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Sixers-Rockets observations: No heartbreaking collapse this time

Sixers-Rockets observations: No heartbreaking collapse this time

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HOUSTON — A double-digit lead is never safe against the Rockets, is it? 

The Sixers beat the Rockets for the first time in eight meetings, 115-107, but it wasn’t without another near-letdown in the fourth quarter. 

Ben Simmons turned in a team-high 24 points as the Sixers had seven players score in double figures Monday night. Joel Embiid was right behind him with 22 points.

Let’s get right to the final minutes of the game and then see how they got there.

Fast-forward to 9:30 to go when the Sixers were up 10. The Rockets started to chip away, cutting the Sixers’ lead all the way down to five with 8:37 to play. The Sixers responded by going up 10 again behind an offensive rebound, layup, block and steal by Embiid. 

From that point, the Rockets went on a 6-0 run to make it 103-99 with four minutes left. Embiid grabbed the rebound off Clint Capela’s attempted go-ahead layup to halt the Rockets’ momentum. 

The Sixers hit two straight baskets to go up five, but just like they did in their last meeting with the Rockets, committed a 24-second violation down the stretch. Ryan Anderson and Trevor Ariza both missed threes that would have brought the Rockets back within two.

• The last time the Sixers beat the Rockets was Nov. 13, 2013. Does that feel like a long time ago? Well, consider this: Tony Wroten posted an 18-point, 10-rebound, 11-assist triple-double in his first career start. The Sixers’ James Anderson led all players in scoring (36 points). 

And the last time the Sixers won in Houston dates even further back to Feb. 16, 2011.

• So how did it all begin on Monday night? The Sixers shot a season-high 65.2 percent from the field in the first quarter to jump out to a 10-point advantage. The Rockets saw a window of opportunity when Simmons took a seat halfway through the second. They went on a 7-0 run and cut the deficit to one point. The Sixers pushed their edge back up to seven points after Simmons checked back in. Dario Saric hit a pair of threes and Simmons found Embiid for an alley-oop. The Sixers ended the quarter with three straight turnovers, though, and were up just two at halftime. 

• The Rockets’ backcourt took turns dominating in the first half. James Harden played the entire first quarter and scored 12 points, including 6 of 7 at the line, which the Sixers wanted to limit. Eric Gordon didn’t attempt a shot in the first but exploded for 15 points as he played the entire second quarter. He hit a trio of threes, which wasn’t even the biggest standout. He took a whopping nine shots, 75 percent of his total season average of 12.0 attempts per game. Harden (25) and Gordon (29) were the only Rockets with over 15 points.

• The Sixers were locked in on limiting the sharpshooting Rockets from three and at the line. Their efforts paid off as the Rockets shot 13 of 47 (27.7 percent) from long range. The Rockets outscored the Sixers 28-17 at the free throw line, led by 10 of 12 from Harden.

• Embiid, Saric, Simmons and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot (see below) combined for 47 of the Sixers’ 58 first-half points. Harden and Gordon were responsible for 30 of the Rockets’ 56.  

• The Sixers kept the Rockets at bay in the third, going up by as many as 14 points. The Sixers again reached 65 percent from the field, partially in thanks to T.J. McConnell, who led the team with eight points (2 for 2 from three) in five minutes (read more on McConnell here). Amir Johnson pulled down six rebounds in the third to match the Rockets’ team total. Harden added another 11 points but no other Rocket scored more than four. 

• Embiid didn't show signs of being bothered by his right hand contusion. He knocked down 9 of 12 field goals (22 points), pulled down nine boards and dished five assists (see highlights).

• Simmons made three jump shots — yes, jump shots — from 16 and 17 feet from the basket. Entering the game, he had shot just 0 for 2 in the 16- to 24-foot range from the hoop. Simmons neared a double-double with 24 points, nine assists and seven boards (see highlights). He was mixing up his shot locations, not just focusing in the paint, during pregame drills.

• Luwawu-Cabarrot broke out to a hot start. He scored 11 points on a perfect 4 for 4 from the field in six minutes during the first quarter. Luwawu-Cabarrot also went 2 for 2 from three, seeing the results of taking hundreds of three-point shots every practice.  

• Robert Covington was in a very different situation in Houston nearly three years ago to the day. He was waived by the Rockets on Oct. 27, 2014. 

• Embiid fouled Luc Mbah a Moute and knocked him to the ground. Embiid helped him up and Mbah a Moute replied with a friendly tap on the back. Mbah a Moute has played a major role in Embiid’s career, first recognizing the big man’s potential when Embiid attended his basketball camp in Cameroon back in 2011. 

Furkan Korkmaz the hero in Sixers' win over Bucks in MGM Resorts NBA Summer League

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Furkan Korkmaz the hero in Sixers' win over Bucks in MGM Resorts NBA Summer League

With a quarterfinal berth nearly in their grasp, the Sixers fell apart in the fourth quarter Saturday night but Furkan Korkmaz was there to save the day again.

Thanks to a furious late run and an and-1 from Korkmaz with 3.6 seconds left, the Sixers pulled out a miraculous 91-89 win over the Milwaukee Bucks to advance to the quarterfinals of the MGM Resorts NBA Summer League. They'll play the Memphis Grizzlies on Sunday at 10 p.m. 

The Sixers led, 71-61, early in the fourth quarter, but some sloppy play and stagnant offense allowed the Bucks to go on a 15-0 run. But the Sixers made a strong late push. Trailing 88-80, Korkmaz and the Sixers went on a run of their own. Two free throws from Korkmaz with 36.1 seconds left cut the deficit to 89-87. Then, with the clock ticking down, he drove from the left wing and converted his decisive leaner, the shot rolling around the rim before dropping in. Korkmaz calmly made the free throw to give the Sixers the lead.

Jonah Bolden broke up an inside pass intended for Milwaukee’s Christian Wood on the ensuing inbounds play. He made one of two free throws with 1.2 seconds left, and the Bucks couldn’t get off a desperation heave.

Let’s get into five observations from Saturday’s incredible win:

1. Even before his late-game heroics, Korkmaz’s assertiveness was noticeable Saturday night. With the Sixers’ offense floundering, Korkmaz confidently pushed the pace and looked to score. He wasn’t always in control, but to see him create his own offense instead of camping out in the corner and waiting for the game to come to him was encouraging. 

"Of course I feel proud of [my performance] because I just got here," Korkmaz told ESPN's Cassidy Hubbarth after the game. Korkmaz arrived in Las Vegas after competing in FIBA World Cup European Qualifiers for Turkey. 

"The guys are really positive guys. We stay as a team and we play together. If I need to talk about myself, I feel good on the court. I just try to play more aggressive and that's the point for me."

There was absolutely no hesitation on this coast-to-coast drive and Euro step finish from Korkmaz in the second quarter.

Korkmaz’s trust in himself as a ball-handler and shot creator could be an important element of his game. That said, showing the same conviction against physical NBA wings is, of course, a much bigger challenge than doing it in summer league.

After the game, Korkmaz reiterated his aggressive mindset.

“I feel more confidence in this summer league … When I feel good on the court, I start to play more aggressive," Korkmaz told reporters. "I just need to keep it up in all [my] minutes.” 

Sixers summer league coach Kevin Young felt he could trust Korkmaz with the ball in his hands late.

“He’s been hot or cold all tournament long, but the thing I love about Furk is he’s a gamer," Young said. "He’s played in a lot of big games, happy to get the ball in his hands, and [I] let him kind of make a play.”

Korkmaz had 19 points on 6 for 13 shooting Saturday night. 

2. Throughout the Sixers’ five summer league games, Zhaire Smith’s instincts have stood out. Offensively, he cuts well, darting backdoor at the perfect moments. His teammates often have missed him, but that shouldn’t be the case in the regular season. Defensively, he tends to make the right read, knowing when to help off his man and when to stay home. And his hands are active, like on this steal against the Bucks’ Sterling Brown and finish in transition.

It’s clear that Smith has a lot of areas to grow as he transitions to being an NBA wing. That was evident again Saturday, as he shot just 3 for 11 from the field. But those high basketball IQ instincts combined with his elite athleticism should help him improve and adjust at the next level quicker than many people may expect.

3.  If Jonah Bolden can put it all together, it’s easy to see how he could be a productive piece for the Sixers. He just seems to struggle to show all his skills on the same night. 

Saturday, Bolden again showed glimpses of his ability, like when he squared up his defender and knocked down a three-pointer on the right wing in the second quarter, or when he smoothly pulled down offensive rebounds. There weren’t any sustained stretches of consistently solid play, but his performance against Milwaukee was his best of summer league. Bolden had 13 points on 5 for 10 shooting and eight rebounds against the Bucks.

“To be completely honest with you, up until this point, I think I might’ve played better last summer," Bolden said. "Not to say I’ve played terribly, it’s just not up to my personal standards. And I feel I’ve gotten better and better each game. Still not up to where I’d want to be, not up to the same standard, just the consistency from Game One last summer to the end, whereas this summer has kind of been starting lower and getting up there game by game.”

At a minimum, the Sixers want to see consistent effort and defense from Bolden. Through the first four games, Young was happy with what he’d seen in that regard. 

“Offensively, he’s struggled,” Young told reporters Friday. “He’s not in a great rhythm; he kind of came in late. I think that probably hurt him a little bit just in terms of individual rhythm. But defensively, he’s been good. He’s a high-energy guy. he can guard a lot of positions, which for him I think is something that is really valuable for his NBA life. He’s versatile defensively in terms of being able to guard inside against big guys, guard smaller guys. So that’s really where he’s at his best for us.”

We saw last season how Brett Brown valued Amir Johnson’s defensive presence over Richaun Holmes’ offensive spark. If Bolden is going to earn a spot on the Sixers this season, his defense may be the key. 

4. Cameron Oliver has a serious affinity for attacking the rim. The Blue Coats forward, who entered Saturday’s game averaging 10.3 points and 6.0 rebounds in 19.3 minutes per game in summer league, has had far more than his fair share of emphatic dunks. He added another to his collection against Milwaukee.

Oliver’s game is still raw and at 6-foot-8 he’s on the shorter side for an NBA power forward, but his explosiveness and fearless approach is impressive. He’s a developing player worth keeping an eye on this season in Delaware. 

5. Christian Wood looks like an NBA player. He’s already been one, in fact, albeit for only 17 games on the 2015-16 Sixers and 13 games on the 2016-17 Hornets. With his length, athleticism and activity, Wood seems like someone who should be able to secure a spot on an NBA bench. Saturday, he posted 27 points and 12 rebounds. The Sixers organization knows Wood well; along with that brief NBA stint a couple years back, he starred last season at the G-League level in Delaware, averaging 23.3 points and 10.3 rebounds per game. 

Speaking of Delaware, Newark’s own Donte DiVincenzo suited up for his second summer league game Saturday night.  After missing Milwaukee’s first three games with a right groin strain and playing just 10 minutes Thursday against the Spurs, the Villanova product looked rusty. He air-balled his first jumper and never got into a rhythm, finishing with one point on 0 for 5 shooting. 

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Sixers rally past Suns for upset to advance in MGM Resorts NBA Summer League

Sixers rally past Suns for upset to advance in MGM Resorts NBA Summer League

After finishing up pool play in the MGM Resorts NBA Summer League earlier this week, the Sixers opened the tournament portion of their slate on Thursday still looking for their first win in Las Vegas.

They won't have to wait any longer as the 30th-seeded Sixers battled back in the second half for an 88-86 win over the third-seeded Phoenix Suns at the Thomas & Mack Center. The Sixers (1-3) will next play on Saturday at 8:30 p.m. when they face the No. 14 seed Milwaukee Bucks, who knocked off the No. 19 seed San Antonio Spurs in overtime.

The Suns, who suffered their first defeat after winning their first three matchups, will play a consolation game before wrapping things up for the summer.

Now let’s dive into some observations from Thursday’s action:

1. Zhaire Smith and Mikal Bridges will likely be linked together for the rest of their NBA careers and the pair shared a court for the first time as professionals in this one.

Of course, Villanova product Bridges was drafted by the Sixers with the 10th overall pick in the 2018 draft before being dealt a short time later to the Suns for No. 16 selection Smith and Miami’s unprotected 2021 first-rounder.

The Sixers made the move knowing Bridges was the better player at the moment but with an eye toward Smith’s immense potential. However, both players looked every bit the part of rookie on Thursday with some bright spots and some negatives.

In 21 minutes of play, Smith had eight points on 2 of 5 shooting to go along with two assists. That included this one three-pointer right in Bridges' face.

Bridges contributed seven points and was also 2 of 5 from the field in addition to four steals and two blocks in 27 minutes. The thing that may stick with the former Wildcat is he couldn't get a handle on the ball under the rim in the final seconds for a potential game-tying shot.

2. Isaiah Miles has never received serious attention for an NBA roster to this point in his career but that should change in the near future.

The former St. Joe’s standout is a prototypical stretch four in today’s game and he showed exactly why against the Suns.

Miles poured in a team-high 20 points on 7 of 10 shooting, including 6 of 8 from three-point range. He also battled inside to pull down six rebounds and put his body on the line to take a charge in the second half when the Sixers were making their push.

“We started 0-3. We had a 30 next to our name as a seed, and we kind of took that as disrespect,” Miles said, per the Sixers' website. “We had to make a stamp on this tournament, so we wanted to come out and show that, and work hard. I’m proud of these guys. We worked hard against a really good Phoenix Suns team. We live to fight another day.”

The 24-year-old has played in France and Turkey since leaving Hawk Hill, but his skill set says he deserves a shot back in the United States.

3. Jonah Bolden made some pretty bold claims about being determined to come from overseas and join the Sixers for the 2018-19 season. His performance in Sin City has suggested otherwise, but that doesn’t mean things have been all bad for the big man.

Bolden has played some solid defense throughout the Sixers' summer league stint and the Australian took things up a notch in Thursday’s victory as he locked down No. 1 overall pick Deandre Ayton.

Ayton entered the contest averaging 16.0 points (67.0 percent shooting) and 11.0 rebounds. Bolden limited the center to 10 points on 4 for 10 shooting and nine boards with six turnovers.

Bolden’s own offense was nothing to write home about as he was held scoreless and had four turnovers. However, he should still be able to put on the tape and feel pretty good about his effort.

4. Things are so much easier for summer league teams just thrown together with random guys when they have strong play from their lead guards. Thankfully for the Sixers, both Furkan Korkmaz and Demetrius Jackson finally found a rhythm on the same night.

Korkmaz, who had been virtually nonexistent since his 40-point explosion in the opener, bounced back with 18 points, five rebounds and three assists in 28 minutes.

Jackson was a main reason the Sixers battled back after intermission. He found his way to the rim consistently as he contributed 10 points, five dimes and three boards.

5. Nevada product Cameron Oliver has felt right at home during the Sixers’ MGM Resorts NBA Summer League run in Las Vegas.

The forward has made some good plays and even better celebrations. He continued that trend on Thursday.

Oliver came off the bench to finish with 10 points and four boards. Reserve guard Askia Booker also tacked on 11 points and six assists for the Sixers.

Shaquille Harrison led the Suns with 17 points while New Jersey native Davon Reed put up 16.

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