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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Shaquille O'Neal on playing vs. Allen Iverson: ‘I was such a fan … I kind of coasted that year in the Finals’

Shaquille O'Neal on playing vs. Allen Iverson: ‘I was such a fan … I kind of coasted that year in the Finals’

Shaquille O’Neal was at the height of his very substantial powers in the 2001 NBA Finals. He averaged 33 points, 15.8 rebounds and 3.4 blocks in the Lakers’ five-game series victory and was a simple choice for MVP.

However, the Sixers took a Game 1 that Philadelphia fans will remember for a long time, led by Allen Iverson’s 48 points. O’Neal revealed on The Adam Lefkoe Show podcast that he was perhaps a little lenient toward Iverson. 

I have a little confession. D-Wade [Dwyane Wade] probably knows this,” he said. “There were four guys that when we played them, I was such a fan, I would let them do what they wanted to do. White Chocolate [Jason Williams] — I wanted him to go to work — Vince Carter, AI and Tracy McGrady. Every time we played AI … I could have blocked his shot multiple times.

“I just didn’t want to. I kind of coasted that year in the Finals where we wanted to go 16-0. We let him hit us for [48]. Listen, Iverson, he had his heart on the line, he played hard, he did it his way. I was glad to go into the Hall of Fame with him. It’s unfortunate that a lot of these great players will be judged because they didn’t win [a championship]. But listen, he’s one of the greatest to ever do it.

Given O’Neal’s 44-point, 20-rebound Game 1 performance, the notion of him taking it easy on Iverson is difficult to buy. Still, it’s evident he has a deep respect for Iverson. Wade and Candace Parker are very much in the same boat — both players chose No. 3 for that reason.

At All-Star Weekend in February, Wade crossed paths with Iverson and the two shared an emotional moment weeks after the tragic death of Kobe Bryant.

“I couldn’t do anything but embrace and tell him how much I appreciate him, tell him how much I love him,” Wade said on the podcast. “As I’ve always said, it was [Michael] Jordan, Kobe and Iverson for me. Those are the three players that I modeled my game after — that’s who I wanted to be like. I wore No. 3 probably because of Allen Iverson. … I just thanked him. It was just a good embrace that we both needed at that moment.”

A two-time WNBA MVP and five-time All-Star, Parker had a unique story on the origin of her admiration for Iverson. Her older brother, Anthony Parker, began his professional career with the Sixers in the 1997-98 season.

“I remember one day my brother came home from a game and he handed me Allen Iverson’s finger bands,” Parker said. “I wore the Allen Iverson finger bands all the way through high school. … I was obsessed with him. I remember when I met him, he was the first person I met that he shook my hand and I had no words.”

Both Parker and Wade are convinced Iverson would have benefited from the way the NBA has changed since his retirement. They cited the load management movement as one factor — Iverson led the league in minutes per game seven times and played at least 39.4 minutes a night in each of his first 12 seasons. The two also believe that the league's shift away from big men and increase in pace would have suited Iverson’s game. 

“AI’s one of the greatest players of all time,” Parker said. 

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Non-stop drama, a high-tech mask and Joel Embiid's playoff debut

Non-stop drama, a high-tech mask and Joel Embiid's playoff debut

NBC Sports Philadelphia is re-airing Game 3 of the Sixers-Heat 2018 playoff series Sunday night at 7 p.m. on NBC Sports Philadelphia. 

At 26 years old, Joel Embiid has played 19 career playoff games. The lead-up to the first one was full of frustration, drama and angst.

Minutes after the Sixers’ 17-game winning streak ended with a loss to the Heat in Game 2, Embiid posted on his Instagram story, “F---ing sick and tired of being babied.” 

He’d been a glum observer from the sidelines that night, still out with an orbital fracture of the left eye he’d sustained in a collision with Markelle Fultz on March 28, and had seen his teammates cool off from three-point range and allow a 36-year-old Dwyane Wade to score 28 points. Embiid wanted to play, thought he should be permitted to and figured it couldn’t hurt to let the world know how he felt. 

Not for the first time — and certainly not for the last, either — Brett Brown found himself fielding awkward questions about how his players were being handled medically. 

“He just wants to play basketball," he said at the podium. “He wants to be with his team, he wants to play in front of the fans and he wants to see this through. When he’s not able to do that, he gets frustrated, and I respect his frustrations. … I do know the spirit he delivered that [Instagram story] you just talked about reflects my conversations with him.

"It’s completely driven by team, competitiveness, I want to play basketball, that type of feeling more than anything.”

Thanks to a high-tech, customized mask with goggles that was made of polypropylene and embedded carbon fiber filaments, Embiid was cleared for Game 3 in Miami, resembling the "Batman" villain Bane and the rapper MF Doom. The mask was an unavoidable nuisance — Embiid removed it from his face on free throws — but it allowed him to play basketball again, shifting the drama from social media to the court.

Embiid tossed the mask up in the air, spiked it on the floor and generally didn’t treat the device with much reverence. Head athletic trainer Kevin Johnson got a good amount of screen time as the Sixers’ medical staff ran repairs and ferried masks out to Embiid. Justise Winslow was not amused by the situation. When he saw the mask lying on the ground around the foul line at one point in the second quarter, he stepped on it, then unsuccessfully tried to break it with his hands.

"He kept throwing it on the ground. I don't know if he didn't like it or what,” Winslow, who was later fined $15,000 for the incident, told reporters. “I was talking to JoJo, we were smack talking, trash talking, going back and forth. No love lost.”

The back-and-forth with Winslow seemed to invigorate Embiid, though he probably didn’t require any additional fuel.

“Little do they know, I have about 50 of them,” he said to reporters in Miami. “It’s going to take much more than that to get me out of the series. It’s going to be a nightmare for them, too.” 

It was a casually bold prognostication, and also not an entirely outrageous one. The Sixers sprinted away from the Heat in Game 3, turning a two-point lead entering the fourth quarter into a 20-point win. They were, without a doubt, the better team when Embiid played.

We haven’t actually mentioned anything yet about how Embiid played. If he didn’t have a black mask shielding his face, the cliched (but accurate) description of his performance would be that he looked like himself. Embiid had 23 points in 30 minutes, seven rebounds, four assists and three blocks. He made three threes, drew 15 free throws and protected the rim well, limiting Heat players to 4 for 14 shooting on field goals he defended. 

Mask on or mask off, regular season or playoffs, he was clearly going to be the main story more often than not. 

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