76ers

Sixers' week ahead: Well-deserved rest for Joel Embiid, don't overreact to Tobias Harris' struggles and more

Sixers' week ahead: Well-deserved rest for Joel Embiid, don't overreact to Tobias Harris' struggles and more

Off the heels of their biggest win of the season, the Sixers will have to play a game without their “crown jewel.”

“Sixers 3.0” should be back together as they try to conquer their Boston demons and head back out on the road against an improved Atlanta team.

Let’s take a look at the Sixers’ week ahead.

No Embiid in Charlotte

After a clutch 40-point performance in which he also spent a good portion of the game guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo, this seems like as good a time as any to get Joel Embiid some rest.

The Hornets are falling out of the playoff picture and they’re a team the Sixers should be able to beat without Embiid. Kemba Walker did hang 60 on them earlier this season, but the Sixers still won that game. Walker has also slowed down after a torrid start, shooting just 40 percent from the field and 32 percent from three over his last 13 games.

There are only 12 games left in the regular season, but the Sixers’ schedule does soften up. You can expect Embiid and possibly other veterans to get rest days when appropriate. Delivering their starting five to the postseason healthy is — and should — be the team's top priority.

Don’t overreact to starters ‘struggling’

Tobias Harris is averaging just 16.8 points and shooting 32 percent from three over his last eight, which means we should totally freak out and panic, right? Nope. Not even close.

Before Harris’ “slump,” it was Jimmy Butler that everyone was freaking out about. Then Butler went out and had two very good offensive performances against the Kings and Bucks. Everyone also lost their minds when JJ Redick was struggling after the All-Star break. He’s shooting 58 percent from three over his last four.

It’s understandably hard to ride the ebbs and flows of an 82-game season, but that’s why you go out and get Butler and Harris. This team has multiple options now. Harris will have moments to shine — as will Redick, Butler, Ben Simmons and, of course, Embiid.

No luck vs. C’s

The Sixers’ recent struggles against the Celtics are no secret. 

The most important thing to remember is that this is the not the same team that lost to Boston in five games in the playoffs last season. This is not the same team that lost to them on opening night or in overtime on Christmas. This isn’t even the same team that lost by three to the Celtics before the All-Star break.

If everyone is present and accounted for, Wednesday will mark just the eighth game for this version of the Sixers. As Sunday’s win in Milwaukee showed, this team can be scary. It’s another stiff test, but one this iteration of the Sixers can pass if they’re clicking on all cylinders.

Young Hawks can be dangerous

The Hawks are a rebuilding team, but that doesn’t mean the Sixers can take them lightly. They have played better basketball recently as rookie Trae Young has started getting acclimated to the NBA. Young is averaging 25.3 points and 8.2 assists while shooting 42 percent from three since the All-Star break.

We also can’t forget about Kevin Huerter, who dropped a rookie career-high 29 points in a win over the Sixers back on Jan. 11. Second-year forward John Collins also hit a big shot late in that game and has had a strong sophomore campaign overall.

Granted, Embiid didn’t play in that matchup, but the point is, the Sixers can’t afford to take Atlanta lightly. Perhaps the Sixers will feel like they owe the young Hawks one.

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Sixers seal spot in second round of NBA playoffs with elite, record-tying defensive performance in win over Nets

Sixers seal spot in second round of NBA playoffs with elite, record-tying defensive performance in win over Nets

Before his team took the floor, Brett Brown admitted the Sixers had “dodged some bullets” in their first four games against the Nets. He was especially wary of Joe Harris, the NBA leader in three-point percentage during the regular season, noting the open looks he’d missed.

The Sixers’ defense made sure Brooklyn didn’t have any more bullets in the chamber Tuesday night in a 122-100 win that sealed a spot in the second round (see observations).

Though aided by Brooklyn’s abysmal effort, the Sixers’ first-half defensive performance couldn’t have been much better.

Ben Simmons smothered D’Angelo Russell, who shot 1 for 9 in the half. Jimmy Butler hunted the ball, recording three steals and causing chaos. The rotations were sharp, the communication crisp, and the intensity only escalated as the Nets’ shoulders collectively slumped. 

Brooklyn at one stage had as many made field goals as turnovers (seven). It finished the half with 31 points, tied for the fewest the Sixers have ever allowed in a playoff game, per Basketball-Reference. 

“Maybe the best we’ve defended all season, given the problems they present for our team,” JJ Redick said. “The first half was as good as you can guard.”

Defense was a concern for the Sixers entering the playoffs. Third in defensive rating in 2017-18, they finished this year tied for 13th. Pick-and-roll defense was a familiar problem. The big-picture question Brown posed at the start of training camp about how to cope when teams went small and tried to pull Joel Embiid away from the rim remained open throughout the season. 

They seem to have hit on some solutions, though simply having superior individual perimeter defenders compared to last season’s team might be the most important one. 

“I’m not going to say anything about last year's guys,” Embiid said, “but it doesn't make a difference. We got to stick to the game plan and usually the game plan is to drive all these guys to me and let me do my job as the best defensive player in the league.”

An excellent fourth quarter in Game 4 and a record-tying half in Game 5 doesn’t indicate that the Sixers’ defense is flawless. They’ve yet to show they can defend this well on a consistent basis, and potential liabilities like Redick and Boban Marjanovic will likely be challenged more in the second round against the Raptors. 

The Sixers have demonstrated, however, that all the platitudes about defense fueling offense and being a priority in the playoffs are more than just words.

“I think [losing Game 1] immediately forced us into recognizing that we are vulnerable if we don't play like we got to play defense,” Brown said. “If I were to go to one specific thing, the first game was a reminder that we better guard the way that we said we wanted to defend them or it's going to be a long series and one that we could lose.”

Regardless of whether Redick is making shots or Simmons is effective in the half court or Embiid can dominate Marc Gasol and company, this level of defense should keep the Sixers in every game. 

If Butler is to be believed, the Sixers are capable.

He didn’t agree with Redick that this was the best the Sixers have defended all season.

“Nah,” he said, unmoved. “We’ve been locking up at practice.”

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Sixers embracing championship expectations after beating Nets in first round

Sixers embracing championship expectations after beating Nets in first round

The expectations were high for the Sixers coming into the season.

Two blockbuster trades later and those expectations have only grown.

After taking care of the Brooklyn Nets with a 122-100 beating in Game 5 Tuesday night (see observations), they’ve made it into the Eastern Conference’s final four where they’ll face a stiff test in the Toronto Raptors. 

Even Nets coach Kenny Atkinson, whose team was eliminated after being thoroughly dominated in Game 5, said the Sixers “can compete for a championship.”

“That’s what we think,” Joel Embiid said. “We think we can win it all. Obviously, it is going to take a lot. You’ve got some great teams in the league. We’re about to play one of them and I don’t know who the next one is going to be, either Milwaukee or Boston, and then you’ve got the West, which is pretty tough. We just got to take one game at a time, but we understand that we’ve got all the talent that we need, especially to win it all.”

The Sixers haven’t shied away from expectations since general manager Elton Brand pulled off deals for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris. After losing Game 1, it put a bit of a damper to the start of a postseason filled with so much hope.

The uneasiness wasn’t cured after having a narrow halftime lead in Game 2, but a tongue lashing by Brett Brown led to a record-setting third quarter. They faced even more misfortune when they found out Embiid was going to miss Game 3, but Ben Simmons’ strong performance carried them to a win. They found themselves down for most of Game 4, but executed down the stretch to win a thriller.

Then, with a chance to end the series at home, they jumped all over the Nets on their way to a fourth straight win. It was an impressive response from a team that’s still working out the kinks of a sometimes-dominant starting five.

Sometimes a little adversity is good for a group still trying to come together.

“I think if you’re going through a very intense, pressure-filled series, it can bring you together, make you better and stronger as a team, or it can break you,” JJ Redick said. “This series brought us together and obviously from here it just gets tougher.”

It really does.

The Sixers’ struggles against the Raptors are well-documented. Toronto is not Brooklyn. It's playoff tested and features arguably the best two-way player in basketball in Kawhi Leonard.

But for the Sixers to get to where they want to go, they need to figure out a way to accelerate the development of their chemistry and beat one of the league’s best.

“We have a team that is slowly coming together,” Brown said. “They don’t have the luxury of lots of games and lots of context to share upon … this is good. Beating Brooklyn and advancing to the second round … this is good. It can’t be discredited as, ‘Oh, you should.’ On paper, we should, but you’re still playing against a team that was a team … 

“I will answer it like that and conclude with we still have more to do — a lot more to do.”

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