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Sixers at Pacers: 3 storylines to watch and how to stream the game

Sixers at Pacers: 3 storylines to watch and how to stream the game

Updated: 5:42 p.m. 

Hello, Sixers fans. Welcome back.

The Sixers (39-26) on Saturday night will play their first meaningful basketball game since the NBA season was suspended on March 11 amid the coronavirus pandemic. They’ll take on the Indiana Pacers (39-26) at Visa Athletic Center in Disney World in their first of eight seeding games.

Joel Embiid will play after missing the Sixers' last two scrimmages with right calf tightness. Glenn Robinson III (left hip pointer) and Mike Scott (right knee soreness) are out. 

Indiana will be without All-Star Domantas Sabonis (plantar fasciitis), who left the NBA’s bubble to get treatment. Malcolm Brogdon (cervical strain) is out and Victor Oladipo will play approximately 28-30 minutes, Pacers head coach Nate McMillan told reporters. The two-time All-Star originally opted out of the NBA’s restart. 

Here are the essentials for tonight’s game:

When: 7 p.m. ET with Sixers Pregame Live at 6
Where: Visa Athletic Center
Broadcast: NBC Sports Philadelphia
Live stream: NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com and the NBC Sports MyTeams app

And here are three storylines to watch:

Shake-up in the starting lineup

Brett Brown looked back on the Sixers’ first 65 games and saw one possible way to help remedy his roster’s clunky offensive fit. He decided to make second-year guard Shake Milton, who was on fire when play was paused, his starting point guard and move Ben Simmons to the four. That means Al Horford shifts to a role as a strong — albeit very expensive — sixth man.

Why make that move now? The stars sort of aligned for Brown. He gave Simmons the ball as a point guard as a rookie because of the Australian’s unique skill set and court vision. While Brown has used Simmons in an off-ball role as a screener and roller at times, he didn’t have the necessary ball handler to unleash Simmons in that way. Milton emerged with his ridiculous run and his proven shooting stroke theoretically makes for an excellent fit.

In the first two scrimmages, Simmons was the best player on the floor — on both ends. He was still flying up the floor with the ball in transition and now making plays from the elbow in the half court. Milton continued to shoot the ball well in the starting lineup and the pair showed chemistry in a very small sample size.

As for Horford, the 34-year-old did look refreshed after the layoff. He admitted prior to the team arriving in Disney World that he wasn’t where he wanted to be physically at times this season. He represents a significant upgrade as a backup center over last season’s options, but how will his minutes with Embiid go?

We’ll see how this move works out through the eight seedings games, but it seemed necessary to jolt a team that ranks 18th in offensive rating this season.

The rotation battle

While the picture is becoming clearer, there will still be a battle for minutes. Brown has said he’ll play 10 guys in the seeding games, but that number will shrink to 9 for the playoffs. The starting five and Horford are locked in. When everyone is health, those last four spots for the "regular season" will likely go to Matisse Thybulle, Furkan Korkmaz, Alec Burks and Robinson. 

Thybulle and Robinson stuck out among that group. Thybulle was as impactful as ever getting into passing lanes and disrupting offenses. Robinson was just solid all around, providing energy and making shots. Korkmaz really struggled during the last two scrimmages, both with his shot and defensively. Burks will likely get minutes because he is a shot creator on a team that doesn’t have much shot creating ability.

Veteran Mike Scott, who was a big part of the Sixers’ bench during last year’s postseason, appears to be on the outside looking in. With Robinson doubtful, he may get a few minutes in this one.

Does seeding matter?

The simple answer is likely no, but let’s break it down.

The Sixers currently sit in sixth at 39-26. The Pacers have the same record but are ahead because of tiebreakers (the Sixers could even the season series at 2-2 with a win tonight). With Sabonis and Oladipo’s statuses up in the air, Indiana could struggle to stay in fifth. The Heat (41-24) are two games up in fourth while the Celtics (43-22) are four games up in third. So, what does it all mean?

The Sixers aren’t going to mess around and try to pick their opponent. That is a dangerous game. They’re likely not making up four games to catch Boston. If they remain in sixth, they’d likely face a Celtics team they beat three out of four times. 

It seems more like they’re on a collision course to meet their old friend Jimmy Butler and Miami, who beat the Sixers three out of four times this season, in the first round. Which team is the fourth or fifth seed shouldn’t make much difference at a neutral site. 

What’s more important for these eight seeding games is the Sixers fine-tuning themselves for the postseason. If they don’t resolve their own issues, it might not matter who they play in the first round. 

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Trying to answer initial questions with Ben Simmons' knee injury

Trying to answer initial questions with Ben Simmons' knee injury

Updated: 8:42 p.m.

Ben Simmons is out for the Sixers’ seeding game Friday against the Orlando Magic with a left patella subluxation and there's not currently a timeline for his return as he considers treatment options. That news is clearly significant in the Sixers’ world, and it raises a range of questions. 

Let’s run through some of the bigger ones: 

What exactly is the injury? 

A simpler way to classify the injury is as a partial dislocation of the kneecap. 

How long will Simmons be out?

This is the largest question and still murky. Brett Brown on Thursday said “stuff is still being evaluated” and that he wasn’t in a position to offer a timeline. Presumably, factors such as the state of the ligaments around the knee could play a key role in determining how long Simmons is out. 

Outside of Simmons’ physical status, the team’s approach will be important. There’s no reason to put Simmons back on the court before he’s healthy. 

Shake Milton is hoping for a speedy return.

“It’s tough for us,” he said Thursday. “Ben is an incredible player, an incredible athlete. I don’t know, he’s like a freaking superhuman, so hopefully he’s able to heal super fast and get back on the court, because we definitely need him.”

How will the starting lineup change?

On March 11, the Sixers’ final pre-hiatus game, the team started Milton, Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris, Al Horford and Joel Embiid. That’s one possibility. The Horford-Embiid pairing is still the Sixers’ worst regular duo in terms of net rating despite having a plus-15.6 net rating in 40 minutes together at Disney World.

If Brown wants to prepare for a scenario in which Simmons is available and in the postseason starting five, he could keep Horford as the sixth man. He could instead turn to a wing such as Matisse Thybulle, Furkan Korkmaz or Glenn Robinson III, all of whom have started games for the Sixers this year. Robinson, who has missed the Sixers' first three seeding games with a left hip pointer, is doubtful for Friday's game. 

What about the rotation?

Robinson’s health is a relevant issue with the rotation, which Brown shrunk to nine players when the Sixers played the Wizards. Raul Neto didn’t play against Washington after seeing time in the first two seeding games.

It’s interesting to note that Neto started in Simmons’ place on Nov. 8 and Nov. 10 when the Australian was out with a shoulder injury. The circumstances were very different, however, as Milton was sidelined by a bone bruise and left knee sprain, leaving Neto and Trey Burke as the two main ball handlers on the roster. Trade deadline acquisition Alec Burks now appears ahead of Neto in the backup point guard pecking order, and Simmons’ injury should increase Burks' value a touch. 

As of Wednesday, Brown said his plan was still to have a nine-player rotation for the playoffs. 

What’s the intangible impact? 

When Simmons suffered a nerve impingement in his lower back on Feb. 22, Brown recalled him vomiting because of pain. He’s lauded Simmons often for the diligent rehabilitation he did to recover from that injury and be ready to go when play resumed amid a pandemic.

Injuries aren’t anything new to Brown, but he admitted it hurt some to learn about this one after witnessing the process of Simmons’ back rehabilitation. 

“It’s the life that we've lived since I have been in Philadelphia,” he said. “I’m sure every coach has some level of a similar story. This one stings, for sure. We all felt with the pandemic and are we going to play again, it obviously bought time for Ben — had the season kept going, it’s anybody’s best guess. In relation to being incredibly down about it, I’m not. When I think too long about it, probably I can go there.

“But I feel numb to it. I feel conditioned, that we’ve gone through this type of thing before. There is a level of faith that I have in the rest of the team that we can hold the fort until we hopefully get him back. But snakebitten, woe is me, I don’t go there.”

In addition to dealing with the disappointment of a star going down, the Sixers will have to tinker with ingredients like leadership that aren’t necessarily evident to an outsider.

“It’s going to be kind of everyone has to step up by committee,” Richardson said. “I think we have a few guys that can step up as leaders, who can step up and have big games for us. We don’t really like to put too much pressure on one or a few guys. Everybody’s going to step up in his absence.”

Can the Sixers manage without Simmons? 

Again, the lack of a timeline looms large here. We can say without question that the Sixers are 6-5 this season without Simmons and don’t have direct replacements for his elite defense, transition talents, creative passing and more.

It’s also logical that the Sixers will rely on Embiid defensively and feed him frequently in the post. His 34.4 percent usage rate so far in Florida may very well rise. 

“Offensively, he needs to get as many touches as we can get him,” Brown said. “And I think that one of the areas of most noticeable growth … is what he’s been doing passing out of the post. It’s maybe the single thing that stands out most to me offensively when you look at whether it’s Jo, or just us as a team — I like our post spacing.

“I like Jo’s unselfishness quarterbacking the gym. His ability to read where the double teams are coming from I think has been shown.”

Thybulle, Richardson, and perhaps Robinson when healthy could assume challenging defensive assignments that otherwise would have been Simmons’. Players like Harris and Korkmaz will miss Simmons’ ability to drive and set up three-pointers. 

Initially, the Sixers are coming to terms with the situation and hoping the injury doesn’t dent their playoff hopes.

“There’s a lot of moving parts right now and really we're all coming to grips with the news that we’ve received,” Brown said. 

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Sixers injury update: Ben Simmons has subluxation in left patella

Sixers injury update: Ben Simmons has subluxation in left patella

Updated: 8:37 p.m.

The injury Ben Simmons sustained in the Sixers' win Wednesday night over the Wizards is a subluxation of the left patella. He's out for the team's game Friday night against the Magic and treatment options are being considered.

Simmons exited Wednesday's game in the third quarter after throwing a pass for Al Horford. He immediately flexed his left knee and headed to the locker room.

Brett Brown was not prepared to give a timeline for how long Simmons will be sidelined.

"Some of the information is fluid, it’s still moving," he said Thursday. "In relation to saying any type of deadline, timeline, playoff, whatever, I’m not in a position to offer anything. Not because we don’t want to, but stuff is still being evaluated. What I do know — it’s boring, but we play Orlando tomorrow and we don’t have him. That’s kind of all I know at this point.”

The 24-year-old Simmons made his second All-Star team this season and has averaged 16.4 points, 8.0 assists and 7.8 rebounds. The Sixers shifted him to power forward in their new starting lineup, and he was open to the change.

"You've just gotta work with different things,” he said on July 14. “You’ve gotta try different things out, see if they work. We’re not at a stage where we can be comfortable yet. I’m still trying to figure it out myself ... what feels comfortable, what’s right for this team and how we’re gonna win. 

“If it’s this way, then I’m all for it. I’ve been having fun in that position — whatever you guys say, the four — whatever it is. But at the end of the day, when you see me I’m on the floor, I’m making plays."

He'd missed the Sixers' final eight games before the NBA's hiatus with a nerve impingement in his lower back but recovered from that injury and said he felt explosive heading into the restart. 

Without Simmons, Brown will have a few options to replace Simmons in the starting lineup, including original starting power forward Al Horford and wings Matisse Thybulle and Furkan Korkmaz.

Brown said he spoke with Simmons and Sixers medical director Scott Epsley on Wednesday night during a team dinner.

"There is clearly disappointment," Brown said, "because I don’t know if anybody really understood what he did to get ready to play basketball again. He really invested time, he really was diligent during the whole pandemic about recovery and rehab and strength and conditioning. ... And so I feel like there is certainly some disappointment, I think (there’s) the uncertainty of what really is it right now, is obviously there.

"But he’s a great teammate and his teammates care about him, and I think more will unfold, I suspect, in the next 24 hours where we can maybe provide more information.”

In other injury news, Mike Scott (right knee soreness) is questionable for Friday's game and Glenn Robinson III (left hip pointer) is doubtful. Both participate in the Sixers' practice Thursday after missing the team's first three seeding games. 

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