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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Smirking Ben Simmons knows he's in a different class than Jared Dudley and is happy to show it in Sixers' Game 3 win over Nets

Smirking Ben Simmons knows he's in a different class than Jared Dudley and is happy to show it in Sixers' Game 3 win over Nets

NEW YORK — The crowd at Barclays Center on Thursday night gave Jared Dudley warm cheers when he first checked into Game 3 of the Sixers’ first-round series against the Nets, aware of the unpleasantries recently exchanged between Dudley and Ben Simmons.

By the time Dudley took his first shot of the night — an air ball with 1:48 left in the third quarter and the Sixers leading by 15 — there was a meek scattering of boos as Simmons raised his arms and stared at the veteran. Dudley finished scoreless in his 16 minutes, while Simmons had 31 points on 11 for 13 shooting and nine assists. The gaping disparity between the two players was never more obvious than during the Sixers’ 131-115 win over the Nets (see observations). 

Simmons, for his part, brushed aside a question about whether he’d proven he was more than the “average” half-court player Dudley said he was. 

“I don’t know,” he said.” I’m not worried about it.”

“I try not to pay too much attention to what’s going on social media or what people say just because they’re going to say what they want to say. I’m not going to let that affect me on the floor. I’m going to do my job when I step on the floor and play the point guard position the best I can.”

Brett Brown gushed about a second straight excellent performance from Simmons, who helped split the offensive load with Joel Embiid out because of left knee soreness. Simmons responded to the Nets’ heightened physicality with him by making 9 of 11 free throws and became the first Sixer to ever score 31 or more points and shoot 80 percent or better from the floor in a playoff game, per Basketball Reference.

Whether he’s getting booed or there’s something else going on as it relates to scrutinizing Ben, he is tremendously confident in himself. He has put in a tremendous amount of work to earn that privilege. I’m so happy for him to play like he played tonight. … I think he feeds off that but it’s not like he’s beating his chest out there. I think internally, he’s got tremendous inner confidence.

Simmons’ inner confidence often manifests as arrogance. He knows he’s in a different class than Dudley and was happy to show the world. The 22-year-old plays with a smirk that suggests he savors dominating inferior opponents.

Though the Sixers still need two wins to advance to the second round and diminish Dudley’s place in the national spotlight, Simmons already wants to move on. In his mind, Dudley isn’t worth worrying about.

The questions about how Simmons will fare against the Eastern Conference’s elite teams or his ideal role in the Sixers’ half court offense — largely off the ball since the return of James Ennis and corresponding increase in Jimmy Butler’s time at point guard — are still present. 

For now, though, he says the questions posed by and about Jared Dudley are far from his mind.

“I don’t really have energy for it,” Simmons said. “It’s done. People are going to say what they want to say. Just gotta play.”

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Sixers 131, Nets 115: With Joel Embiid out, Sixers impose will on Nets to take back home court

Sixers 131, Nets 115: With Joel Embiid out, Sixers impose will on Nets to take back home court


NEW YORK — The news approximately 20 minutes before tip-off Thursday night of Joel Embiid’s absence with left knee soreness was not a death sentence for the Sixers.

A brilliant Ben Simmons (31 points on 11 for 13 shooting and nine assists), excellent shooting nights from Tobias Harris (29 points) and JJ Redick (26 points), and an unlikely tandem at center ensured the Nets are much closer to death this season than the Sixers, who beat Brooklyn, 131-115, to take a 2-1 series lead.

Here are observations from the Sixers’ win:

• Greg Monroe started in Embiid’s place, and it was not an auspicious first few minutes for him. He allowed two early offensive boards to Jarrett Allen, fouling the Nets’ center on one and conceding a dunk on the other as the Nets took a 9-4 edge. His mobility was minimal and labored.

Boban Marjanovic replaced Monroe after five minutes and, as he has throughout the series, improbably held his own in space defensively. The 7-foot-3 Marjanovic actually moved with more fluidity on defense than Monroe. In pick-and-roll coverage, Marjanovic had better instincts than Monroe for how to buy the ball handler’s defender time when he fell a step behind on the initial move, and for how to challenge shots at the rim.

Monroe had seven points on 3 for 12 shooting and 12 rebounds, while Marjanovic finished with 14 points and eight rebounds. He’s the only Sixer who’s played well in all three games against Brooklyn.

• Simmons proved again that his poor Game 1 performance was an anomaly.

Jared Dudley, the 12-year-veteran who’d called Simmons “average” in the half court, had no points in 16 minutes and air-balled a three-point attempt from the right wing. Though Simmons dismissed Dudley's comment at shootaround, saying, “That’s coming from Jared Dudley. Come on,” he seemed determined to show just how wrong Dudley’s assessment was.

There’s no doubt Dudley is correct, however, that Simmons is a tremendous player in transition.

Simmons made two key plays at the end of quarters. He blocked LeVert’s three-pointer at the end of the first, timing his jump to perfection.

And he slammed in Redick’s miss with 1.1 seconds left in the first half, lifting the Sixers to a 65-59 lead.

The Sixers frequently used Simmons off the ball, allowing Jimmy Butler to handle much of the point guard duties. Butler had 16 points, seven assists and one  turnover. He has 14 assists and two turnovers over the past two games. 

• When Marjanovic sat, you gained a better appreciation for how vital he’s been for the Sixers this series.

Brooklyn soon erased the Sixers’ 32-24 lead after the first quarter, and their run again came with Monroe on the floor. Caris LeVert beat Redick in the pick-and-roll and converted back-to-back floaters without any resistance from Monroe early in the second, prompting a Brett Brown timeout. After yet another LeVert floater and a LeVert three-pointer, Brown re-inserted Marjanovic.

It had only been a few minutes, but it felt like the Sixers had been without Marjanovic forever, given the Nets’ stretch of uninhibited success in the paint.

The pattern continued in the second half as the Nets went on runs in the third and fourth quarter when Marjanovic exited the game. Brown was so reliant on Marjanovic that he put him in the game with five fouls and just under nine minutes to play. While understandable, the decision didn’t pay off as Marjanovic was called for a dubious offensive foul with 7:05 to play.

Mike Scott stepped in at center with Marjanovic out, and he matched up well against the Nets’ Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. The Sixers pulled away from the Nets with Scott on the floor.

• It took almost seven minutes for Harris to attempt his first field goal, a smooth jumper from the right wing off a side pick-and-roll with Marjanovic. He wasn’t shy about searching for his shot once he broke the ice, though, stepping into a pull-up three soon after from the top of the key.

The law of averages was a beautiful thing to behold for Harris, Redick and the Sixers. Redick, 3 for 9 from three-point range combined in Games 1 and 2, made three in the first four-plus minutes of the second half alone and scored 16 of his 26 points in the quarter.

Meanwhile, Harris nailed all six of his threes after shooting 2 for 6 from long range in the series’ first two games.

• “Same old, same old,” Brett Brown said pregame when confirming Embiid would be a game-time decision.

But unlike the first two games in this series, the Sixers decided Embiid’s left knee soreness was enough to sideline him.

Embiid spoke a little less than an hour before the game. In the middle of a large scrum of curious reporters, he said his knee was getting better “slowly but surely,” though it doesn’t sound like his progress is linear or predictable — he characterized some days as worse than others.

He said he’s concerned with “loading” and taking care of himself on off days, in close consultation with the Sixers’ training staff. Shortly after declining a reporter’s request to reflect on “The Process,” Embiid — who again used the word “tendinitis” to describe his condition — said he has to “Trust The Process” with his knee. Even when the circumstances are serious, he can’t help but use his signature slogan. 

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