way with each other and we’re continuing to build each game …

“I think everybody’s just buying in and really trying to get better and not bulls---ting.

If there were ever a time for "not bulls---ting," it would be now for the Sixers. The game Thursday kicked off a brutal 12-game stretch with an impressive win. 

The Pacers had the best record in the NBA since Dec. 1 coming in. They have the third-highest defensive rating in the league and are the second-best shooting team in the NBA. On Thursday, the Sixers had 38 assists on 46 made field goals and held Indiana to just 40 percent from the field.

More importantly, it’s the team’s three stars leading the way in “sharing and caring” as Brett Brown said postgame.

“To be able to come to Indianapolis and be able to set the table with our defense and then get and share the ball [was big],” Brown said. “To have 38 assists with Jimmy [Butler], Joel [Embiid] and Ben having eight each and having 38 of our 46 made baskets assisted is a statement that we’re proud of. You guard, you share — it set the table for a good night.”

While so much attention has been on the Sixers trying to make their stars fit on offense, their two biggest deficiencies have been their defense and a lack of production outside of those stars (and JJ Redick).

The team’s defense has been a big factor in their last two wins. While Simmons pointed toward communication as being a part of the improvement, he also pointed simply to the team’s effort.

Maybe personnel is another part of the equation. 

While Elton Brand may have a move or two up his sleeve before — and possibly after — the trade deadline, Brown appears to have found a rotation that works. 

Rookie Jonah Bolden earning a role as the team’s backup five has been a big development. It’s allowed Mike Muscala to move to the four and Wilson Chandler to play more three.

But the Sixers are only going to go as far as Embiid, Simmons and Butler will take them. The last two games have been a positive sign that, though they may be an imperfect fit, maybe they can make it all work.

With a tough Oklahoma City team up next on this grueling 12-game slate, it looks like the Sixers are getting their act together at the right time.

“It’s a matter of wanting to learn and get better as a team and I think we’ve been doing it,” Embiid said. "The connection is better — on and off the court — and that’s something I’m excited about."

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LeBron James is on the verge of history; Sixers don't care

LeBron James is on the verge of history; Sixers don't care

The Sixers welcome LeBron James to the Wells Fargo Center as the King is looking to make history.

They’ll be shorthanded as Joel Embiid will miss his ninth straight game and Josh Richardson will sit with a left hamstring strain.

Here are three storylines to watch:

LeBron on the verge of history

With 18 points Saturday, James will pass not-quite-Philadelphia native Kobe Bryant for third place on the all-time scoring list.

After practice Friday, the Sixers were peppered with questions about James getting to that mark in their building. 

Their overriding response: They don’t care.

“It’s not on my mind,” Brett Brown said. “I think he’s class, and he’s a champion, and he’s incredibly important to our league. To feel at all the need to come in and if he scores whatever number you just said against Philadelphia ... I don’t care. I want to beat the Lakers and it doesn’t enter my mind, that side of the equation of defending him or the Lakers.”

Veteran Al Horford, who’s had plenty of battles with James in his career, was even more indifferent. 

“I don't care about [it],” Horford said. “Obviously, we want to win the game. That's all I care about. He's got a great body of work, career for him when he accomplishes that feat, but I don't care about that.”

The Sixers are dealing with injuries and are sixth in the East. They have much bigger things to worry about.

How do you slow LeBron down?

If the Sixers want to win the game, they’ll have to at least slow James down. Not having two of their best defensive players in Embiid and Richardson makes that task even more difficult.

When it comes to LeBron, there is no one defender that can get the job done. It has to be a collective effort.

“You’ve got a few choices — you can either take a charge and take a few years off your career, or you can wrap him up and make him go shoot free throws,” Brown said. “The unlikely instance where you’re going to go block a shot or steal the ball, I doubt it. And so your options are minimal when you’re on an island. They increase when you can actually show a crowd. And therefore you need a team — it’s a team thing that we’re talking about. Otherwise, you can’t. I don’t think you can.”

Brown wouldn’t reveal who’d get the first opportunity to guard James, but did hint that impressive rookie Matisse Thybulle could get a look.

Brown has been hesitant to put Ben Simmons on the opposing team’s best offensive player because of the big minutes the point guard plays. Tonight may be an exception. Simmons is having a Defensive Player of the Year caliber season and is one of the few players in the league that can match James’ physical prowess. It’d be a big test for Simmons and fun matchup to watch.

Who will step up?

With Embiid and Richardson out, the Sixers are losing a combined 38.4 points per game. For a team that’s had its struggles offensively this season, it’s less than ideal.

So where do the Sixers go for answers?

One player that’s stepped up in a big way recently is Furkam Korkmaz. The Turkish wing, who seems to be in line to start Saturday, is shooting 50 percent from three on 7.6 attempts over his last five games. He’s averaging 16.6 points during that span.

“I think during the season we’ve had a lot of challenges like this,” Korkmaz said. “It’s a long season, anybody can get injured. I hope that’s not going to happen, but when someone is out you need to play more for each other. I think we’re going to figure it out. I don’t know who’s going to lead it … but I think the most important thing is to stay together. And like I said, until now we’ve had a lot of challenges like this, so we’re going to figure it out.”

When Richardson went down just four minutes into Wednesday’s loss in Toronto, Brown turned to second-year guard Shake Milton. Milton played his most minutes since last season’s season finale.

While he spent much of last season in the G League with his two-way deal, he improved his ball handling and in running the pick-and-roll. While his shot hasn't translated consistently on the NBA level, it’s part of what made him so attractive out of SMU.

The one thing the 2018 second-round pick does have is the confidence of his coaches and teammates.

“Offensively, I'm not worried about him,” Horford said. “He can really, really shoot the ball and he'll have his looks, his opportunities and I'm confident in him.”

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NBA trade rumors: Davis Bertans reportedly might not be available

NBA trade rumors: Davis Bertans reportedly might not be available

“The Latvian Laser” might not be for sale.

According to Sports Illustrated’s Chris Mannix, the Wizards haven’t been listening to offers for sharpshooter Davis Bertans. 

“Inquiries to Washington have gone nowhere; several executives tell SI.com that the Wizards wouldn’t even discuss a deal,” Mannix reports. “Some teams, though, are holding out hope Washington will make Bertans available before the trade deadline."

NBC Sports Washington’s Chase Hughes, The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor and Mannix have all reported that the Sixers have interest in Bertans, who’s shot 42.6 percent from three on 8.7 attempts per game. That’s the best percentage in the league among players who have attempted at least eight threes per contest. 

Hughes reported on Jan. 6 that the Wizards were “fielding calls” for Bertans despite general manager Tommy Sheppard saying the team had “every intention of retaining” the forward in free agency. The Celtics, Lakers, Hawks and Nuggets are also suitors for Bertans, according to Hughes.

Bertans is making $7 million this season but looks set to earn substantially more when he becomes a free agent. The Wizards hold Bertans’ Bird Rights after landing him in a trade this summer, which means they could go over the salary cap to re-sign him.

The trade deadline isn’t until Feb. 6, so it’s certainly possible that the Wizards will be open for business when it really matters. It seems that it would make sense to at least consider offers. 

Regardless, Bertans is an attractive player for the Sixers, and for contending teams in general who want an elite shooter. 

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