Sixers-Magic 5 things: Down a center for 1st back-to-back set

Sixers-Magic 5 things: Down a center for 1st back-to-back set

The Sixers (0-2) are still searching for their first win of the season after getting blown out by the Hawks over the weekend.

They will get another shot at victory No. 1 when they host the fellow winless Orlando Magic (0-3) on Tuesday night (7 p.m./CSN).

Let's take a closer look at the matchup:

1. One big in, one big out
The Sixers' first back-to-back set of the season poses challenges for a team dealing with so many injuries and minutes restrictions. That's especially the case for the squad's big men.

With two games in as many nights on tap, the Sixers have opted to split up their centers (see story). Joel Embiid will play on Tuesday vs. the Magic and Jahlil Okafor will rest. The two will swap roles on Wednesday for the Sixers' first road game of the season in Charlotte.

“In regards to back-to-backs, we always felt that was going to be a challenge,” Brett Brown said. “This particular one, given Jahlil’s sort of infant stages into becoming healthier, we’re going to not use up his minutes tomorrow night and then spend our money more in Charlotte.”

Before they get on the floor with the Hornets, the Sixers better hope Embiid's presence is enough against the new-look Magic. Embiid, who is averaging 17.0 points and 4.5 rebounds through two games, will have his hands full inside with the combination of Nik Vucevic, Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo.

2. Saric searching for shot
Dario Saric’s shooting has been bad to start his NBA career. Really bad.

The Croatian has made just four of his 21 attempts through two games (19.0 percent). That includes Saric shooting 1 for 7 (14.3 percent) from three-point range.

Saric admitted his troubles haven’t been because of game speed or physicality. It’s actually the location of his touches on the court throwing off his game.

“It’s hard because here the pick-and-roll game is a little bit down the three-point line,” Saric explained after Monday’s practice (see story). “In Europe, when you play pick-and-roll games and you make a screen, you are already on the three-point line. … I played 10 years like that. I’m already on three-point, I will shoot the ball. But here when you make a screen, you turn around, you are on long two. That I can say is the bad shot in the NBA game.”

Perhaps Saric, who was drafted 12th overall by Orlando in 2014 before being dealt to the Sixers, can find his touch from long range against a Magic team that allowed 11 three-pointers in a 105-99 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Saturday.

3. On point
Speaking of players involved in that 2014 draft-night trade between the Sixers and Magic, Elfrid Payton was on the other end. The point guard was shipped to Orlando as part of the deal after being selected 10th overall by the Sixers that year.

Payton has had an up-and-down career to this point. He showed some flashes under Scott Skiles. However, Payton always seemed like the former head coach’s fiery personality rubbed him the wrong way and possibly hindered his consistency.

That hasn’t been the case in the small sample size so far with new head man Frank Vogel. Payton is averaging 13.7 points, 5.3 assists and 4.3 rebounds a game in three contests in 2016-17.

Payton will have to deal with the veteran Sergio Rodriguez, who is off to a strong start for the Sixers. Despite not playing in the NBA for the past six seasons, Rodriguez has jumped right back in with averages of 13.0 points, 7.0 assists and 4.0 rebounds in 30.5 minutes a night.

4. Injuries
Okafor (knee/rest) will sit out against the Magic. Ben Simmons (foot), Nerlens Noel (knee) and Jerryd Bayless (wrist) are also out.

Former Sixer Jodie Meeks (foot) is out for the Magic.

5. This and that
• The Sixers lost three of the four matchups against the Magic last season.

• Payton has averaged 10.6 points, 7.3 assists and 4.6 rebounds against the Sixers during his career.

• The Sixers are averaging a league-low 84.5 points through two games.

• Magic center Vucevic is putting up 20.0 points on 55 percent shooting and 13.2 rebounds in 12 games against his former team.

Is Sixers' Tobias Harris an All-Star? He's making a compelling case

Is Sixers' Tobias Harris an All-Star? He's making a compelling case

Around this time last year, Tobias Harris was leading the surprising Clippers to a strong start. Harris was averaging over 20 points a game while flirting with the 50-40-90 shooting line. He was a borderline All-Star.

Fast forward a year later and the 27-year-old resembles that player more now than he ever has during his tenure as a Sixer.

Harris added another impressive performance to his recent stretch of strong play in the Sixers’ 116-109 win over the Pelicans Friday night (see observations).

It wasn’t the cleanest performance for the Sixers, but Harris’ team-high 31 points helped the Sixers stay a perfect 14-0 at the Wells Fargo Center and become the only undefeated team at home in the NBA.

Every night is an opportunity for me to go out there and do the best I can to help our team win,” Harris said. "I’d love to be an All-Star — it’s a goal of mine as a player. I felt last year I was an All-Star in the beginning of the season. It didn’t happen that way. But I think each and every night, especially with our team, we have a nice amount of talent and I want to play at my best every single night to help us win games.

It hadn’t been the smoothest transition for Harris since he arrived in a blockbuster trade from Los Angeles.

The Sixers had just traded for Jimmy Butler a couple months prior and they were still trying to figure out how to use the mercurial star alongside Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. With Harris, it was another mouth to feed and another piece to fit into the puzzle.

On paper, it looked like a master stroke by GM Elton Brand. Harris had become an elite three-point shooter and a go-to scorer for the Clippers. But the chemistry didn’t develop as quickly as they would’ve liked as Embiid missed a significant amount of time down the stretch with tendinitis in his left knee.

Over the last 16 games — and with Butler in Miami — Harris seems to have found his niche with the Sixers.

“Yeah, there’s definitely a comfort level, just being able to get familiar with guys on this team on and off the floor,” Harris said. “I think as a team, the comfort level from each and every one of the guys that’s on the floor is continuing to increase. I’m able to find ways to play with Ben in different pockets of the game, and Joel, also. There’s been a lot of things that I’ve liked. I’m going into games understanding more of what we need to do, where I’m at, where I’m going to get this play, that play, things like that.”

While the All-Star game doesn’t generally account for defense, that is likely where Harris has seen his most improvement.

In Friday night’s game, he was tasked with guarding former Sixer JJ Redick. As we saw during Redick’s time in Philly, that’s not an easy ask. Redick runs a marathon every game, navigating around screens and running dribble handoffs. Harris did a decent enough job, as Redick went 6 of 15 on the night.

Improving on the defensive end was Harris’ biggest point of emphasis this offseason. He went to Brett Brown before the season began and let him know that he wouldn’t be the weak link amongst a starting five that had elite-level defenders.

The notion of putting Harris on someone like Redick wouldn’t even have crossed his head coach’s mind last season.

“Could Tobias have done something like that last year? I didn't see him like that,” Brown said. “Maybe he could have, but I never saw him or played him like that and this year I do. And I think that it's part of your question about, 'Oh, he's having a great year,' and you go right to offense. I think he's having a hell of a year defensively.”

Harris is 13th in the conference in scoring and fourth among forwards. His 2.6 win shares are second-most among any forward in the East.

Throw in the last 16 games, where Harris has averaged 22.1 points and shot over 50 percent from the field and over 40 percent from three, and the case is making itself.

You don't need much more ammunition," Brown said. "I mean, he's been so steady and just responsible, reliable, go-to guy. I put him kind of in a bunch of different spots — middle pick-and-roll, iso, three balls, making his free throws, plays that back down pound, pound game and can jump over people, smaller people. He's having a hell of a year.

A good enough year to be in Chicago on Feb. 16 for the All-Star game?

There’s a strong case to be made.

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After unusual path, showman Norvel Pelle doesn't 'mess up' his moment

After unusual path, showman Norvel Pelle doesn't 'mess up' his moment

Norvel Pelle is not the typical NBA player.

A native of Antigua and Barbuda, Pelle was a top recruit out of high school — that part was normal. Then his path went sideways.

The wiry center never played college basketball because of eligibility issues. He traveled to Delaware, Italy, Taiwan and Lebanon before signing a one-year, two-way contract with the Sixers this summer and reaching Friday night, where Brett Brown turned to Pelle, in his third NBA regular-season game, as Joel Embiid’s main backup. 

“It’s just knowing that this opportunity is once in a lifetime,” Pelle told NBC Sports Philadelphia. “I worked hard to get here and I can’t mess up. So, just getting the jitters out — obviously there are going to be jitters regardless, but just meditating and staying positive throughout the whole thing.”

In 12 minutes, Pelle was exceptionally active. He had six points, five rebounds, three blocks and a handful of altered shots. Every time Pelle has stepped on an NBA floor, it seems he has been immediately challenged by players on a mission to embarrass him. It hasn’t always gone his way. Julius Randle slammed one in over Pelle in his NBA debut in New York and Kevin Porter Jr. dunked on Pelle last Saturday and then flexed in his face despite the Cavs trailing by more than 40 points. 

A member of the G League’s All-Defensive First Team last season, Pelle sees no shame in taking the occasional ferocious dunk to the face. He’s a showman who enjoys playing to the crowd and feeds off its energy, and he never likes to show any fear. 

“Next play,” he said of his mentality. “Next play, next play, next play. At the end of the day, I’m a shot blocker, so if I get dunked on, I get dunked on — that’s my mentality. Next play.” 

After picking up two early fouls, Pelle waited out a series of pump fakes from former Sixer Jahlil Okafor to record his first block of the night, leading to a Ben Simmons dunk. He then denied a slam attempt by Brandon Ingram, creating a fast break that concluded with a James Ennis three. 

“You know every game he's going to bring you energy,” Simmons said following the Sixers' 116-109 win over the Pelicans (see observations). “He loves blocking shots, just risking his body for those blocks and protecting the rim. I love having him as a part of this team.”

Both Simmons and Brown said Pelle reminded them of Nerlens Noel. Like Noel, Pelle’s offensive game is not too extensive — it’s mostly screening and rolling, lob catching and energy. The defensive package, though, is intriguing.

“Just wanted to see what we have in him,” Brown said. “We had a little taste in New York. I wanted to see more. And I thought he was really good. I thought he was really good. He is sort of Nerlens like to me — rim protector, shot blocker, quick off the floor. I thought he was good.”

It’s uncertain whether Pelle could eventually have a consistent role with the Sixers. The man whose job he temporarily took Friday, Kyle O’Quinn, was signed this offseason to be insurance for Embiid. Al Horford should assume the primary backup center position once he returns from the left knee soreness and left hamstring tightness that’s sidelined him the past two games. 

Pelle’s two-way contract also means he can’t be with the Sixers for more than 45 days between the start of Blue Coats training camp and the end of the G League regular season, and he’s not eligible for the NBA playoffs.

Brown didn’t attribute Pelle’s five fouls vs. the Pelicans to being “undisciplined,” but the big man would likely need to refine his game a bit if he was tasked with a regular role.

Embiid wasn’t worried about any of that. 

“I told him if he got the minutes, he would probably lead the league in blocks,” he said. “He has a chance to become a fan favorite, so he should just keep doing whatever he’s doing.”

After all the empathic dunks and dramatic poses and swatted shots in foreign gyms, Pelle had time to reflect Friday night. 

“This was more than what I expected,” he said. “I’m appreciative of everything and everybody. I’m taking it day by day, moment by moment, opportunity by opportunity and just go out there and do what I have to do.”

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