76ers

Sixers charge past Kings, show significant growth in 10-win month of January

Sixers charge past Kings, show significant growth in 10-win month of January

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January was filled with changes for the Sixers. Big men went in and out of the lineup, a new starting point guard was anointed and a revised second unit was cemented.

Still, the Sixers found consistency amid these adjustments. They went 10-5, equaling last season’s win total in one month alone. This was their first winning month since they went 9-6 in November of 2012 (minimum of eight games), per the Elias Sports Bureau.

“One of the things I’m most proud of ... it was done in a lot of different ways,” Brett Brown said following the Sixers' 122-119 win over the Kings on Monday night (see Instant Replay). “There were times that Nerlens (Noel) started, there were times Jahlil (Okafor) started, there were times Joel (Embiid) carried us a lot. But we were able to win with a bunch of different people, with a bunch of different lineups and in some different ways. I think it was truly a ‘team’ month.”

January could have easily been a struggle for the Sixers. They faced a flurry of playoff-contending teams, including the Raptors, Rockets, Celtics and Clippers. Above .500 competition had been a challenge, let alone those toward the top of the conference standings. The Sixers beat the Raptors and Clippers, and also defeated the Hornets and Bucks (twice), who are in the postseason mix. 

That’s not even getting into injuries and absences. The Sixers were without Embiid for six contests, a mix of rest for consecutive games and his being sidelined with a left knee contusion suffered Jan 20. The Sixers entered the month 2-8 sans their centerpiece and then went 3-3 without him by taking three of the last four with the big man sidelined. They defeated the Clippers and Bucks in a home-road back-to-back series and staged a comeback victory against the Kings on Monday (see 10 observations).

With Embiid’s availability in flux, the Sixers altered the roles for the remaining centers. Okafor’s month included 10 DNPs, three starts and two games off the bench. Noel started three games without Embiid, was part of the second unit for 11 and missed one with an ankle injury. Richaun Holmes shifted between the D-League, bench and significant minutes (three games of 19-plus). The team still gelled with the frequently changing five-spot.

“The biggest thing is just communication,” Okafor said, “trusting one another and going in every day to practice working as hard as we can to try to prepare for things like this when the lineup switches up a little bit. We prepare the right way and so we deserve to win.”

Brown changed up the backcourt by keeping McConnell in the starting lineup after he shined during Sergio Rodriguez’s injury in late December. McConnell averaged 9.2 assists per game in January, including a massive 17 against the Celtics and a total of six games with 10-plus dimes.

At the shooting guard position, Gerald Henderson settled into a leadership role in the second unit (Nik Stauskas moved to the starting lineup). Brown likes the experience Henderson brings to the reserves. Also, Brown has been able to end more games with Henderson when he comes off the bench.

“None of them (lineup changes) came out of, ‘He’s not playing well, so he comes in,’” Brown said. “Not one of them. Most of them came from injury. Gerald came out of more strategy — how do you put a veteran with a really young second team?”

An early January transaction shifted the way Brown utilized his lineups. After the Sixers waived Hollis Thompson, Brown locked into a 10-man rotation, which includes Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot in the second unit. The rookie has seen a bump in playing time with this narrowed-down approach. Brown likes the symmetry between the starters and the reserves with these 10 players, including between Ersan Ilyasova and Dario Saric. 

“With any lineup we have in, the emphasis is defense,” Henderson said. “Then on rebounding and getting our pace on the offensive end and passing the ball. Even with Joel in the game, we still don’t feel like we have that one guy that we can just throw the ball to at any time and is just going to save us. Our offense still relies on ball movement, player movement. We play like that with both groups.”

The Sixers will begin the next month with a four-game road trip. Embiid will not travel to Dallas or San Antonio and is listed as doubtful for those two games (see story). The team has been figuring out how to play with whatever lineup is available, and it's using its past mistakes as stepping stones for the rest of the season. 

“We’re holding each other accountable,” Robert Covington said. “[That’s] the main thing — we’re getting on guys and we’re realizing mistakes of our own without Coach having to tell us, and we’re fixing them, as well. We’re not getting discouraged if teams make a run. We go out and fix the problem so we can learn it ourselves — that’s part of the growth of this team.”

What Victor Oladipo sitting out of NBA restart means for Sixers

What Victor Oladipo sitting out of NBA restart means for Sixers

Two-time All-Star Victor Oladipo will not play when the NBA season resumes in Orlando, he told The Athletic’s Shams Charania

Oladipo, who suffered a ruptured quadriceps tendon in January of 2019, returned to play 13 games this season for Indiana but decided it was best to be done for the year. He will still travel with the team to Disney World, according to Charania. 

I really want to play, and as a competitor and teammate this is tearing me apart,” Oladipo told Charania. “I feel like I’m at a great place in my rehab and getting closer and closer to 100 percent. With all the variables, from how I have to build my 5-on-5 workload back up, to the increased risk of a soft tissue injury which could delay my rehab, and the unknown exact set up of the bubble, I just can’t get my mind to being fully comfortable in playing. I have to be smart and this decision hasn’t been easy, but I truly believe continuing on the course I’m on and getting fully healthy for the 2020-21 season is the right decision for me. 

Oladipo’s decision is significant from the Sixers’ perspective. The Pacers and Sixers have identical 39-26 records, with Indiana sitting fifth in the Eastern Conference because they have a 2-1 edge in the regular-season series. The two teams are scheduled to play Aug. 1.

Indiana, Miami and Boston are the Sixers’ likely potential playoff matchups, which we explored in greater depth here

Joel Embiid missed both of the Sixers’ losses this season to the Pacers, first because of left knee soreness on Dec. 31 and then because of a torn ligament in his left ring finger on Jan. 13. Though the Pacers have a large starting frontcourt of Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis, Embiid has averaged 27.0 points, 11.7 rebounds and 10 free throw attempts per game in nine career matchups vs. Indiana. His presence would certainly improve the Sixers’ chances.

While Oladipo was an excellent two-way player at his peak, he’s clearly still working his way back to top form and full health. He posted 13.8 points, 3.2 rebounds and 3.0 assists per contest this season, and the Pacers were 7-6 in those 13 games. 

The Pacers are still a strong team without him, even if they’re not exceptional in any one category. Sabonis made his first All-Star Game this season, while Malcolm Brogdon has been a nice fit despite a drastic downturn in his three-point shooting. Indiana has good depth in brothers Justin Holiday and Aaron Holiday, Doug McDermott and T.J. McConnell. 

Brogdon on June 24 said he tested positive for the coronavirus, which is of course a bigger story than any on-court matters. He said that he’s doing well and plans to join the Pacers at Disney World.

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No excuses, but Al Horford makes a notable admission about his health this season

No excuses, but Al Horford makes a notable admission about his health this season

Way back on Nov. 12, well before the coronavirus was impacting all facets of life, Al Horford took a night off.

It did not appear a massive development at the time, though Horford said “there was definitely some pushback” on his end about the concept of load management.

He rested again on Nov. 29 against the Knicks. Horford also missed games on Dec. 12 and Dec. 13 because of left knee soreness and left hamstring tightness, and sat out Jan. 30 in Atlanta with left knee soreness. 

While playing 60 of 65 games looks fine on paper, Horford on Friday admitted he was not at his best physically this season. 

I probably wasn’t where I wanted to be,” he said. “I’m not going to make excuses but right now I’m in a much better place. The time off for me was beneficial. And getting to work now, the biggest challenge for us with the season coming back is doing everything at game-intensity level. 

“Going from not being able to get in the gym to start working out individually, and when we get to Orlando, we’ll start doing it together and then a quick transition to games — it’s really a process. So for me it’s really making sure that I continue to make strides and that I’m at my best, more specifically when the playoffs are ready to go.

For Horford, a veteran who tends to prefer keeping things close to the vest, it was a notable comment. While much of the disappointment about his first season with the Sixers so far stems from Horford’s well-documented struggle to be effective alongside Joel Embiid, his health is another factor to consider. 

Horford dealt with patellar tendinitis in his left knee last season with the Celtics. He’s 34 years old. At times this year, he appeared to have limited remaining supplies of explosiveness and agility. None of those realities are excuses, as Horford himself said, but they’re all relevant in thinking about Horford’s future with the team. 

In the short term, Horford again faces questions about what his role will be for the Sixers when the season resumes in Orlando and whether he’ll come off the bench. He was diplomatic on that subject, as usual. 

“For me, I just want us to be playing well and playing at a high level,” he said. “I’m going to continue to work … I do know that for us to be successful I have to play with Joel sometimes, I have to play with different people. It really doesn’t matter. I just think that this time off is going to benefit all of us, especially for Ben (Simmons), being able to be healthy now and being able to come in and have an impact. I really don’t think that’s going to matter that much, in my opinion.

“The way I’m going to look at it is I’m going to make the most of my situation, stay prepared, stay ready. Coach will have to decide how and when to play me, how much to play me, and I just have to be ready.”

A recurring line for the Sixers before the coronavirus hit the United States was that the team was “built for the playoffs.” Brett Brown used it again Wednesday, and Horford is still fond of it, too. 

I think it’s a great opportunity for our team,” Horford said. “The way the season was going, before it stopped, we had some positives. We got it going there toward the end, we felt, especially that last game we played. Ben’s future was uncertain, and now he’s going to be good to go. We have our full team and our full roster. I believe that our group is built for the playoffs. The regular season is always tough. We have new guys and everybody trying to mesh, but I believe this is a second chance for us and a great opportunity.

The Sixers do indeed have a healthy team, with the exception of Zhaire Smith, who will miss the rest of the season with a bone bruise in his left knee.

There are also, of course, gray areas during a season when players are able to play but below optimal health. It seems Horford fell into that category at times, and he’s surely not the only NBA player who will be fresher and feel better physically as a result of the hiatus.

We shouldn’t forget that he was playing well before the season was shut down, with the major caveat that he thrived when Embiid was out for five games because of a left shoulder sprain. Horford averaged 15.8 points, 9.0 rebounds and 6.2 assists in the Sixers’ last six contests. 

He has not deviated, however, from believing that those distant regular-season performances matter much less than the postseason. 

“I do believe that there’s another level in the playoffs as far as the quality of the basketball goes,” he said. “My mindset is to make sure that I’m at my best on Aug. 17, when the playoffs start.”

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