Sixers blow out Raptors, continue hot start


Sixers blow out Raptors, continue hot start


In a normal season, the 76ers would be just about ready to break training camp at this point. Just 30 days since coming together at St. Joes University to kickoff the prseason, a few players are still trying to get their legs underneath them before the grind really gets intense.

Yet after the 97-62 dismantling of the Toronto Raptors on Saturday night at the Wells Fargo Center (see game breakdown), its enough to make one wonder what will happen when the Sixers are ready.

The Sixers, in the second game of a back-to-back, won their fourth game of the season by 20-plus points (see Roob's By the Numbers). They did it by holding the Raptors to an arena record for fewest points allowed and, at 5-2 with a pair of back-to-backs down and a back-to-back-to-back looming, the Sixers already lead the Atlantic Division by 1 games over the Boston Celtics.

Meanwhile, the Sixers are off to the franchises best start since the 2000-01 season, when Larry Browns team opened the year 10-0 on the way to the NBA Finals.

To be sure, its only going to get tougher for the Sixers. Still, the season has begun so ridiculously well that its difficult to not be excited about the way the Sixers are playing. In the win over the Raptors, the Sixers led by three points, 41-38, with 9:50 remaining in the third quarter when coach Doug Collins called time out. After that timeout, the Sixers finished the quarter on a 32-11 run, surging by the Raptors as if they were stuck in the mud.

Must have been a pretty good timeout, huh coach?

I think I busted a blood vessel, but I came away unscathed, Collins said. Our guys really responded. Our defense was fabulous. The one time we were down 12 rebounding and ended up plus-three.

Certainly, it all starts with defense with the Sixers. On Saturday night, after Collins called that timeout, Andre Iguodala, who led the team with 14 points and 10 rebounds, hit a three-pointer to push the lead to 10. Next time down the floor, Thaddeus Young blocked a shot at the rim from Amir Johnson that led to a layup for Jodie Meeks.

Im not a shot blocker, Im a charge taker, Young grinned. But I do think that was a game changer. We put our foot down and let them know that youre not going to bring anything in here without a fight.

A jumper from Jrue Holiday pushed the lead to 14 points barely two minutes after Collins laid into the team. Just like that, it was over.

Its early, but its encouraging to have the extra gear to make runs and if they counter, to make another run, said center Spencer Hawes, who played just 16 minutes after having a bit of a back spasm during the third quarter.

The Sixers lead got so large that Collins had a chance to empty the bench. Andres Nocioni got nearly eight minutes of action and Temple product Lavoy Allen picked up two rebounds in his NBA debut. More importantly, the Sixers were able to steal some extra rest with five games in six days lined up for next week.

Come to think of it, the Sixers just might be built for this type of season.

All things considered, for a season like this our team is kind of built well, Hawes said. Across the board were relatively young and were deep and were so balanced and that helps us out because night after night its going to be hard for guys to go back-to-back-to-back. Its going to be hard to count on one guy every night, but when we have so many options and so much depth it gives us an advantage over some of the other teams.

Still, its early, warns Elton Brand (10 points, 6 rebounds) and the Sixers really havent gotten into the meat of the schedule yet. Toronto was the first team from the Atlantic Division the team had faced and even though both teams were playing back-to-backs, the Raptors had a few forces working against them.

They traveled, we didnt, Brand said. But its good to know that we can play back-to-back and still have energy and win a game. Now we have three in a row and were looking forward to seeing how we can play that out.

It should be interesting.

From here, the Sixers get Sunday off before kicking off their first back-to-back-to-back of the season on Monday. The Indiana Pacers come to the Center to kick things off, and the Sacramento Kings arrive for a game on Tuesday night. After that, the Sixers take Amtrak to Penn Station for their first showdown against the Knicks on Wednesday night.
E-mail John R. Finger at jfinger@comcastsportsnet.com

Sixers 128, Cavs 105: Jimmy Butler returns, Ben Simmons posts triple-double

Sixers 128, Cavs 105: Jimmy Butler returns, Ben Simmons posts triple-double


The Sixers’ home loss to the Cavaliers on Nov. 23 was, at the time, likely their worst of the season. For a while Sunday, it appeared they might have a new, strong contender, as Cleveland took a 44-34 second-quarter lead.

But the Sixers avoided their first three-game losing streak of the season, pulling away in the fourth quarter to beat the Cavs, 128-105, behind Ben Simmons’ third triple-double of the season (22 points, 14 assists, 11 rebounds). Joel Embiid had 24 points and nine rebounds, while Jimmy Butler returned to the lineup after missing the past two games with a strained groin and had 19 points. 

The Sixers are now 20-11 on the season, 6-8 on the road.

• Simmons had another sharp, attacking start, scoring nine of the Sixers’ first 14 points.

In several other games this season, Simmons hasn’t sustained his early aggression. Against Cleveland, his drive never diminished.

When Embiid and Butler sat early in the second quarter, Simmons’ ability to establish deep post position, score and distribute effectively in a point forward role was crucial in Cleveland not running away with the game.

Perhaps the most impressive part of Simmons’ performance? He didn’t turn the ball over. 

• In a familiar, unsurprising turn of events, the Sixers’ first-quarter lead disappeared soon after the second unit entered. As we’ve noted before, the Sixers’ bench is thin, and their perimeter defense is subpar. The Cavs have a few players who can create shots off the dribble, but they’re not the type of opponent that should pose serious problems to a team with NBA Finals aspirations. 

• Mike Muscala had perhaps his worst game as a Sixer in Friday’s night loss vs. the Pacers, shooting 1 for 8 and looking out of sync with his teammates on both ends of the floor. Brett Brown attributed Muscala’s poor performance, in part, to his return from an upper respiratory infection. 

Muscala looked more like himself Sunday, with eight points, six rebounds and three blocks. 

• Butler didn’t attempt a shot and was scoreless in the first quarter. He’s averaged just 4.0 points in the first quarter with the Sixers. While the Sixers could get Butler more involved on offense early, you sense his slow starts are in part because of his efforts to blend into the Sixers’ offense and defer to Simmons and Embiid. 

• The Sixers allowed a total of 114 second-half points during their two-game losing streak. Their defense after halftime was improved in Cleveland, as the Cavs had much less success in transition than in the first half and there were far fewer issues with the Sixers’ communication and rotations.

• On Friday, the Sixers got just 21 points outside of Embiid, Simmons, and JJ Redick. Those three were, as usual, the Sixers’ go-to players offensively, but they received more help against the Cavs.

Landry Shamet caught fire in the fourth quarter, shooting 6 for 7 on the afternoon and tying his career high with 16 points.

Wilson Chandler, who was scoreless vs. the Pacers, chipped in 11 points, including an important three-pointer at the end of the third quarter to stop a 12-0 Cavs run.

• It was nice for the Sixers not to have to deal with Tristan Thompson on the offensive glass. Cleveland had six offensive rebounds Sunday. Thompson had eight by himself on Nov. 23. 

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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 less 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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