Josh Richardson

The backup plan for Joel Embiid looks pretty darn good as Sixers beat Hornets in preseason action

The backup plan for Joel Embiid looks pretty darn good as Sixers beat Hornets in preseason action

No Joel Embiid, no problem.

Without their All-Star center, the Sixers took it to Charlotte Friday night, beating the Hornets, 100-87, at Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum. The score wasn't even that close as the Sixers' held a 20-plus-point lead through most of the game with their regular rotation in.

With Embiid getting a planned load management day off, the rest of the starters carried the load while Matisse Thybulle continued to shine on the defensive end.

Here are observations from the win.

• Brett Brown has talked about wanting his team to be swarming defensively and more aggressive than years past. You can already see the potential of that approach with the elite athletes and defensive players the team features. The Sixers turned the Hornets over nine times in the first quarter, scoring 14 points off them.

Brown said he wants to be the No. 1 defensive team in the NBA. That seems quite attainable.

• While Horford is just a very good player in his own right, a big part of his appeal to the Sixers was how he could fill the void when Embiid is out of the lineup. We got a glimpse of that Friday.

Horford hit a shot that’s become an Embiid staple on the team’s first possession — a long jumper from the top of the key in the trail position. Unfortunately, it wound up being a long two but Horford stroked it with ease. He also showed he still has ups at 33 years old. He forced a turnover by breaking up a pick-and-roll and then threw down an alley-oop from Simmons on the ensuing fast break. Horford filled up the stat sheet with 11 points (5 of 9), nine rebounds, three assists, three steals and two blocks.

The other part of that backup center equation is veteran Kyle O’Quinn. O’Quinn was solid defensively and had a nice on-ball block of Cody Zeller in the second. O’Quinn’s passing ability has been brought up on several occasions and you can see why. He finished with five assists — his nicest was a well-executed give-and-go with Tobias Harris.

• I’m not sure if it was the made three Tuesday or just seeing a team in the Hornets that he’s scorched in the past but Ben Simmons looked extremely confident Friday night. He hit a smooth midrange fadeaway and continually attacked the basket, finishing through contact. Simmons is at his best when he attacks the rim first and looks to facilitate off it. He was in full attack mode Friday. He had 15 points (6 of 8), five rebounds and four assists. He also made 3 of 3 from the line and was a team-high plus-23.

Simmons was also impressive defensively. He made what was likely the defensive play of the game with a tremendous chase down block on Terry Rozier early in the third.

• Harris got off to a rough start, missing his first four shots and committing two early turnovers. A dunk off a nice set up by Shake Milton seemed to get Harris going. He went on to make 6 of his next 8. When Brown talked about playing “bully ball offense,” one of the things he referenced was Harris taking advantage of his size on the wing. Harris looks like he’s taken that mentality seriously. He’s frequently been hunting and attacking mismatches early in the preseason.

He recorded 16 points (6 of 14) and eight rebounds.

• You can see what GM Elton Brand liked in Josh Richardson when he acquired the wing from the Heat in the Jimmy Butler sign-and-trade. Richardson excels in the pick-and-roll and in dribble handoffs. Brown mentioned how good Richardson is defensively navigating those situations because of his ability to “get skinny.” The same applies offensively. He’s smooth and is a strong midrange shooter. He’s also a good finisher — he features a nice floater and good touch around the rim. Not to mention he’s an excellent passer.

He also had two outstanding blocks where he used his length to close on quicker guards that got around him on drives. The Sixers got a good one here. He finished with 18 points (7 of 14), four assists, three blocks and a steal.

• Matisse Thybulle was the first wing off the bench tonight. He continues to be a game wrecking ballhawk. He stripped Zeller on a shot attempt — it was credited as a block — on his second defensive possession. He then quickly recorded a pair of steals, one coming out of nowhere to pick off a lazy bounce pass by Dwayne Bacon.

Thybulle is like Ed Reed on a basketball court. He had four steals and two blocks in just 18 minutes. He looks ready for meaningful NBA minutes.

• The veteran duo of James Ennis and Mike Scott was solid. Ennis was aggressive getting to the rim and had eight points. Scott did what he does, making 3 of 6 from three. The Sixers’ likely sixth and seventh men look ready for the regular season.

• Raul Neto and Milton didn’t really stand out offensively — though Milton was solid on the defensive end — in their extended time. While the backup point guard battle will likely come down to Neto and Trey Burke — who didn’t get in until the fourth Friday — Brown has been sure to mention that Milton will also get a look. It doesn’t appear that anybody has put a stranglehold on that spot as of yet.

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Making a 3? No big deal to Ben Simmons — but it could be huge for Sixers

Making a 3? No big deal to Ben Simmons — but it could be huge for Sixers

The game got off to a predictable start. The Sixers were crushing the Guangzhou Loong-Lions of the Chinese Basketball Association in their preseason opener Tuesday.

Then, it happened. 

With time winding down in the first half and the Sixers with a comically large lead, Ben Simmons pulled up from the right wing and took what Marc Zumoff would describe as a healthy three.

Swish.

“I mean, it was dope,” Josh Richardson said. “I was wondering why the crowd was standing up and everything and I was like, 'What's happening?' And I looked at the situation and I looked at the clock and I was like, 'Ah, OK.' So I kind of stood in the corner and I kind of did this with my hands like, 'Just shoot it if you want it, bro.' ... He shot a deep one, too. It was a couple steps behind the line. It was great to see him make one in a game.”

The Eagles won Super Bowl LII, the Phillies won the 2008 World Series, our forefathers signed the Declaration of Independence — all a distant second in Philadelphia history to Simmons burying his first (preseason) NBA three. 

Yet, the generally reserved and efficient-speaking Simmons was unfazed. 

“Time running down, I had the ball, so I had to take a shot.”

Did the encouragement of the crowd make you want to shoot?

“I didn’t really hear anything.”

How did it feel?

“I work every day, so to me, it shows. I’m in the gym every day putting in work, so I feel like it’s paying off.”

Alright then.

Surely his head coach, who talked at his annual luncheon about all the work Simmons had put in this summer and how excited he was to see Simmons confidently shoot, was thrilled by the made three.

“He made a shot. Good. And that's kind of personally the extent of it for me,” Brett Brown said. “I think the whole thing is so overblown. I think in general, it's so inflated the attention, and that's what I think. … He's young, we got a long season. I'm just not gonna react over it, and I really mean that. He made a three.”

Perhaps it is “overblown” in the sense that all of Philadelphia is freaking out over a made three in a preseason game against a non-NBA team but for the Sixers, it’s a pretty big deal.

And it’s a huge deal for Simmons. There is no denying how uniquely talented Simmons is. He was the Rookie of the Year and an All-Star before his 23rd birthday. He could legitimately become a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year.

But Simmons’ reluctance — practically a refusal — to shoot jumpers has stunted his NBA growth. It caused Brown to take the ball out of Simmons’ hands in the playoff in favor of Jimmy Butler. It relegated Simmons to the “dunker” spot on the floor and made him almost a non-factor offensively in the series against Toronto.

Simmons may be downplaying the significance of making the shot, but he knew this was something that had to happen. That’s why the videos of him banging step-backs and fadeaways made the rounds — Simmons was ready to show the world he could do it.

“I mean, he works on it every day,” Mike Scott said. “When I went in this morning to shoot he was in there working on transition, dribble-up threes — he works on it. We’ve all seen videos of him over the summer hitting them. That’s all his hard work. And a lot more to go. I’m glad he’s confident, he’s shooting it and it was cash. He cashed out.”

As the clock was winding down when Simmons crossed half court, you could see all his teammates encouraging him to fire. 

And he did.

“We wanted him to shoot it, for sure,” Tobias Harris said. “He’s one of the best shooters to ever shoot the basketball. Let it fly. He’s 100 percent from three, so I don’t want to hear nothing.”

Brown may have initially downplayed the impact of what this meant to him, Simmons and the rest of the team, but he knows how critical it is.

Sure, it was just one shot in the preseason but if it’s a sign of bigger things to come, it could change the entire narrative around Simmons this season — and for his career.

“I just think it's so overblown and we all get why it's discussed a lot and we understand that the stage of April, May and June — we get like it stands out,” Brown said. “But I still stand by my personal opinion is I think it's overblown and I think it's going to end up growing organically just fine.”

If Ben Simmons hitting threes becomes a non-story, it could be the biggest story of the Sixers’ season.

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Ben Simmons finally does it, and more observations from Sixers' preseason opener

Ben Simmons finally does it, and more observations from Sixers' preseason opener

The 2019-20 Sixers have, after much anticipation, transformed from an alluring idea to a reality. In this new reality, Ben Simmons makes three-point shots. 

They opened the preseason Tuesday night at Wells Fargo Center with a 144-86 win over the Guangzhou Loong-Lions of the Chinese Basketball Association. Guangzhou was, if you could not tell from the final score, severely overmatched.

Simmons, 0 for 17 for his career from three-point range, hit a three from the right wing with 1.2 seconds left in the first half. Naturally, we’ll start with that shot in our observations:

• Simmons’ jumper might not mean much in the big picture. It was, after all, a shot in a preseason game that gave his team a 41-point lead.

Finally, though, he did it, and the crowd at Wells Fargo Center acted like he’d just hit the game-winner to seal a playoff series 

Simmons has made similar shots often in non-game situations — his pregame warmup actually ended with a jumper from close to that exact spot.

The difference between that and a real game, however, is significant. If you question whether it was an important moment, observe his teammates’ ecstatic reaction. 

Now, we’ll see where that shot leads. Simmons said at media day that he’ll take three-pointers this season when open. If those words were genuine, him taking three-point shots could eventually become a somewhat normal occurrence. At the present moment, it’s still a thrilling novelty to fans.

• The starting five took a while to find a rhythm — Guangzhou actually capitalized on a sleepy start to take a 7-5 lead.

There weren’t any startling revelations. Simmons, Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris, Al Horford and Joel Embiid are indeed very big and very difficult to score against. Each player had some good moments, and they seemed to be on the same wavelength as a unit more often than not. They’ll learn much more about each other and how to play together when they face better competition — the Hornets, on Friday at 7:30 p.m., are up next.

• Brett Brown said pregame that he’d play a “semblance of a rotation in the first half,” with a shift to a mentality of getting most of his players minutes in the second half.

His first two substitutions were Matisse Thybulle and James Ennis, in for Richardson and Embiid, with Horford moving to center. Trey Burke was the next sub about two minutes later, replacing Simmons, and Mike Scott came off the bench late in the first quarter. 

Plenty can — and likely will — change before the opener on Oct. 23 vs. the Celtics, but those substitution patterns are worth tracking throughout the preseason. Expect to see the Horford-Simmons pairing more as Brown hones in on his best groupings. He mentioned Monday that he thinks that duo has potential. 

The Embiid-Richardson pairing is another one Brown seems determined to grow, with those two working to develop their own version of the Embiid-JJ Redick dribble handoff chemistry, which was such a fundamental part of the Sixers’ offense the last two seasons. 

• He wasn’t quite as much of a defensive pest as during Saturday’s Blue x White Scrimmage, but Thybulle had another strong game and further staked his claim for a significant regular-season role.

Thybulle is well suited to playing in a defense that hunts the ball. He’s constantly swarming opponents, flying into passing lanes and sparking transition offense. 

He finished with 10 points on 4 for 6 shooting (2 for 4 from three-point range), three steals and two blocks. 

• Neither Burke nor Raul Neto seemed to take a sizable advantage in the backup point guard battle, though Burke was the one who got to play with the regulars. Burke had 11 points on 4 for 7 shooting and four assists in 14 minutes, while Neto had two points on 1 for 2 shooting and five assists in 10 minutes. Shake Milton hit two threes soon after entering the game in the third quarter. 

It will be difficult in general for Brown to glean much from a game in which his team had such a gaping talent advantage — he likely won't read much into any stats from this one.

• The Sixers trapped and picked up full court with some regularity. Though there wasn’t much risk in doing so against an inferior opponent, it wouldn’t be surprising to see more of that aggression during the regular season.

Ime Udoka, the team’s new de facto defensive coordinator, wants the Sixers to “make them feel you” and force more turnovers. The Sixers, 27th in turnovers forced last season at 12.7 per game, turned Guangzhou over 23 times. 

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