Sixers

3 observations after Sixers hold off Bulls to win 5th straight

Sixers

There’s only so much the Sixers can control.

The opponent in front of them is not within their power, but the outcome of the race for the Eastern Conference’s top seed is.

Facing another shorthanded team Monday night, the Sixers won and improved to 44-21, a full game ahead of the Nets in the standings. A 106-94 victory at United Center over the Bulls was the team’s fifth straight. 

Zach LaVine has been cleared to rejoin the Bulls after being in the NBA’s health and safety protocols but the team is ramping him back into action, head coach Billy Donovan said pregame. He missed an 11th consecutive game Monday. 

Fellow All-Star Nikola Vucevic (right adductor strain) and Troy Brown Jr. (left ankle sprain) were also out. 

Tobias Harris had 21 points on 10-for-13 shooting and nine rebounds.

Seth Curry posted 20 points on 7-for-10 shooting.

The Sixers will conclude their three-game road trip Wednesday in Houston. Here are three observations on their win in Chicago: 

Simmons, Harris back on track 

After a scoreless first half Sunday in San Antonio, it only took Ben Simmons a minute to record two points Monday. He finished with his right hand in the paint off of a pick-and-roll with Danny Green, and he drove in for a dunk a few minutes later.

Simmons slammed in an alley-oop shortly after following another pick-and-roll with Green. When he’s off the ball, that’s the player the Sixers want Simmons to be. He’s best when he’s putting pressure on the defense in some form, which he certainly does as a roller.

 

“I just like anybody with Ben as the roller," Sixers head coach Doc Rivers said postgame. “It doesn’t matter. Tonight it just turned out in our movement that it happened to be Danny in that corner; that could’ve been Seth or Tobias.

“Teams go under — they’re so off of Ben — and so guys comes off Ben’s screen with a shot, and that always brings up Ben’s guy. And then Ben slips behind. So we don’t mind where it’s at. We do like it a lot, though.”

Simmons finished with 15 points on 6-for-7 shooting, six rebounds, five assists and three steals. He defended second-year guard Coby White, who scored 23 points. White got hot early in the fourth quarter with Simmons sitting and Tyrese Maxey on the floor, but Simmons handled him late.

“Every night," Rivers said. “You don’t see me campaigning and I’m not going to, but I’m just going to say it again: There is not a better defender in this league. That last side out-of-bounds play, they ran a great action. Ben blew it up completely. They couldn’t get the ball in, he gets a steal and the game’s over. I don’t know how many times he’s done that."

Harris also turned in a very nice performance after a 3-for-10 effort against San Antonio. 

“Just play my game," he said. “Play in a flow. Try to do whatever I can to get some easy ones, get in a rhythm. I’ve always been a player where I go as the team flow and team rhythm goes. Don’t try to to force too much. That has worked for me all year long.

“At times where shots may not be falling or the rhythm isn’t there, just settle down and let the game come to me the best way possible. … You can’t get too discouraged or anything. It’s basketball and at the end of the day, I know my game and I know what I do best out there on the floor, just getting to those spots.”

Joel Embiid did not replicate his 50-point February game against the Bulls. He had an off night with 13 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks.

Though Simmons and Harris are very good players, a moment in the third quarter served as a reminder that the Sixers’ championship hopes rest on Embiid’s health. The big man collided with Simmons during a fight for a rebound, grabbed at his left leg and appeared to be moving gingerly for a couple of possessions. 

“I’m feeling OK," Embiid said. “Just managing it. The last couple games it just feels like I’ve been going through the motions. I’m just trying to make sure I get to the playoffs healthy. We’re getting guys a lot of confidence. … We’re going to need those guys to come into the playoffs with a lot of confidence to help us win a championship.”

 

Earning the No. 1 seed would be great, but it would feel hollow for the Sixers if an All-Star went down in the process. Again, the Sixers have limited control over health, but they can manage minutes and exercise caution with any injury concerns that arise over their final seven games. 

Shooters do their thing 

The Sixers started 14 for 18 from the floor, building a 32-15 lead. Outside of five turnovers, the team’s first-quarter offense was excellent.

Curry was in a groove early on for a second straight game, scoring 11 points in the opening period. There’s no mystery about it at this point: The Sixers’ offense is better when he’s looking to score. Good shots seem to come his way when the offense is gelling, too.

Curry thinks his cardio has improved recently. It's been an uneven year for him after he tested positive for COVID-19 on Jan. 7.

“That’s more a product of the year, me having so many setbacks personally with COVID and a couple injuries, missing some time — and all the games so close together," he said. “It’s just been hard to get in shape, really, all year. Since I missed those two weeks early in the season, I really haven’t been in good shape. Some of the blowout games we had where (the starters) didn’t play in the fourth quarter, I was able to get some good cardio after that. I think it’s been helping me out the past few games.”

Green is another player whose offensive success is usually a sign that the Sixers are playing well as a team. He knocked down his third three-pointer of the first half when Harris received a behind-the-back feed from Simmons and found Green open in the corner.

In the playoffs, it’s inevitable that Embiid will see a ton of double teams. If Curry and Green are shooting without hesitation, they’re more than capable of making opponents pay. 

Curry’s marksmanship was expected, but there was perhaps some uncertainty about Green following a relatively down shooting year with the Lakers. It’s helped the Sixers immensely that he’s taken a career-high volume of threes and made over 40 percent. 

One negative development on the shooting front for the Sixers: Furkan Korkmaz suffered a right ankle sprain with 8:02 left in the second period and was ruled out for the remainder of the game. He also sprained his right ankle on April 21 and missed two games after that injury. Korkmaz has been the 10th man in the Sixers’ rotation lately.

Another lead dwindles 

The Sixers don’t have many weaknesses, but they’ve known for a long time that transition defense is one of them.

Despite the time they’ve dedicated to that area, it’s sometimes seemed mystifying. Live-ball turnovers and crashing for offensive rebounds contribute to it, sure, but why has it been such a lingering problem? Aren’t many of the solutions rather simple — diligence about getting back on defense, picking up dangerous players early, etc.?

 

Monday was a good night for the Sixers’ transition defense, which conceded three fast-break points. Matisse Thybulle was a defensive standout with three blocks and a steal in 20 minutes. 

The Sixers’ bench, however, was poor overall in the second half. With the team leading by over 20 points in the third period, the Sixers’ first unit should’ve been able to relax for the game’s final few minutes.

Instead, the Bulls pulled within a point in the fourth, capitalizing on late defensive rotations and offensive stagnancy. It’s rarely easy to close games on the second night of a back-to-back, though, and the Sixers' starters got the job done late.

“I wasn’t happy," Rivers said. “That’s two nights in a row that our bench has come in and given up leads. It’s something we can fix. They just didn’t play well, to be honest. As bad as they were defensively, I thought it was offense where they didn’t have a lot of movement. We’ll be able to fix that.”