Josh Richardson

Sixers shrug off another frustrating 1st half vs. Knicks, come back to win

Sixers shrug off another frustrating 1st half vs. Knicks, come back to win

The New York Knicks have twice had double-digits leads in the second half over the Sixers this season. On the surface, that might be a concerning fact.

Yet the Sixers have twice come back to beat the lowly 4-15 Knicks. Down by as many as 16 in the second quarter Friday night, they shrugged off a poor first half and earned a 101-95 win at Madison Square Garden.

The Sixers, now 13-6, were very shorthanded, without Al Horford (rest), Josh Richardson (right hamstring tightness) and Kyle O’Quinn (left calf strain).

They’ll play the Pacers on Saturday night at Wells Fargo Center ( 7 p.m./NBCSP).

Here are observations from the win: 

First-half frustration 

The Sixers’ offense was clunky in the first half, scoring a season-low 39 points, and it didn’t help that they missed a bunch of open looks and hit just 2 for 18 shots from three-point range. Their collective frustration culminated in a technical foul on Brett Brown late in the second quarter. Ben Simmons also was T’d up in the third. 

Brown has been consistent in his view that he’s not satisfied with his team’s offense, and that its evolution will take time — at the moment, he’s tinkering and searching for solutions with an unorthodox, massive team who tends to look bad when they don’t knock down threes.

He ran a couple of snug pick-and-rolls between Simmons and Joel Embiid in the second quarter, an action the Sixers showed occasionally last season, too. The first produced an and-one for Embiid. With Simmons still not attempting threes or being regularly stationed off the ball in the corner, it’s at least a way for the Sixers to have two men down low simultaneously with a result besides just congested spacing. 

Simmons and Embiid’s winning plays 

Both Simmons and Embiid were a level or two below their best in New York, but both made winning plays. 

Simmons, as he did during the Sixers’ win over the Knicks last Wednesday, picked up his defensive intensity after the Sixers fell behind and was strong on that end in the second half. 

His steal of an inbounds pass intended for RJ Barrett and slam dunk with a little over a minute left gave the Sixers a seven-point edge.

For the game, Simmons had 15 points, eight assists and five rebounds. 

Embiid never found a true groove offensively, but he still managed 27 points on 7 for 19 shooting, 17 rebounds and three blocks, including an impressive chase down rejection on Julius Randle with 3:39 to go. 

He went right into Mitchell Robinson’s chest with 2:33 left, drawing the sixth foul on the Knicks’ center and converting an and-one to give the Sixers a 90-87 lead and snap a scoring drought of over four minutes. 

The replacements

The Sixers started Matisse Thybulle and Furkan Korkmaz in place of Richardson and Horford. Neither came close to giving the Sixers a comparable level of production. 

For Korkmaz, it’s been clear for a while that he typically needs to score and to shoot at a high percentage in order to have positive value. The 22-year-old is in better shape and a bit sharper defensively than he was last season, but what Brown finds most appealing about him is his shooting ability. After going 3 for 8 from the floor Friday, he’s 43.4 percent from the floor this year, 35.7 percent from three-point territory.  

Thybulle, after scoring 15 points, making all five of his shots and recording four steals in Wednesday’s win over the Kings, was scoreless in 21 minutes. 

Perhaps Brown will consider starting James Ennis, who scored a season-high 20 points and knocked a trio of important second-half threes, the next time the Sixers need a spot starter. 

Welcome to the NBA, Norvel Pelle

Norvel Pelle sure isn’t afraid to challenge shots — the 26-year-old blocked three per game last season and was a member of the G League’s All-Defensive First Team. 

Less than a minute into his NBA debut, he didn’t shy away when Randle rumbled down the lane, rising in the air with the Knicks’ forward. Randle welcomed Pelle to the NBA with a powerful dunk in his face. 

But Pelle didn’t hesitate a few minutes later when Frank Ntilikina drove toward the rim, swatting away his attempted dunk. In the second quarter, he confronted Randle again at the rim and won, denying him another dunk. 

The big man, who’s on a one-year, two-way deal with the Sixers, had a winding path to the NBA. He’s played in the G League, Taiwan, Italy and Lebanon.

“It matured me, mentally and physically,” he said on Nov. 12. “I started young, so I had to grow up fast. Mentally, it just matured me. I know the different things I need to do and what it takes to stay consistent.”

Pelle admitted then that the transition to not having regular minutes was “hard,” but he was focused on staying ready. As he displayed Friday night, he’s always ready to block shots. 

Whether he has the other skills needed to stick in the NBA is still an open question, but his attitude and athleticism were impressive in his first action in the league. 

He had three points, four blocks and two rebounds in 13 minutes against the Knicks. 

Harris goes into attack mode, eventually 

With Richardson and Horford out, the Sixers needed Tobias Harris to initiate more than usual on offense.

He didn't take on that job early, going scoreless and taking just two shots in the first 15 minutes of the game.

Brown has talked often about wanting Harris to attack more offensively. Ideally, the Sixers would like for Harris to take charge without needing any extra encouragement, but his first instinct is to be selfless. 

However, Harris was in an aggressive mode to start the second half and scored the Sixers’ first five points of the third period on a driving lefty layup and a corner three. He scored nine of his 19 points in the third and helped spark the Sixers’ surge back into the game. 

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Josh Richardson leaves game vs. Kings with hamstring injury

Josh Richardson leaves game vs. Kings with hamstring injury

When the second half of Sixers-Kings began there was an important player missing from the court.

Josh Richardson is dealing with right hamstring tightness and did not return to Wednesday night’s win against Sacramento at the Wells Fargo Center.

Richardson was excellent in the first half, continuing a string of standout performances over his last few games. He scored a season-high 32 points against his former team Saturday in the Sixers’ blowout win over the Heat. Before that contest, he’d missed the previous two with right hip flexor tightness.

The Sixers' starters have played well, but the issue has been that they haven't played much together. They've only been on the court for 97 minutes through 18 games this season.

Furkan Korkmaz started the second half in his place.

We’ll provide more information on the extent of Richardson’s injury when it becomes available.

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Sixers' starting five may be turning a corner offensively

Sixers' starting five may be turning a corner offensively

The Sixers’ starting five has been dominant — when it’s actually played together.

Through 16 games, the unit of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, Josh Richardson and Al Horford has gotten through just five contests together. That five-man lineup has by far the highest net rating in the NBA at 29.4 (minimum 80 minutes played together). Of course Saturday night’s blowout, in which the Sixers’ starters outscored the Heat’s 90-33, helped that cause.

The lack of time together has been frustrating for them in terms of developing chemistry offensively, but as that win showed, they may be turning a corner.

I thought all-around we were hitting on all cylinders — shots going in, being able to impose our will defensively, being able to get a lot of good plays,” Harris said postgame Saturday. “Obviously, it's early but we're figuring it out. Tonight was a good night of where I thought we really imposed our will on them all night.

When GM Elton Brand assembled this team, it was clear defense was the focus. Brett Brown has reiterated that.

His players have been on the same page so far. The starters’ 88.8 defensive rating is also a league-best mark.

I believe it starts with me and Jo and Al and Josh and Tobias on the floor,” Simmons said. “When we're all locked in defensively, our offense is just easy. Everything flows and we find each other and play with a good pace.

Of course a huge part of defense is communication. Horford has mentioned communication in one form or another in pretty much every media availability he’s had since he arrived — especially on that end of the floor.

There’s a mutual respect among the Sixers where they talk openly. Harris has said “transparency” as a team was a focus this offseason. Even the newcomers in Horford and Richardson are feeling that sentiment.

I think I saw our chemistry get better, man,” Richardson said. “For instance, me and Tobias had a little back and forth — not bad — but it was one of those things where I was like screaming at him for the ball to get it to a mismatch, but he didn't understand it, and then we explained it, but it didn't escalate. We fist bumped and kept it going. And I saw a few other instances like that. And I think when you can go at your teammates like that and come out of there positively, I think that's a good step for us.

Make no mistake, no matter what move the Sixers make and how those players contribute, it all starts with Simmons and Embiid.

Simmons has been on another level over the last few games — especially on defense. The Sixers inexplicably struggled to contain the Knicks’ guards Wednesday and found themselves down 17 in the third quarter. Simmons then took over the game on both ends, pushing the ball at a breakneck pace.

He repeated that effort against the Spurs Friday and yet again with Jimmy Butler and the Heat. 

I just felt like it all started with Ben for us,” Horford said postgame Friday. “When he plays with that type of pace and that sense of urgency, it just opens everything up for all of us and I felt like his pressure and him putting pressure on the rim and attacking and looking ahead and making the right decisions — I think that it kind of got us in good positions early.

As for Embiid, the last couple games represent a major improvement in the way he’s handled double teams. He’s made quick decisions and found his teammates which has led to significantly better ball movement.

It didn’t seem like a coincidence that Saturday was the best game the trio of Harris, Horford and Richardson have had scoring wise.

It sure helps,” Brown said. “I mean, it all fits, it ends up fitting. And as we've talked, ad nauseum about, the offense is going to take some time. I do agree with you that Al and Tobias lately have found their rhythm. I thought that they were really good in scoring out of our structure. We made threes tonight. We made them at high percentage. We had a high assists game. We shared the ball. There were many, many good things that came out of the game tonight offensively and I've just said what I said why I'm most excited, is we played defense.

There are still things that need to be worked out, but luckily for the Sixers, there’s plenty of time to do so.

We're still learning how to play with each other,” Joel Embiid said postgame Friday. “We got a long way to go, but every day we're making a step in the right direction and that's good to see. We're still learning. I'm still learning. I'm still getting adjusted, but we're only going to get better.

Scary thought.

 

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