'Unlikely suspects' give Sixers perfect touch at home

'Unlikely suspects' give Sixers perfect touch at home


It would've been easy for the Sixers to pack it in.

During the final game before the All-Star break, without their best player and down 23 at the half, this game had loss written all over it.

Instead, the Sixers outscored the Miami Heat 65-40 in the second half of a 104-102 win at Wells Fargo Center Wednesday (see observations).

"We felt that within this room we had enough firepower, offensively," head coach Brett Brown said when asked about his halftime message, "but nothing can happen unless we have some level of sting to our defense."

After allowing the Heat to shoot 52 percent from the field in the first half, the Sixers held Miami to just 37 percent in the second. And they were able to produce that second-half "sting" without the services of All-Star big man Joel Embiid (see story).

Rookie Ben Simmons (18 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists) and Dario Saric (19 points, eight rebounds, three assists) were their usual stellar selves, but it was the Sixers' bench that propelled them to the win. Veteran Trevor Booker, newcomer Marco Belinelli and the recently bench-ridden Richaun Holmes were huge in the comeback effort.

"As I look at our bench and I see the contribution that Richaun made and Trevor Booker made and Marco Belinelli made," Brown said. "Kind of unlikely suspects to flip a game that we were down 24 at home and claw back and have a tremendous win, and to achieve our goal of winning the five games at home sure makes the [All-Star break] a heck of a lot more enjoyable."

Booker and Holmes provided their typical energy. Booker grabbed nine rebounds in just 15 minutes, while Holmes, though not Wednesday’s starter at center, played 28 minutes, recorded 11 points, nine boards and two blocks, and was also in the game down the stretch as the Sixers clung to their lead.

"That's what we do," Booker said. "We both bring energy. When both of us are on, it's tough. But that's what we do. We provide the energy and just try to get the team going and that's what we did tonight."

As for Belinelli, he came as advertised. The sharpshooter, who signed Monday after being bought out by the Atlanta Hawks, provided the team exactly what it needed: bench scoring (see story). The 11-year veteran scored 13 of his 17 points as the Sixers made their comeback in the second half. He shot 7 of 12 from the field overall, including 3 of 5 from three. 

After the game, he felt vindicated in picking the Sixers.

"I remember yesterday saying the one thing I really love about this group," Belinelli said, "they want to win so bad and that's why I think we won this game. It's not easy. Especially down [24] against a really good team in Miami, I'm really impressed." 

The Sixers swept their five-game homestand in impressive fashion.

But was it their best win of the season?

"It's high," Brown said. "It could be No. 1. It feels like it's the best as I speak."

Brett Brown states Sixers' goal for new season: 'We want to play in the NBA Finals'

Brett Brown states Sixers' goal for new season: 'We want to play in the NBA Finals'

CAMDEN, N.J. — Brett Brown gave the Sixers a chance to digest their first team meal Friday and get a good night of sleep before announcing his hopes for the 2018-19 season.

“We want to play in the NBA Finals,” Brown said of what he shared with the players right before Saturday’s practice to open training camp. “We could have played in the NBA Finals. I understand the magnitude of that statement, but I stand by it and I own it. 

“It’s our goal to go play in an NBA Final. It’s a respect of championship habits. It’s a respect of each other. There are a lot of pieces that clearly have to be involved for us to achieve such a high goal but that’s our goal.”

Sure, the bar for every head coach entering a new season should be playing for a championship. But Brown truly believes it and knows his roster is one of precious few around the league with the weapons to potentially pull it off.

So does that mean the Sixers will now get ahead of themselves and start thinking about the postseason long before that deserves to be a thought in their minds? Not exactly, although the joy of getting back to that point a season ago and the pain of their exit are emotions they want to carry forward.

Brown laid out what needs to happen for the Sixers to make him look like a prophet, namely good health, attention to detail and a bit of luck to help navigate through the top dogs in the Eastern Conference of Boston and Toronto.

Still, more than anything else, the head coach made it clear that the guys must maintain a day-by-day approach.

Dare we say the Sixers still have to trust the process?

“I feel like the lessons we all learned from the playoffs last year will put us in better shape,” Brown said. “As you’ve heard me say, trying to start where we ended. You recognize the things that you need work on. You recognize the things, just the atmosphere that the playoffs bring. And you better deal with that from October, September to incrementally set the table for trying to achieve the goal that I just shared with you all.”

With 11 players back from last season’s team and hungry to take the next step in the overall progression, Brown didn’t have to do much convincing in the locker room.

“I think we have two of the best players in the NBA, a group of guys around them whose skills complement them,” JJ Redick said. “Hopefully we’ll find out next spring what we learned about the playoffs last year. I think if you just have the expectation that young players can make leaps playing in their second year, in their fourth year, that we should be one of a handful of teams in the East that have a chance of playing in the Finals.”

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Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz together? Expect to see it a lot more

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Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz together? Expect to see it a lot more

CAMDEN, N.J. — In their limited time together last season, playing Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz together didn’t seem like the best idea. Both players were dangerous in transition and attacking the paint, but both had suspect jumpers. Brett Brown only played the pair together for 51 minutes.

Expect to see a lot more of the former No. 1 picks sharing the court this season.

“We were on the same team most of the time,” Simmons said Saturday after Day 1 of Sixers training camp. “There were a couple plays where you get the ball up the floor to get it started. The first play he’s going to drive down and come off the curl, curl offense, and get to the rim. That’s exactly what I did, got to the rim and scored. Playing with him is easy. He plays the game the right way.”

If the work Simmons and Fultz each did in the offseason to improve their shots paid off, playing the two together isn't such a crazy idea. Fultz’s work with trainer Drew Hanlen is well documented, and he seems confident in his game. Simmons worked on his shot with his brother Liam. Saturday, he went into more detail on the mechanical changes he’s made.

“Just getting the ball to my left side; I was bringing it over to my right a lot,” Simmons said. “And getting underneath it and getting my thumb off the ball.” 

When he shot free throws after practice, Simmons’ focus on keeping his elbow locked in and on the left side of his body was evident.

Brown acknowledged Simmons’ shot is still a work in progress, but he’s been encouraged by what he’s seen. 

“Eighteen-footers, look at the rim,” Brown said. “Look at the rim. If you’re open, shoot it. The notion that he was going to come back after the summer, like, ‘wow, he’s really shooting a lot of threes …’ The reality of the summer was going to be looking at the rim and if people backed off you, to find a way to feel confident and comfortable punishing that. I think that he’s getting there. I think that his confidence and just body language, eye contact, looking at the target, has improved.”

One creative solution Brown mentioned that could allow Simmons and Fultz to play together more would be occasionally putting Simmons at the power forward spot. That could allow Fultz to run the offense, with Simmons serving as a point forward of sorts out of the post. 

The 6-foot-10 Simmons wasn’t very efficient in the post last season, recording 0.69 points per possession, 17th percentile in the NBA. But he was working on his game in the mid and low-post after practice in a spirited one-on-one session with Robert Covington. 

With that kind of athleticism and explosiveness, Simmons is clearly capable of being a better post player than he showed his rookie season. 

Ultimately, if the progress Simmons and Fultz appear to have made with their jumpers translates to the regular season, it may not take a ton of innovation for Brown to play the two together.

Just put two dynamic offensive players with improved jumpers on the floor and let them do their thing.

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