76ers

Tobias Harris, Matisse Thybulle come up large in Sixers' win over Raptors

Tobias Harris, Matisse Thybulle come up large in Sixers' win over Raptors

BOX SCORE

It may be early in the NBA schedule, but this wasn’t just another game for the Sixers.

In a game that had a playoff-like atmosphere, they held on to beat the Raptors, 110-104, at the Wells Fargo Center Sunday night.

Ben Simmons played composed, Tobias Harris and Matisse Thybulle came up large and the Sixers’ defense imposed their will on Toronto.

Josh Richardson missed his sixth straight game with right hamstring tightness.

With the win, the Sixers remain unbeaten at home at 12-0 and improve to 17-7 overall. They host the Nuggets Tuesday night.

Here are observations from the win.

Steady Ben, Jo struggles

Joel Embiid was not doubled on his first touch … so he naturally turned it over. To Embiid’s credit, he didn’t let a tough start get to him. He was under control, handling double teams and taking what the game gave him. When Marc Gasol picked up his second foul, it allowed Embiid to get some looks against Serge Ibaka, which opened things up. With the Sixers out to a big lead in the fourth, Toronto used full-court pressure and Embiid struggled with it.

While a lot of attention has been paid to Embiid’s struggles against Toronto, let’s not forget that Simmons had his issues in the last matchup — even with Kawhi Leonard gone. Simmons also got off to a shaky start, looking like he was playing a little rushed. He started to let the game come to him a bit and settled in.

Embiid’s numbers weren’t mind-blowing (10 points, eight rebounds, six assists), but up until that weird fourth-quarter stretch, he didn’t force anything and his teammates made the Raptors pay.

Despite the five turnovers, Simmons had a strong overall game, flirting with a triple-double with 16 points, 11 rebounds and  nine assists.

In general, the Sixers just seemed to handle the Raptors’ ball pressure significantly better — fourth quarter excluded — than they have in games past. A strong game from three-point range (14 of 32) also helped that cause.

Tobias makes Raptors pay

The Sixers have constantly talked about exploiting mismatches this season with their size. With the Raptors starting two smaller guards in Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet, there was bound to be a matchup they could exploit. 

Early on, it was Harris who was by far the Sixers’ most aggressive player in attacking Lowry. In a game where the Sixers did a lot of over-passing, Harris did not. The most impressive thing about Harris’ start was the way that he attacked the rim — even when Ibaka was in the game.

With head coach Nick Nurse’s game plan to take Embiid and Simmons out of the picture as much as possible, it was on the Sixers’ supporting cast to make them pay. Harris did just that with a game-high 26 points on 4 of 8 from three and 10 of 22 overall.

Bully ball defense

The most impressive thing from the Sixers was their defense, using their length to frustrate and challenge Toronto.

Brett Brown switched up the matchups, starting the game with Al Horford on Pascal Siakam and Simmons on Kyle Lowry. Still, it was Simmons’ defensive versatility that stood out. He did well in his matchups against Siakam, who is playing at an elite level (the Sixers held him to 16 points on 7 of 18). He was also the one that was able to draw Gasol’s second foul after he was switched onto the center in the post.

You’d be hard pressed to find many — if any — players that are better than Simmons when it comes to switching one through five.

The Sixers’ defense was also big in leading to offense and easy transition looks.

This play by Horford, where the Raptors essentially had a 3-on-1 fast break, was mighty impressive and led to a transition bucket.

In general, Horford was strong in this one. With how unequipped the Sixers were at the backup center position against Toronto last postseason, it was evident the impact Horford had Sunday.

The rook continues to pass every test

Thybulle was questionable heading into this one with a sprained right ankle, but there was nothing questionable about his play.

He frustrated Lowry at every opportunity, continuing to excel at his “rearview” contests and making life miserable for his opponents. He also drew an offensive foul on Ibaka while he was screening for Lowry. The 22-year-old is getting better at walking that fine line defensively.

And what Thybulle game would be complete without a steal highlight? This was one of his three on the night.

He also continues to make shots, like this one he hit at the buzzer at the end of the first quarter which turned into a four-point play.

He also nailed two big threes in the third quarter to extend the Sixers’ lead to 18. He made a rookie career-high 5 of 8 from three and set a new high mark with 20 points. This may have been the biggest test for Thybulle this season, and he passed with flying colors.

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LeBron James is on the verge of history; Sixers don't care

LeBron James is on the verge of history; Sixers don't care

The Sixers welcome LeBron James to the Wells Fargo Center as the King is looking to make history.

They’ll be shorthanded as Joel Embiid will miss his ninth straight game and Josh Richardson will sit with a left hamstring strain.

Here are three storylines to watch:

LeBron on the verge of history

With 18 points Saturday, James will pass not-quite-Philadelphia native Kobe Bryant for third place on the all-time scoring list.

After practice Friday, the Sixers were peppered with questions about James getting to that mark in their building. 

Their overriding response: They don’t care.

“It’s not on my mind,” Brett Brown said. “I think he’s class, and he’s a champion, and he’s incredibly important to our league. To feel at all the need to come in and if he scores whatever number you just said against Philadelphia ... I don’t care. I want to beat the Lakers and it doesn’t enter my mind, that side of the equation of defending him or the Lakers.”

Veteran Al Horford, who’s had plenty of battles with James in his career, was even more indifferent. 

“I don't care about [it],” Horford said. “Obviously, we want to win the game. That's all I care about. He's got a great body of work, career for him when he accomplishes that feat, but I don't care about that.”

The Sixers are dealing with injuries and are sixth in the East. They have much bigger things to worry about.

How do you slow LeBron down?

If the Sixers want to win the game, they’ll have to at least slow James down. Not having two of their best defensive players in Embiid and Richardson makes that task even more difficult.

When it comes to LeBron, there is no one defender that can get the job done. It has to be a collective effort.

“You’ve got a few choices — you can either take a charge and take a few years off your career, or you can wrap him up and make him go shoot free throws,” Brown said. “The unlikely instance where you’re going to go block a shot or steal the ball, I doubt it. And so your options are minimal when you’re on an island. They increase when you can actually show a crowd. And therefore you need a team — it’s a team thing that we’re talking about. Otherwise, you can’t. I don’t think you can.”

Brown wouldn’t reveal who’d get the first opportunity to guard James, but did hint that impressive rookie Matisse Thybulle could get a look.

Brown has been hesitant to put Ben Simmons on the opposing team’s best offensive player because of the big minutes the point guard plays. Tonight may be an exception. Simmons is having a Defensive Player of the Year caliber season and is one of the few players in the league that can match James’ physical prowess. It’d be a big test for Simmons and fun matchup to watch.

Who will step up?

With Embiid and Richardson out, the Sixers are losing a combined 38.4 points per game. For a team that’s had its struggles offensively this season, it’s less than ideal.

So where do the Sixers go for answers?

One player that’s stepped up in a big way recently is Furkam Korkmaz. The Turkish wing, who seems to be in line to start Saturday, is shooting 50 percent from three on 7.6 attempts over his last five games. He’s averaging 16.6 points during that span.

“I think during the season we’ve had a lot of challenges like this,” Korkmaz said. “It’s a long season, anybody can get injured. I hope that’s not going to happen, but when someone is out you need to play more for each other. I think we’re going to figure it out. I don’t know who’s going to lead it … but I think the most important thing is to stay together. And like I said, until now we’ve had a lot of challenges like this, so we’re going to figure it out.”

When Richardson went down just four minutes into Wednesday’s loss in Toronto, Brown turned to second-year guard Shake Milton. Milton played his most minutes since last season’s season finale.

While he spent much of last season in the G League with his two-way deal, he improved his ball handling and in running the pick-and-roll. While his shot hasn't translated consistently on the NBA level, it’s part of what made him so attractive out of SMU.

The one thing the 2018 second-round pick does have is the confidence of his coaches and teammates.

“Offensively, I'm not worried about him,” Horford said. “He can really, really shoot the ball and he'll have his looks, his opportunities and I'm confident in him.”

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NBA trade rumors: Davis Bertans reportedly might not be available

NBA trade rumors: Davis Bertans reportedly might not be available

“The Latvian Laser” might not be for sale.

According to Sports Illustrated’s Chris Mannix, the Wizards haven’t been listening to offers for sharpshooter Davis Bertans. 

“Inquiries to Washington have gone nowhere; several executives tell SI.com that the Wizards wouldn’t even discuss a deal,” Mannix reports. “Some teams, though, are holding out hope Washington will make Bertans available before the trade deadline."

NBC Sports Washington’s Chase Hughes, The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor and Mannix have all reported that the Sixers have interest in Bertans, who’s shot 42.6 percent from three on 8.7 attempts per game. That’s the best percentage in the league among players who have attempted at least eight threes per contest. 

Hughes reported on Jan. 6 that the Wizards were “fielding calls” for Bertans despite general manager Tommy Sheppard saying the team had “every intention of retaining” the forward in free agency. The Celtics, Lakers, Hawks and Nuggets are also suitors for Bertans, according to Hughes.

Bertans is making $7 million this season but looks set to earn substantially more when he becomes a free agent. The Wizards hold Bertans’ Bird Rights after landing him in a trade this summer, which means they could go over the salary cap to re-sign him.

The trade deadline isn’t until Feb. 6, so it’s certainly possible that the Wizards will be open for business when it really matters. It seems that it would make sense to at least consider offers. 

Regardless, Bertans is an attractive player for the Sixers, and for contending teams in general who want an elite shooter. 

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