76ers

Sixers at Pacers: 3 storylines to watch

Sixers at Pacers: 3 storylines to watch

Indiana is already a much deeper team than the Sixers, and Brett Brown's group will now be without Mike Muscala, who suffered a nose fracture and facial laceration after colliding with a teammate at Tuesday's practice (see story).

Here are three things to watch for Wednesday night's game against the Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse:

1. Getting Embiid the ball
As Brett Brown likes to say, Joel Embiid is the "crown jewel" and the "centerpiece of everything we do," which means they have got to get him the ball. After Sunday night’s loss to Brooklyn, both Brown and Embiid mentioned the inability to get the big man the ball inside. Embiid finished with just five paint touches and eight post-ups, both well below his season averages against one of the bottom-10 defensive teams in the NBA. 

And Indiana is a much better defensive team than Brooklyn, ranking third in opponents' points allowed and sixth in opponents' field goal percentage. Tonight is going to be tough, but I’ll be curious to see what offensive adjustments the Sixers make.

2. Not in Philly? We've got problems
Prior to Sunday night, I wasn’t worried about the Sixers not winning on the road. Boston, Milwaukee and Toronto on the road are tough matchups and I could let the Detroit game slide (they were without Ben Simmons and Blake Griffin dropped 50). But, after that Brooklyn game, I’ve changed my tune.

Plus, out of the five road losses, four of those have come by at least 15 points. That’s trouble. At the conclusion of last season, the Sixers had only five 15-plus-point losses in total. When the offense struggles, the defense starts to slack as well (which is what I see as the biggest reason for the number of blowout losses so early to start the season). It should be the opposite. If the offense struggles again tonight (which it very well may), the defense needs to step up.

3. Where's the fight?
Simmons said the team has been playing "soft." Embiid blatantly said he "sucked" and Brown called the Sixers' last performance "unacceptable." 

Tonight’s game is all about how this team responds. There’s been a lot of talk among the players about needing to step up as a team. Win or lose, will we see the fight tonight?

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How far can the new-look Sixers go?

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How far can the new-look Sixers go?

The Sixers currently sit in the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference. While they'll likely overtake the Victor Oladipo-less Pacers, they still have the Bucks, Raptors and Celtics to contend with.

Unfortunately for the Sixers, they've only managed one win against the East's top three teams — and that was against Toronto without Kawhi Leonard.

But with the Sixers overhauled roster just four games into this iteration, things could be different down the stretch and in the playoffs.

Today, NBC Sports Philadelphia's Paul Hudrick and Noah Levick discuss just how far they think the new-look Sixers can go in this year's postseason.

Monday, they looked at who should be part of the Sixers' playoff rotation (see story).

Tuesday, they broke down what it would take for the Sixers to finally beat Boston (see story).

Hudrick

You can’t say with certainty that the Sixers are the best team in the conference based on what we’ve seen so far.

But that was then and this is now.

When you look at the talent the Sixers have throughout their starting five and how much better their bench matches up compared to last year, a trip to the Finals isn’t crazy to think about.

While depth is important, it becomes less imperative as you reach the postseason and your best players are nearing 40 minutes a game. Just take a look at last year’s Warriors and what they averaged: Draymond Green (39), Kevin Durant (38.4), Klay Thompson (37.8) and Stephen Curry (37). You’d have to imagine DeMarcus Cousins will also hover around that number this season.

Sure, the Sixers lost to the Celtics at home without Kyrie Irving in the lineup, but that was just the team’s third game together with its revamped roster. The Sixers have 24 games to make all the pieces fit and adjust to how Boston, Toronto and Milwaukee are going to play them.

While the starting five looks more dominant than last season's, the bench also appear more playoff ready. Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova were huge for the bench at the end of the regular season last year, but they were exposed in a big way by the physicality and athleticism of the Celtics in the playoffs. 

That shouldn’t be an issue with Mike Scott, James Ennis and Jonathon Simmons. They also have more options with two centers — Boban Marjanovic and Jonah Bolden — that present two different matchups and with the ability to use Jimmy Butler at the backup point if T.J. McConnell appears overmatched.

Really, the East looks wide open. With that said, this team has the talent to reach the NBA Finals. The sky is the limit ... if the sky is Golden State.

Levick

Home-court advantage is going to matter. The Sixers, Bucks, Raptors and Celtics all have at least a 74.2 winning percentage at home, and given how closely matched those teams are, the difference between Game 7 at a raucous Wells Fargo Center and Game 7 at T.D. Garden might wind up being significant.

The prospect of long, physical series is less daunting for the Sixers this year than it was last postseason. When their stars go to the bench, the Sixers now have viable defensive options in Mike Scott, James Ennis and Jonathon Simmons. None of those names are flashy shutdown defenders, but they’re solid options who won’t be helpless.

It’s an overused term, but Zhaire Smith fits the “X-factor” description better than most. There’s a good chance the rookie doesn't see any time in the playoffs. There’s also a shot he sparks the Sixers with a couple of eyebrow-raising dunks and excellent perimeter defense. As we wait for Smith to make his debut with the Blue Coats, it certainly wouldn’t be reasonable to expect such contributions quite yet.

Surrounded by Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris, Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick, the pressure is off Ben Simmons to carry a major scoring load. While it would be great if he could regularly knock down jumpers, it’s not going to happen this season. He just needs to do what he does well — push the ball as much as possible, distribute it to his teammates and score efficiently inside. His free throw shooting, especially late in games — he’s 50 percent from the line in the fourth quarter — remains a concern. 

The Sixers absolutely could win the Eastern Conference. It’s also possible that, as a new team with under 30 games of regular-season experience together, they falter against an inferior opponent or still can’t solve Boston.

Matchups, home court, how everything comes together in the home stretch — it’s all going to be important. Regardless, anything less than a highly competitive Eastern Conference Finals series for the Sixers would be disappointing. And, if we’re being honest, even that would sting if the Sixers don’t win it. 

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If they face Celtics again in playoffs, how can Sixers beat Boston?

If they face Celtics again in playoffs, how can Sixers beat Boston?

The Sixers have 24 games left, and each one of them matters with playoff seeding at stake. But their March 20 matchup vs. the Celtics might matter a little more than the others as the Sixers will aim to avoid a season sweep against Boston.

Today, NBC Sports Philadelphia's Paul Hudrick and Noah Levick discuss how the Sixers can beat the Celtics if the two teams meet again in the playoffs.

Monday, they looked at who should be part of the Sixers' playoff rotation (see story).

Wednesday, they'll review their expectations for the rest of the season.

Hudrick 

While the new-look Sixers will likely be a better team the next time they see the Celtics, there’s plenty to take from the previous matchups.

Some teams are a tough matchup for Joel Embiid and others for Ben Simmons. Boston is the rare team that gives both All-Stars problems. Al Horford is the rarest of players that can guard both. 

Most NBA fives are susceptible to Embiid’s pump fakes or they can’t keep up with his footwork, often leading to fouls. That’s not the case with Horford, who has the discipline, strength and quickness to hang with Embiid. It’s a matter of Embiid making better and quicker decisions — especially against double teams.

With Simmons, it’s just about valuing the basketball and picking his spots to be aggressive. Boston is excellent at getting back in transition, where Simmons normally excels. Simmons is often better when he’s attacking, but against the Celtics he may be better off letting the game come to him, like he did last Tuesday.

The other thought, knowing how much Embiid and Simmons have struggled vs. Boston, is to run the offense more around Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris. 

Butler was the best player on the floor against the Celtics last week. We’ve briefly seen the Butler experiment at point guard. I’d be interested in seeing it more against Boston. It could allow Butler to be in control of the offense and allow Simmons to play a traditional four spot.

Harris struggled in the loss last week, but had good looks. He’s been with the team for less than two weeks, so Brown and his teammates are still figuring Harris out and how he fits in the offense. They have 24 games to find the best way to get Harris more involved. Doing so could come in handy if they face the Celtics again in the playoffs.

Levick 

I think there are three keys to the Sixers beating the Celtics: 

1. Make Joel Embiid’s life easier
We know Al Horford defends Embiid very well. Embiid just can’t draw fouls or score inside with ease against Horford the same way he does against other big men. That’s fine.

The Sixers can help Embiid by spacing the floor properly when he gets the ball, making the occasional, smart split cut off him, and recognizing that he’s not always going to be their best offensive option. Sometimes Tobias Harris or Jimmy Butler are going to be the right player to turn to down the stretch.

2. Play to Ben Simmons’ strengths
The current reality is Simmons, without a reliable jump shot, likely won’t be as effective offensively vs. the Celtics as he is against others teams. Boston does a great job neutralizing the athletic advantage Simmons usually possesses. Again, that doesn’t have to kill the Sixers.

I’ve mentioned it a bunch in the past, but it bears repeating — Simmons has gone from a poor post player (21 for 70, or 30 percent last season) to one of the better post-up players in the NBA this season (50 for 99, or 50.5 percent).

It would make sense for the Sixers to use Simmons more at the power forward spot than normal vs. Boston in lineups with Jimmy Butler or T.J. McConnell at the point. 

3. Prioritize defense
As we saw last season, Boston is masterful at exposing defensive liabilities. Players like Furkan Korkmaz can’t see the floor against the Celtics. JJ Redick’s minutes might need to go down. McConnell, though he’s been very good recently against the Celtics, will probably only be playable if he’s asked to defend smaller guards like Terry Rozier. 

In all likelihood, Brett Brown will need to ride his best defensive players — Butler, Embiid, Simmons and Harris. The Sixers have the talent to beat Boston, but Brown has a challenging task navigating the matchup troubles which the Celtics present. 

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