76ers

Sixers weekly observations: Lack of depth, lack of point guard shooting, and Joel Embiid’s resurgence

Sixers weekly observations: Lack of depth, lack of point guard shooting, and Joel Embiid’s resurgence

For the first time since October, the Sixers had a losing week, with a win over the Pistons on Monday followed by defeats vs. the Nets on Wednesday and Pacers on Friday with Jimmy Butler sidelined by a strained groin.

At 19-11, the Sixers sit at No. 4 in the Eastern Conference, though the standings are constantly shifting. The Sixers are a game behind the Bucks, a half game behind Indiana and a half game ahead of the Celtics.

In this week’s observations, we look at Joel Embiid’s resurgence, the Sixers’ weakness on the bench, a telling stat and more.

• Joel Embiid’s “slump” is officially over. Embiid averaged 32.3 points on 55.3 percent shooting, 15.3 rebounds, and four assists over the past week. He’s drawing fouls at a high rate again too, with 38 free throw attempts in his last three contests. 

It wasn’t too difficult to sense the exasperation of Domantas Sabonis and Kyle O’Quinn on Friday night when, on back-to-back possessions, Embiid drew fouls on them with his sweep-through move during his dominant, 28-point first half. 

• As we’ve harped on several times, the Sixers have a paucity of strong defenders outside of their stars. That weakness is most apparent against a team like the Nets, whose guards target players like Furkan Korkmaz and Landry Shamet and post career highs.

When they’re not hitting shots, players like Korkmaz, Shamet and Mike Muscala go from having a neutral or slightly positive value to being major negatives. 

If you exclude Embiid, Ben Simmons and JJ Redick, the Sixers shot 8 for 32 vs. the Pacers. You can label such a performance an outlier. But subpar defense has been the norm, and as a result, poor shooting from the Sixers’ role players just about guarantees a loss. 

The Pacers, Bucks and Celtics are each within the top-six in the NBA in bench plus-minus, while the Sixers are No. 16, at minus-0.6. 

• Here’s an interesting stat: The Sixers have three of the top five guards in the NBA in terms of field goal percentage. Two-way player Demetrius Jackson is technically No. 1 — he made his only shot this season in garbage time of the Sixers’ win over the Knicks on Sep. 28. While Jackson's place isn’t worth any deep analysis, Simmons coming in at No. 4 (57.3 percent) and T.J. McConnell at No. 5 (57.1 percent) is telling.

The positive spin is that Simmons and McConnell know their spots on the floor, and they’re good at converting in their comfort zones.

The less positive spin is that neither player has strayed from their comfort zones very often. To be fair to McConnell, his shot distribution is very similar to what it was last season. He had 49.2 percent of his attempts from 10 feet or fewer last season and is at 49.1 percent through the Sixers’ first 30 games.

Simmons’ range has actually shrunk, which, along with his improved post-up play, helps explain why his shooting is up a couple percentage points. Only 11.2 percent of his field goal attempts have been from 10 feet and out, down from last season’s 20.4 percent. 

The Sixers’ point guards shoot a higher percentage than any other team’s. They also space the floor worse than any other team’s point guards. Embiid is forced to float out to the perimeter when Simmons occupies the post. And it's much easier to effectively double-team the Sixers' big man when opponents can aggressively send help off Simmons or McConnell, who usually station themselves in the short corner on Embiid post-ups.

• After the loss to the Pacers, Embiid didn’t pretend the Sixers have nothing to worry about. He acknowledged the team’s fundamental defensive issues and said the Sixers are “still learning how to play with each other.”

But he also said this: 

We’ll be fine. We’re not on red alert. It’s two games; the season is long. We’re going to go to Cleveland. Last time they beat us, so we’re going to go there for revenge. We’re going to want to punch them in the mouth because we lost against them, which shouldn’t have happened. That’s going to be a good game. But the season is long. Hopefully we get Jimmy back against Cleveland and it’ll be a better game.

That perspective from Embiid is fair enough. The Sixers’ defense is a serious concern, and you have to strain your imagination to picture their current bench playing in the NBA Finals. But, even after two straight losses, the Sixers have five more wins than at this point last season.

A loss in Cleveland, though, would edge the Sixers a little closer to red alert.

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Sixers at Magic: 3 storylines to watch and how to stream the game

Sixers at Magic: 3 storylines to watch and how to stream the game

Updated: 1:36 p.m.

The 7-3 Sixers will play against their No. 1 pick in the NBA draft two years ago Wednesday night in Orlando.

Here are the essentials for tonight’s game against the 3-7 Magic and Markelle Fultz: 

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

And here are three storylines to watch: 

A long and winding road

It’s been less than a year since Fultz last suited up for the Sixers. Since a scoreless effort on Nov. 19 in the Sixers’ win over the Suns, he experienced a series of agent-recommended medical consultations, a diagnosis of thoracic outlet syndrome, a trade minutes before the deadline in February and plenty of time watching on the bench as the Magic made a run to the playoffs. Of course, Fultz went through a lot prior to the last year, too, including a diagnosis in November 2017 of scapular muscle imbalance and the persistent inability, for whatever reason, to shoot the way he had at the University of Washington. 

Now, he’s started the last five games for the Magic. Fultz is averaging 9.7 points, 3.1 assists and 2.0 rebounds on the season. He’s already taken 22 three-point shots, seven more than he attempted in his 33 games with the Sixers, though he’s made just four of them.

Load management is in the spotlight 

Joel Embiid is out tonight in the second game of a back-to-back. He'll be listed as such with "injury maintenace/left knee soreness," but this is part of the plan to keep Embiid healthy, per a team source. As we saw with the Kawhi Leonard situation, league rules mandate that there be such a designation for a player sitting out.

Last night, it sounded like his preference was to play vs. Orlando.

“… At the beginning of the season, the goal was to limit my back-to-backs,” he said. “Obviously, the two-game suspension doesn't help. I feel like before that I was in a good rhythm and I kind of lost it. The last couple games I have not been good, especially when it comes to my efficiency and taking care of the ball. I feel like I need to get in a rhythm. So, we’re going to to figure it out.”

Al Horford will return after a load management night. Trey Burke will be listed as questionable and go through pregame warmups. He missed Tuesday’s game with left calf tightness. 

Don’t expect a shootout

The Magic are shooting a league-worst 28.2 percent from three-point range. At 33.4 percent, the Sixers are tied for 21st. 

This certainly looks like it might be a low-scoring game. All of the teams currently in the top 10 in defensive rating have a winning record besides the Magic, who are No. 3. They had the second-best defensive rating last season after the trade deadline, too, so their defense doesn’t seem to be a fluke. Jonathan Isaac has 30 blocks, the most in the league. 

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The highlight Mike Scott remembers to stay positive

The highlight Mike Scott remembers to stay positive

It’s hard to imagine Mike Scott being negative.

Since he arrived in a trade from the Clippers last season, Scott has become a fan favorite and steady, veteran contributor. He immersed himself even more into Philadelphia over the summer by crashing weddings and taking part in Nerf gun wars.

But even the most jovial and fun people can fall victim to negative thoughts. In the past, he’s let it affect his play on the court.

“You don’t want anything negative going through your mind because you’re not going to perform well,” Scott said. “I’ve done it before. I’ve had games or something off the court has happened and I was feeling bad or I just wasn’t myself. It factors in your play a lot."

As he’s gotten older, Scott has gotten better at staying positive.

One of his secrets? Watching old highlights of himself playing well. 

His biggest moment as a Sixers occurred when he hit a game-winning three in Game 4 of the team’s first-round playoff matchup against the Nets. That shot gave the Sixers a commanding 3-1 series lead.

“I always go back to that Game 4 Brooklyn shot,” Scott said. “That shot felt good. I felt like I wasn’t really contributing like I wanted to, I didn’t have the game that I wanted to, but that shot did feel good and I always go back to that shot. It makes me feel like I can play in this league, I belong in this league, I can hit big shots.”

Scott talked about the power of positivity and having teammates you can depend on in an interview, which you can watch above.

NBC Sports Regional Networks has launched a multi-platform campaign on mental health and men's health, HeadStrong: Mental Health and Sports, for the month of November. You can find more information about the initiative here.

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