76ers

Sixers soak in Markelle Fultz's historic night

Sixers soak in Markelle Fultz's historic night

After becoming the youngest player in NBA history to record a triple-double, Markelle Fultz got quite the unique shower from his teammates in the locker room.

“They poured strawberry milk, chocolate milk, water,” Fultz said. “They drowned me with everything, but it’s all love and appreciation.”

It was a night of celebration for Fultz and the Sixers, as the team clinched the No. 3 seed and a first-round matchup against the Heat with its 16th straight win, 130-95, over the Bucks Wednesday (see observations). Fultz, who posted 13 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists in 25 minutes, was mobbed by his teammates after grabbing his 10th rebound with 1:12 left to seal the accomplishment.

Fultz was also spurred on by the crowd at Wells Fargo Center, who stuck around during garbage time, cheering the rookie’s every move and chanting “Fultz” in a Philadelphia variation of the Vikings’ “Skol” chant.

“It’s unbelievable,” Fultz said. “That’s the support I’ve been getting all year. Going through what I’ve been through, they’ve been like that all year, just being there, supporting me, boosting my confidence, and that’s why I love it.”

With Brett Brown confirming pregame that he intends to stick with Fultz in the rotation during the postseason, Fultz showed Wednesday night some of the ways he could help the Sixers.

He pushed the pace aggressively in his first stint, finding Justin Anderson for two long-range jumpers, converting on a pair of fast-break layups and leading an unstoppable Sixers’ offense. By the time he checked out early in the second quarter, the Sixers led by 31 points.

While Fultz still looks more comfortable in transition than in half-court offense, he seems to be growing in confidence with his decision-making. But Fultz insists he’s always had faith in his ability.

“I always believed in myself,” Fultz said. “It was just a matter of going out there, enjoying myself, having fun and playing confident.”

Since JJ Redick was sidelined with lower-back tightness, Brown mainly paired Fultz in the backcourt with T.J. McConnell, who finished with 16 points and seven assists. While Fultz has taken some of McConnell’s minutes recently (see story), McConnell said he enjoys playing with the rookie.

“I’m doing whatever the coach asks me to do,” McConnell said. “I love playing with Markelle, I love playing with Ben. Any way I can get on the floor and play, that’s what I’m going to do. Anything to help us win.”

McConnell’s attitude is not an outlier on the unselfish Sixers. Brown pointed to the moment in which the team rushed to celebrate Fultz’s achievement as the highlight of the night, and as evidence of the unity this team has heading into the postseason.

“If you said what was the most impressive thing of the night, that’s mine,” Brown said. “To see his teammates react to Markelle Fultz was special. I think it’s a snapshot into who these guys are. I think it’s a real-time example when you hear me say, ‘Oh, they play together, they coexist, this and that’ — that’s real. That doesn’t require a coach throwing out some math. There’s a human side to that which is special.”

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 3 ½ 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 said to 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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Sixers 120, Pacers 96: Sixers kick off brutal stretch with arguably best win of season

Sixers 120, Pacers 96: Sixers kick off brutal stretch with arguably best win of season

BOX SCORE

The Sixers kicked off a tough upcoming stretch with arguably their most impressive win of the season.

They took down the Pacers, 120-96, Thursday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

Indiana has been one of the hottest teams in the league, winning nine of their last 11. The Sixers were able to capture a win in the first game of a brutal 12-game stretch.

Here are observations from the win.

• The Sixers have moved the ball extremely well over their last two games. After collecting 40 assists on 55 made field goals on their way to waxing the Timberwolves Tuesday, they recorded 38 assists on 46 field goals against the Pacers, a team that came in with the third-best defensive rating in the NBA. The Sixers have the look of a team that's starting to click offensively.

They also held Indiana, the second-best shooting team in the NBA at 48.3 percent, to just 40 percent.

• Brett Brown has said on more than one occasion he’d like Jimmy Butler to be more assertive. On Thursday, Butler certainly was. He abused Bojan Bogdanovich — who’s out there for his offense — every chance he got.

What stood out in the first half was Butler’s movement without the basketball. On more than one occasion he was able to make a sharp cut to the basket for an easy bucket.

Butler was his usual active self on the defensive end. What’s most impressive is his recovery speed when he tries to cheat for a steal or deny his man the ball. It’s part of what makes him elite on that end of the floor. 

He finished with 27 points on 10 of 17 from the field. He also had eight assists with zero turnovers. You could make the case this was his best game as a Sixer.

• Joel Embiid, who was a game-time decision with a back issue, was clearly in discomfort. He was noticeably grimacing on the floor and trying to stretch on the sideline. 

With that said, the All-Star center gutted it out on both ends of the floor. He recored his league-leading 38th double-double with 22 points and 13 rebounds. He came up just two assists shy of a triple-double and had three blocks. 

• Simmons has been phenomenal lately, but we didn’t see the same aggressive player he’s been since the calendar turned to 2019. Simmons has done an excellent job recently of being aggressive and looking for his shot early.

In this one he took just two shots in the first half. He seemed to fall back into the trend of getting into the paint without a plan which generally has led to turnovers. He committed five in the first half. Simmons is so much better when he goes to the rim looking to score first and pass second. His indecisiveness has hurt him. He did commit just one turnover in the second half and still finished with 11 points, eight rebounds and eight assists.

To Simmons’ credit, he didn’t let his early offensive struggles affect him on the other end. He was charged with guarding the dangerous Victor Oladipo and held the All-Star guard to just 15 points.

• Jonah Bolden has been a revelation off the Sixers’ bench. Sure, he only played 12 minutes tonight, but his impact on the defensive end has been huge. His length, athleticism, quick feet and ability to protect the rim have been a big addition off the bench. Bryan Colangelo’s tenure as Sixers GM didn’t go well, but he may have hit on this second-round pick.

• It’s amazing what Bolden’s emergence and Wilson Chandler’s reemergence (10 points) has done to improve the team’s bench and somewhat solidify the team’s rotation. Using Bolden as the backup five allows Mike Muscala (11 points) to play more four and Chandler to play more three. Both players seem more comfortable at those positions.

This team likely isn’t a finished product as we approach the Feb. 7 deadline, but it appears Brett Brown has finally found a rotation he feels comfortable with.

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