76ers

Sixers' starting 5 lives up to hype in 'scary' good performance

Sixers' starting 5 lives up to hype in 'scary' good performance

After all the excitement of the last couple days, there was a real life basketball game to be played on Friday.

The Sixers rolled out their new starting five, which had been touted as the NBA’s second-best unit before it even got on the floor. The Nuggets found out it’s not just hype.

Tobias Harris made his Sixers debut alongside Joel Embiid, Jimmy Butler, JJ Redick and Ben Simmons in a 117-110 win in front of a raucous Wells Fargo Center (see observations)

It’s hard for things to live up to the hype, but early on it appeared the juggernaut that is the Sixers’ starting five might just run Denver right out of the building.

“I think when we go back and look at film of this game — and even in this game you could see — there were pockets in the game where you said, ‘Dang. This is something scary there,’ Harris said. “I always knew the talent from afar but going out and playing and seeing it today, seeing how much spacing we have out on the court and playmakers was big.”

Of course it wasn’t perfect. There were moments of guys almost being a little too unselfish, passing up decent looks to make the extra pass. Defensively there were issues, a big reason the Sixers — who led by as many as 16 in the first half — found themselves in a dog fight.

Joel Embiid, who was battling a stomach bug, shot 4 of 17. Ben Simmons had nine turnovers.

None of that mattered in the end, as JJ Redick went off for a season-high 34 points, Jimmy Butler was quietly excellent all around with 22 points and Harris pitched in with 14 points.

Harris’ first basket could be the first of many like it. Simmons grabbed the ball off the rim, pushed it up the floor and threw a cross-court frozen rope to Harris on the wing for a three.

There were moments when the ball movement was a thing of beauty. The ball never seemed to stick.

“I think that we all feel the responsibility that we have to take this circumstance, this situation, in all of our sporting lives — it might sound cliche, but it’s true — and maximize it,” Brett Brown said. “And to come out in this fantastic basketball atmosphere and the home crowd and roll out our new team was a real special treat, it was for me. To see our guys and to see [Simmons] with new teammates was something special. The responsibility, the opportunity, this amazing home crowd — we wanted to capitalize on that. I think the momentum can easily grow from this type of base.”

While the Sixers won a basketball game against a good team, the vibe in the arena felt more like a party. A group of fans showed their love for Elton Brand — who was in his customary seat in the press area — chanting “Thank you, El-ton.”

What Brand has done is nothing short of spectacular. As a first-time GM, having played in his last NBA game less than three years ago, Brand has assembled the second-best starting lineup in the league. Not bad for a guy that’s been on the job for less than five months.

With that kind of firepower comes expectations, but that doesn’t mean these guys won’t enjoy it.

“It’s funny because after the game somebody texted me and sent me a video of me smiling after a play and wrote to me, ‘This is literally the first time I’ve ever seen you actually smile in a game’” Harris said. “And I was like, ‘You ain’t lyin’.’ It was cool to see. It was fun out there. I really had a lot of fun.”

Sixers fans are hoping the fun has just begun.

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Criticism by analyst of Joel Embiid's opinion on NBA plan is well off the mark

Criticism by analyst of Joel Embiid's opinion on NBA plan is well off the mark

Joel Embiid on Tuesday gave a thoughtful and detailed explanation for why he initially “hated” the NBA’s plan to resume the season in Orlando and still does not believe it is safe enough.

Wednesday, Kendrick Perkins reacted to Embiid’s comments on ESPN’s “First Take,” and his stance was not as well-reasoned. 

In part, Perkins said, “To me, this is just an excuse. If they get knocked out, this is going to be an excuse because their superstar was halfway in. … Man, go down there and hoop. I ain’t trying to hear that, man. It’s a billion-dollar bubble.”

Perkins’ response evades the substance of Embiid’s remarks. Among Embiid’s primary points were that he is concerned about consequences the coronavirus might have for himself and his family, that basketball isn’t the only thing which should define him, and that he is skeptical other players will adhere to the NBA’s health and safety protocols intended to minimize risk of COVID-19 exposure. (Embiid noted he doesn’t do much outside of basketball besides playing video games and will personally do everything necessary to mitigate risk.) What Perkins said addresses none of those issues.

Instead, he focused on the notion of Embiid somehow being weaker than other superstars who committed to resume play without publicly voicing any concerns. To express worry about doing one’s job in these circumstances — playing basketball, in Embiid’s case — does not suggest a lack of character or toughness. It is a logical sentiment, and there is nothing wrong with Embiid being candid on the subject. 

… If you told me that the current trend is that people are getting sick and a lot of people are dying,” Embiid said, “obviously you don’t know what's going to happen and you don’t want to be in a situation where you put your life at risk ... and all that stuff, just for what? The money and all that stuff. At the end of the day, basketball is not all that matters. I've got family, I've got myself to look out for. That's all I care about.

Coronavirus cases have risen sharply in Florida, to the extent that many hospitals in the state have maxed out their ICU capacity. Embiid, who’s donated $500,000 to coronavirus relief efforts, has every right to say he is “not a big fan” of playing in Orlando. 

Familiar cliches in sports about sacrifice for the sake of the team and adversity over obstacles do not apply to a pandemic. This is a different category from Embiid shifting how he plays to accommodate teammates, and a topic that should be approached seriously. 

Perkins is allowed to criticize Embiid, of course, but his viewpoint is lacking in empathy and perspective.

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What to make of Joel Embiid's answers to big on-court questions

What to make of Joel Embiid's answers to big on-court questions

Since March, Joel Embiid has played a little under 27 minutes of competitive basketball.

He was impressive in that time on the floor, recording 30 points and 11 rebounds vs. the Pistons on March 11 after a five-game absence with a left shoulder sprain.

However, the most notable part of Embiid’s conversation with reporters Tuesday did not have to do with on-court matters. He said that he “hated” the NBA’s plan to resume the season in Orlando and does not believe it is safe enough. As Embiid said, he is more than just a basketball player. It is certainly valid to be critical of the idea of playing in Orange County, where ICU beds are at full capacity in several hospitals because of a spike in coronavirus cases. 

Still, we’re obligated to discuss Embiid the player, a three-time All-Star starter. 

Embiid didn’t volunteer many specifics about his fitness but said on multiple occasions he “feels good.” Over the last week, Brett Brown and Josh Richardson have praised his conditioning.

“I don’t think my weight is an issue,” he said. “The only thing to always watch is my body fat, and I feel good. Like I said, I’ve been chilling. Just doing what I have to do.”

He acknowledged Tuesday he did not always play at full intensity this season. 

“During this year, there were a lot of times when I was not into the offense and I was just basically going through the same motions and all that,” he said. “But with the playoffs coming, I’ve just gotta be more assertive and just be that guy — just demand the ball and do what I do.”  

Though no major statistic that might signify aggression — usage rate, free throw rate, post-ups, three-point attempts per 36 minutes — dropped significantly this year for Embiid, he feels he’s capable of more. In 44 games, he’s averaged 23.4 points, 11.8 rebounds and 3.1 assists, playing 30.2 minutes per game. Brown said last Wednesday he’d ideally like to have Embiid play 38 minutes a game in the postseason. 

I know what I’m capable of, and I know what my teammates think of me. I know I’m capable of carrying the team,” Embiid said. “It’s all about me being assertive. If I feel like I'm not getting the ball, I've just got to talk to them and do what I have to do, but at the end of the day, I should never be in a position to complain about not getting the ball, just because of who I am. 

“I believe I can carry the team. I believe that by being able to do that, I’ve just got to take matters into my own hands. … Obviously I need to be in positions where I feel comfortable, and I'm sure my teammates are going to help me.

Embiid’s partnership with Al Horford was a prominent storyline for the Sixers before the hiatus, mostly because it hasn’t worked as the Sixers hoped offensively. Among regular Sixers duos, the team has the worst offensive rating when that pair is on the floor together, and by a three-point margin

In Embiid’s mind, the pairing isn’t doomed to fail, though he thinks the players surrounding himself and Horford are an important factor. 

I don’t believe there is a problem,” he said. “It’s just a matter of everybody buying in and being able to play their role. The pairing with Al, I feel like it has been fine. At times it could be better but then again, everyone on the court has a job and with that type of pairing you need to have shooters around or you need to have people or guys ... wanting to take that shot, especially, when you’ve got two inside presences like me and Al. 

“He can post up, I can post up and then around, you’ve got to be able to have guys that are willing to shoot and that are going to shoot the ball. I think that's what needs to happen, but I don’t think there’s a problem. I think we're fine. I like him, great guy. We've got to keep on working together. … We are better suited for the playoffs. We’ve got about eight games to get back into it ... so I’m excited.

Horford and Embiid have not played together with a cast of willing and able shooters very often this season. The Sixers as a team are 22nd in three-pointers attempted (31.6) and 14th in three-point percentage (36.2 percent). The duo has shared the floor most often with Tobias Harris, who’s taken the most threes on the team, but the Sixers only have a 101.0 offensive rating when those three play together.  

Embiid seems to think an intuitive understanding of how to play the game — when to take open shots, how to accommodate each other, when to feed the dominant big man in the post — can override what we saw in the first 65 games.

More than anything, he trusts his own abilities when he’s determined to attack. 

“We didn’t get the chance to see it as much this year,” he said, “but you can go back and look at last year’s regular season and what I did, and that’s the mindset I need to have — and even better — if I really want to achieve that goal, which is to win the championship.”

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