Al Horford

Despite imperfect fit with Joel Embiid, Al Horford starting to feel comfortable with Sixers

Despite imperfect fit with Joel Embiid, Al Horford starting to feel comfortable with Sixers

When the Sixers signed Al Horford this offseason, there was excitement, but there were also questions.

The excitement was over stealing a damn good basketball player from a rival. The biggest question: How would Horford and Joel Embiid coexist on the floor?

Horford had spent a good chunk of his career at the five. When he played the four, he never played next to a big as unique and as talented as Embiid. Most of Horford’s best performances as a Sixer have come with Embiid off the floor. In fact, Horford’s top-three scoring games have all come with Embiid out of the lineup.

The last few games — including Monday night’s 103-94 win over the Jazz (see observations) — have been a sign that perhaps Horford is beginning to get comfortable.

“I think so. And shame on us if we think this is all going to happen just because he’s good,” Brett Brown said. “He’s prideful and he cares, and he’s trying to fit in. He’s not a pig scorer — he’s a teammate. So, him trying to find his place where he can make a difference on this team comes — I’m assuming through his eyes; it feels like it through my eyes — with a level of care. He’s trying to navigate this whole new city and this whole new team with an element of class and care. I think that he’s done that.”

Horford was instrumental in getting the Sixers off to a fast start Monday. The 33-year-old was perfect from the floor, going 2 of 2 from three and 5 of 5 overall in the first quarter.

Something that’s seemed to get Horford in a better groove lately is running basic pick-and-rolls and pick-and-pops. With Horford’s ability as a screener, a roller and his ability to hit shots from the outside, he’s an ideal player to put in those actions.

He said postgame that it’s something that’s allowed him to have success in the past and has helped him get to his spots recently — which seem to be the elbow and the elbow-extended three.

“I do believe for me to get to some of the things that I do well it's helping — the pick-and-pop and pick-and-roll,” Horford said. “And coach is making a conscious effort of implementing that in the offense and putting me in positions to play in that and attack the defense that way. So I just need to — myself and the rest of the guys — we need to continue to get comfortable with one another and understand what we're trying to get to, what we're trying to get out of those pick-and-roll situations. And we're reading and we're doing a good job with that.”

Though he cooled off as the game went on, Horford continued to show his value.

As Embiid’s backup, the Sixers don’t lose nearly as much as they have in the past. Horford’s mobility at the five has also allowed the Sixers to play a different style.

Ben Simmons looks to push the basketball on nearly every possession. Brown has had his teams play at a breakneck pace from the moment he got here. Even as he’s ushered in the “bully ball” era, he’s wanted Simmons to get out in transition, where he’s as dangerous as any player in the league.

It also allows the Sixers to show teams different looks throughout the course of a game.

“Coach has been emphasizing that he wants us to play faster when Joel is off,” Horford said. “And I think that's the strength of our team, to kind of keep the defense on their toes. We can go bully ball, we can execute in the half court, and then we have another look where we can just get out and run and create chaos that way. So, I think it's a strength of our group to be able to do both.”

The experiment hasn’t been perfect and there will likely be more growing pains along the way, but there’s plenty to be encouraged about 21 games into the season.

“I'd probably say like a B-minus,” Horford said when asked to grade where he is with Embiid. “I still think there's a lot of work for our group in general — I'm not saying me and Jo, I'm saying for the group in general. We're making strides, but we're not where we need to be. And we just have to continue to work. The good thing is that it's only December. I do feel like we're starting to understand how coach wants us to play and we're getting better each game.”

And with each game, looking a little more comfortable.

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Sixers take care of Jazz, and their unorthodox machine is starting to hum

Sixers take care of Jazz, and their unorthodox machine is starting to hum

BOX SCORE 

The Sixers were not built like most teams across the NBA. They’re “huge,” as Brett Brown has said time and time again, and there were legitimate questions heading into the season about whether their roster could contend for an NBA championship.

At the moment, their unorthodox machine is starting to hum.

With a 103-94 win over the Utah Jazz on Monday night, the Sixers are 15-6 and 10-0 at home. They’ve won eight of their last nine games overall.

The Sixers let the Jazz back into the game a bit in the fourth quarter but were in control for most of the night. 

Here are observations on their latest win: 

Horford’s value outside of the hot shooting 

The Sixers have run more post-ups than any team in the NBA by a wide margin. They entered Monday night with 14.9 post-up possessions per game, over five more than the Lakers, who sit at No. 2 in that category.

Brown said before the game that he’s focused on improving the nuances of his team’s post offense, from entry passes to spacing to off-ball cutting and screening.

Having Al Horford should help the Sixers’ development in those areas. Along with being an excellent passer from the post, Horford often has size advantages that the Sixers can target, as they did at times Monday against Utah’s Royce O’Neale. And, when his teammates have a mismatch, it’s not unusual to see Horford point to Ben Simmons as Simmons dribbles up the floor — “Get him the ball.”

He’s a player who’s seen it all and definitely not someone who’s phased by the frequency with which the Sixers post up.

For the Sixers, it also doesn’t hurt that Horford has been shooting the ball very well. Despite going 0 for 5 from the floor in the second half vs. the Jazz, he’s shot 62.7 percent over his last six games. 

Horford simply had a very strong night across the board, posting 17 points, eight rebounds, five assists and two blocks, and is playing with a lot of confidence.

He even did his trademark flinch following a Rudy Gobert free throw miss in the third quarter, then implored fans to pick up the noise ahead of what could have been a Frosty-clinching brick. Gobert, however, made the second free throw.

Simmons and Thybulle shine on defense 

The Sixers made a smart adjustment in their defense early against Donovan Mitchell, hedging and recovering a few times on the pick-and-roll. Mitchell had started hot on Nov. 6 in Utah, when the Sixers had his defender try to go over the screen and dropped the big man. While the mid-range shot is a look the Sixers and most NBA teams will typically accept, they didn’t take the chance that Mitchell might make a bunch of open jumpers in the first quarter and get into a groove.

Simmons and Matisse Thybulle did an excellent job on Mitchell (18 points on 6 for 19 shooting), and defensively in general. Thybulle seemed to bother Mitchell with his constant activity and zealous “rearview contests” when he fell behind in his chase over a ball screen. 

Brown said pregame of the rookie that, “At times I should have a higher tolerance level for his wild decisions defensively.”

To begin the second half, Brown went with Thybulle over Furkan Korkmaz, who started his eighth game of the year and had seven points in 24 minutes. Korkmaz started again because Josh Richardson remains sidelined by right hamstring tightness.

Thybulle’s high-risk decisions tend to result in high rewards when he gets it right.

He had three steals, while Simmons added to his NBA lead with four. Simmons also nearly had a triple-double, with 14 points, nine assists and eight rebounds. 

Harris picks up the slack

For the first time since his zero-point effort against Marc Gasol and the Raptors, Joel Embiid faced a top post defender in Gobert, the Defensive Player of the Year the last two seasons. 

Though Embiid wasn’t completely silenced by Gobert, the Jazz center guarded him well, limiting Embiid to 16 points on 5 for 13 shooting from the floor.

On this night, though, the Sixers didn’t need Embiid to be at his most dominant offensively.

Tobias Harris (26 points on 10 of 23 shooting) helped to pick up the scoring slack. The Harris-Embiid pick-and-roll was featured heavily in the fourth quarter.

A unique celebration 

After sinking a three to put the Sixers up 57-31 (and getting fouled), James Ennis did a couple of celebration push-ups, much to the delight of the crowd at Wells Fargo Center. 

It was that kind of high-energy, free-flowing, joyful first half for the Sixers. 

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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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