Sixers' week ahead: A possible playoff preview, Tobias Harris' slump, Jimmy Butler's return to Minnesota

Sixers' week ahead: A possible playoff preview, Tobias Harris' slump, Jimmy Butler's return to Minnesota

While the sting of a disappointing loss in Atlanta is still fresh, the Sixers have a chance to redeem themselves Monday night in Orlando.

They’ll also host Brooklyn in a possible playoff preview and catch up with an old friend in Minnesota Saturday.

Here’s a look at the Sixers’ week ahead.

Hoping to find the Magic

Whether it was a letdown coming off a couple big wins or them taking a hungry young Hawks team too lightly, the Sixers simply didn’t show up Saturday night.

Their defense in the first half was horrendous as they allowed 74 points, the most they’ve surrendered to an opponent in a half this season. They struggled with a familiar issue, failing to stifle rookie Trae Young in the pick-and-roll.

But as Brett Brown alluded to postgame, it wasn’t strategy. It was execution.

“We had probably three or four different [adjustments] from blitzing to switching to hedging to dropping,” Brown said. “If you really dug in and looked at that, you would have seen that. I can’t say that any of them were incredibly effective, but they did force us to try and make different adjustments in the pick-and-roll.”

Expect a better effort Monday against a Magic team that’s fighting for its playoff life.

Tobi will come around

Tobias Harris was a monster in his first eight games as a Sixer, averaging 21.9 points while shooting 55 percent from the field and 42 percent from three. In his last 11, he’s down to 17.3 points on 45 percent from the field and 31 percent from three.

Harris is having an All-Star-caliber season, but every player — especially shooters — has their ups and downs. JJ Redick is a perfect example. He wasn’t hitting anything after the All-Star break and then followed it up with a torrid five-game stretch in which he shot 55 percent from three.

Whether it’s fatigue — he’s played in all 74 games for his teams this season — or just a rough patch, Harris deserves the benefit of the doubt given his recent track record. Also, it’s better that he gets this kind of slump out of the way now instead of mid-April. 

Playoff preview?

The Nets have given the Sixers fits this season. Guards D’Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie have scorched them, averaging a combined 51 points while both shooting over 55 percent in three matchups this season.

The only Sixers’ win was because of a furious comeback capped off by a ridiculous Jimmy Butler game-winner. In fairness, the teams haven’t squared off since Dec. 12 and Butler was out of the lineup — Furkan Korkmaz started in his place — in a three-point Sixers’ loss. This isn't even the same Sixers team.

If the playoffs started today, this would be the first-round matchup. It would behoove the Sixers to show up Thursday in front of their home crowd.

The return of Jimmy

Butler will return to Minnesota for the first time since the drama of his trade request ultimately landed him on the Sixers. 

While Butler was relatively quiet in the Sixers’ blowout win back on Jan. 15, he’s been a force recently. Over his last five games, Butler is averaging 23.8 points a game. 

The two most encouraging signs are his free throws and threes in that span. Butler has been aggressive getting to the rim, averaging 8.8 free throw attempts a game. Him attempting 3.2 threes and hitting 38 percent from there is a huge boon for his fit alongside Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.

The Sixers will also see Dario Saric for the second time as an opponent. Saric was such a key part of the Sixers’ playoff run last season, but has struggled to carve out a consistent role with the Timberwolves. Robert Covington, the key asset in that deal, is sidelined for the rest of the season with a knee injury. Covington hasn’t played in 2019.

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It sounds like Brett Brown has a long-term plan without Ben Simmons in mind

It sounds like Brett Brown has a long-term plan without Ben Simmons in mind

Updated: 6:32 p.m. 

Ben Simmons is still being evaluated for a lower back injury, a team spokesperson said Monday night before the Sixers’ game vs. the Atlanta Hawks. The Sixers and Simmons’ representation are working together to decide a course of action, the spokesperson said.

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Simmons “is expected to be sidelined for an undetermined period of time” and that “Simmons' injury will have longer-term implications than simply the 76ers' upcoming road trip.”

Head coach Brett Brown said he was unsure how long the injury would sideline Simmons. The 23-year-old sustained the injury at practice Wednesday going up for a rebound, according to Brown, and irritated it in the first quarter of Saturday night’s game against the Bucks.

“I don’t know,” Brown said. “And it really is like how long is a piece of string — who knows? Who knows? … Whatever the time equals on days, games, period of time, we can talk more honestly as this thing shakes out.”

However, it sounded as if Brown was preparing for his two-time All-Star point guard to be out for a while. He framed the situation as one the Sixers can cope with if other players take advantage of the chance to play expanded roles.

There’s 25 games left. … It’s an eternity,” he said. “Just keep going back to the end game. What’s the bottom line? I’ll say it again — if you get their health and their spirit, it’s got a chance to equal form. … And it’s all about landing the plane. And so with 25 games left, we’ve taken a hit with Ben. 

I do see it this way. I’m not spinning it. It’s an opportunity for us to learn and something will emerge. And we need something to emerge. It’s not like we were all saying, ‘Oh, here it is, it’s anointed.’ It wasn’t that. So, I think we’re going to learn something and find something. If this was six games out, I wouldn’t be telling you this story. When it’s 25 games out, it is, with all my heart, what I think. That’s what I said to the team, that’s what I really think and that’s what I’m going to try to pull off.

Who specifically will take over ball handling duties? Brown said it “will be done by committee” for the time being, and he named a few players who he expects to be in that mix. Monday night, the team will start Shake Milton, Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris, Al Horford and Joel Embiid. 

“The candidates could be Raul Neto or [Furkan Korkmaz] or Alec Burks or J-Rich, Shake. So, you have capable people that aren’t traditional point guards but have the ability to get the ball up the floor. Then at that point, you’re probably going to have to be in something that has motion and continuity instead of just giving Chris Paul the ball and saying, ‘Go to work’ out of a pick-and-roll, as an example.”

Regardless of Brown’s attitude, the tangible impact of not having Simmons for an extended period would clearly be significant. He leads the league in steals, has assisted on the most three-pointers and is a highly athletic, versatile and talented player.

Though there’s no definitive timeline currently, the loss of all those attributes would no doubt be difficult to overcome.

“When there is a vacuum, as there is right now with Ben, something will happen,” Brown said. “Somebody will step up. I’m trying to see the world through those eyes, and I really do — it’s not even creative coach speak. I see it as an opportunity, and I think I need to see it that way.”

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Sixers vs. Hawks: 3 storylines to watch and how to stream the game

Sixers vs. Hawks: 3 storylines to watch and how to stream the game

Updated: 5:29 p.m.

The shorthanded Sixers (35-22) will look to get right against the Hawks (17-41) at the Wells Fargo Center on Monday night.

Tobias Harris has been cleared to play (right knee contusion), but Ben Simmons will still be out with lower back soreness.

The Sixers come into the matchup with an NBA-best 26-2 mark at home but will have to contain the dangerous Trae Young.

Here are the essentials for tonight’s game:

When: 7 p.m. ET with Sixers Pregame Live at 6:30
Where: Wells Fargo Center
Broadcast: NBC Sports Philadelphia
Live stream: NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com and the NBC Sports MyTeams app

And here are three storylines to watch:

The injury bug has struck

It appeared the Sixers could be set up to go on a run after the All-Star break. Their schedule was softening up, they acquired two more players for depth and they were healthy.

So much for the healthy part.

We already know Ben Simmons will be out as we await the results of more testing on the lower back injury he irritated Saturday night in Milwaukee. 

Tobias Harris was originally listed as questionable — upgraded from doubtful — with a right knee contusion. Harris landed awkwardly during a drive against the Bucks and immediately grabbed his right knee. Through the rest of the game, Harris looked to be favoring the knee. The 27-year-old is a gamer, but it’s fair to wonder if he should’ve continued to play, especially once the game appeared to get away from the Sixers.

Simmons and Harris have been two of the team's most durable players. Simmons has played 214 of a possible 221 games during his three-year career. Harris is the only Sixer that’s played in all 57 games this season. He’s played at least 80 games in each of the previous three seasons.

All about Embiid

With his teammates banged up, it’s time for a (mostly) healthy Joel Embiid to step up. After the team’s win over Brooklyn last Thursday, Embiid said he was “the best player in the world.” On Saturday night, reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo’s play did the talking.

To Embiid’s credit, he has been playing at another gear over his last few games. He had a tough night from the field against the Bucks (5 of 18), but the second quarter — the only period the Sixers won in the game — showed how the team can play around Embiid when the All-Star center is focused and running rim to rim.

He scored 12 points, going 3 of 8 from the field and 6 of 7 from the line. That was the Sixers’ best quarter against Antetokounmpo as well. Embiid held the Greek Freak to just five points and the Sixers were within six at the half.

With newcomer Clint Capela out (plantar fasciitis), Atlanta will have to rely on veteran Dewayne Dedmon and rookie Bruno Fernando to try to contain Embiid. Count on Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce, a former Brett Brown assistant, to aggressively double Embiid all night.

Young locked in

Young is dangerous and looking to play spoiler with the Hawks well out of the playoff picture. In his two games since the break, the All-Star guard has put up 75 points and 18 assists combined in wins over the playoff-bound Heat and Mavericks.

The biggest thing the Sixers will have to focus on with Young is not fouling. In the last matchup in Atlanta, Young was 18 of 20 from the line. With Simmons out, it’ll likely fall on Josh Richardson and rookie Matisse Thybulle to try to contain him.

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