Sixers' size is bucking NBA trends, but it's working so far

Sixers' size is bucking NBA trends, but it's working so far

The NBA game is always evolving. The three-point line didn't exist until 1979 and Stephen Curry revolutionized it. Big men like Wilt Chamberlain and Shaquille O'Neal used to dominate in the paint, but bigs nowadays are more likely to be rim runners — guys that block shots and catch lobs.

Elton Brand sees your league trends and scoffs.

We’re just four games into the season, but Brand’s vision of building a roster of skilled giants may just be crazy enough to work.

Including their 117-95 win over Minnesota Wednesday, the Sixers have won ugly. 

A decent shooting performance Wednesday (9 of 25) boosted them from the fourth- to sixth-worst three-point shooting team in the league. They're second in the league in turnovers per game in large part because of so many new pieces. 

The shooting may not improve much without a roster move, but there are signs of encouragement on the turnover front. The Sixers have several good passers in their starting lineup. Ben Simmons, Josh Richardson and Al Horford all averaged over four assists a game last season. There are possessions where you can see the ball move the way it’s supposed to, and it’s impressive.

Luckily for the Sixers, they’ve been proficient at turning their opponents over and lead the NBA in steals per game. They may have turned the ball over 22 times Wednesday, but they forced 21.

It’s reasonable to think they can keep turning teams over while taking better care of the ball themselves.

“I feel better because I think the ball moved,” Brett Brown said. “I didn't really purposefully call a bunch of plays until the end. I wanted them to figure it out. The turnovers, the abundance still is haunting. You're not going to do anything that matters unless you fix that. That's the bottom line. Now, that's the bad news. The good news was our transition defense after the turnovers was exceptional. I think they had 12 points on 22 turnovers which is a very tiny relative number for that volume. It starts with trying to help our two All-Stars, Ben and Joel, with this mission to try to reduce turnovers. You're going to see that there are many other participants in this ugly category that we need to fix. And if you remove that I give our offensive a thumbs up.”

Along with the Spurs — who are the only other unbeaten team in the NBA — the Sixers lead the NBA in rebounding. They dominated the glass against Minnesota to the tune of a 56-34 advantage.

Turning teams over and punishing them on the boards seems like a solid recipe for success.

“See, to me there's two areas that [are] the game,” Brown said. “If you look our points after we turned them over, which I think is 29, and the 30 points on second-chance points. When you talk about how do you utilize height? How do you exploit size? It's part of the sort of smash mouth, bully ball thing we're trying to get better at and that 30 points, crashing the boards, and 29 points I think it was ... taking advantage of how we turn them over — you'd have a hard time going someplace else when you talk about significant stats that helped us win.”

The Sixers have beaten teams up — which unfortunately has caused them to average the second-most personal fouls per game. There’s reason to believe that number can improve as well. Again, with so many new players, communication can be an issue. That can lead to slow rotations and help, which can lead to fouls.

While the team appears to be getting better in that regard, Al Horford said it was “still not great, to my standards.” This is a big part of the reason Brand was so aggressive in pursuing Horford. The veteran big is a demanding teammate, which is good when you have so much young talent.

Horford is most encouraged by the versatility this team has. It was on display against Karl-Anthony Towns. Brown opted to start out defensively with Horford matched up on Towns instead of Embiid. The Timberwolves’ center was shooting a ton of threes at a high clip coming in. The more mobile Horford seemed to throw Towns off.

That’s the thing with this starting five — where do you attack them?

"I believe that that's one of my strengths, to be able to be put in different parts and defend different people, bigs or small,” Horford said. “And not only me, but Ben does that as well. And Joel, it's tough to go through that in the paint. I think it works to our advantage when we do these type of matchups."

On top of the “bully ball defense,” the “smash mouth offense” was alive and well.

When Brown first mentioned these concepts before camp started, he referenced the idea of players identifying mismatches and attacking them. Because of the size advantage the Sixers have one through five, there’s always at least one.

"The thing that I keep seeing with our group is literally any of us can go in there, post, go score the ball, be aggressive, be strong,” Horford said. “That was an example of it tonight. There were times where I had to take it, or Joel, or Tobias, or even Josh. Ben, as well. We really try to play with our size and impose our will in the paint."

Elton Brand sees your finesse players, NBA. He raises you his giant bullies.

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Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns brawl while Sixers stay undefeated with win vs. Timberwolves

Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns brawl while Sixers stay undefeated with win vs. Timberwolves

BOX SCORE

The Sixers beat up on the Timberwolves on the scoreboard and on the floor.

The Joel Embiid-Karl-Anthony Towns brawl overshadowed the Sixers beating Minnesota, 117-95, Wednesday night at the Wells Fargo Center.

With the win, the Sixers are one of only two teams still unbeaten — the Spurs being the other.

They’re now 4-0 heading into a daunting West Coast swing beginning Saturday night in Portland.

Here are observations from a wild one Wednesday.

Ding! Ding!

Midway through the third quarter, Embiid and Towns got tangled up after a double team that caused a Towns turnover. The two began shoving as the play went down the other end and neither player backed down. It culminated with Towns taking a swing at Embiid and both teams converging on each other on the floor. By the end of it, Ben Simmons had Towns on the ground in a headlock.

Both Embiid and Towns were obviously ejected. On his way off the court, Embiid began waving his arms to the crowd and then began shadowboxing. The crowd ate it up.

Embiid had frustrated Towns all night. This is what Towns resorted to.

KAT vs. … Horford?

For those looking to see two of the game’s best big men go at it playing actual basketball, Brett Brown disappointed you … but it was a smart coaching move.

To Towns’ credit he’s become a much improved three-point shooter. He came into Wednesday taking 9.7 threes a game and was hitting a ridiculous 51.7 percent. With that in mind, Brown opted to use the more mobile Al Horford on Towns defensively. That allowed Joel Embiid to roam and wreak havoc defensively.

As has been the case in their recent matchups, Embiid was too much for Towns to handle in the post. There was one possession early where Towns actually had a nice on-ball block on Embiid, but for the most part, the Sixers’ All-Star center had his way. Embiid had 19 points (7 of 14) in 20 minutes before the ejection. 

Bully ball, indeed

The Sixers simply beat up the Timberwolves all night. They held a huge rebounding advantage (55-34) and just smothered them all night, holding Minnesota to just 40 percent from the field.

Part of that “bully ball” mentality Brett Brown has been preaching was seen by Tobias Harris. Harris had a tough night Monday in Atlanta, going just 1 of 9 from three and 5 of 16 overall. He mentioned postgame that he felt he need to attack more and get easier looks.

Harris was aggressive early, going after mismatches. He was able to punish some of the Timberwolves’ smaller guards by simply taking a few dribbles into the paint and shooting over them. He finished with 18 points (7 of 15) and nine rebounds.

And it wasn’t just Harris. It seemed like the Sixers were hunting mismatches all night. With their size and skill, there are sure to be a lot of those on a nightly basis. You’re also beginning to see the ball movement improve. If these guys develop chemistry, look out.

Up and down Simmons

Ben Simmons came out in attack mode as he often does, but it led to some early turnovers and he still isn’t looking to take open jumpers. There have been games where you can say the looks perhaps aren’t there, but not tonight.

He still showed what he can do defensively, getting this ridiculous help block on his old pal Robert Covington.

And the alley-oop finish wasn’t too shabby, either.

Simmons seemed like he was everywhere in the second half on both sides of the ball.

While he turned the ball over six times, he did fill the stat sheet with 16 points, seven assists, three steals and two blocks.

The pick-and-roll

The last few seasons, the Sixers have been victimized mercilessly by guards who do damage out of the pick-and-roll. Josh Richardson may be completely flipping that.

Not only has Richardson been so much better guarding opposing ones by fighting through screens and accumulating “rearview” blocks, but he’s also quite skilled offensively in the pick-and-roll. The biggest reason is probably his midrange game. The ability to come off an Embiid screen and nail a 12-15 footer opens up so much for both players.

Richardson was solid with 12 points (4 of 10, 2 of 4 from three).

Stop us if you’ve heard this before …

Rookie first-rounder Matisse Thybulle came into play leading the NBA in deflections. All he did Wednesday was rack up five steals and two blocks. Embiid compared Thybulle to his former teammate Covington. Pregame, Covington said he hadn’t had the chance to see Thybulle play yet but was flattered by the compliment.

It appeared nobody on the Timberwolves had seen Thybulle play, as the rookie yet again wreaked havoc with a bunch of deflections.

The offensive game is still a work in progress. He turned the ball over three times, but does appear to be getting better with his shot selection.

Bench mob

We make a lot of the Sixers’ starters — and for good reason — but on Wednesday they got some nice contributions from their bench.

With Shake Milton out, Furkan Korkmaz will get the minutes Milton took from him back. He took advantage of that opportunity Wednesday, finishing on a floater in a pick-and-roll, hitting three threes and then converting all three free throws after being fouled on an attempt. He had 17 points overall (3 of 8 from three).

James Ennis, who’s had a rough go so far this season and played just eight minutes Monday night in Atlanta, provided some of the things that made him such a valuable contributor during the playoffs. During one sequence, he had a nice help block on rookie Jarret Culver and then followed up a Simmons’ miss on the ensuing fast break with an athletic put-back. He was extremely active on the offensive glass, pulling down five offensive rebounds and 10 boards overall.

The new skipper

Phillies manager Joe Girardi was in the house Wednesday. No, he didn’t ring the bell – that honor went to Eagles rookie running back Miles Sanders – but he did catch up with our Serena Winters.

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Sixers vs. Timberwolves: Live stream, storylines, game time and more

Sixers vs. Timberwolves: Live stream, storylines, game time and more

There are only three unbeaten teams left in the NBA. By the end of Wednesday night, that number will drop to two.

The undefeated Sixers (3-0) will host the undefeated Minnesota Timberwolves (3-0) at the Wells Fargo Center.

Here are the essentials for tonight’s game:

When: 7 p.m. ET with Sixers Pregame Live at 6:30 p.m.
Where: Wells Fargo Center
Broadcast: NBC Sports Philadelphia
Live stream: NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com and the NBC Sports MyTeams app

And here are three storylines to watch:

Jo vs. KAT

This will be the matchup everyone has their eyes on and for good reason. These are two of the best young big men in the game. 

Karl-Anthony Towns is off to a torrid start. Through three games, he’s averaging 32 points, 13.3 rebounds and two blocks. A big part of the jump in scoring has been the vast improvement in his three-point shooting. Towns is actually tied for the NBA lead with 15 threes made while shooting 51.7 percent from distance. There’s no way that percentage stays there, but it’s an impressive start nonetheless.

Joel Embiid is off to an odd start. He struggled offensively in the opener against the Celtics, missed the second game of the season in Detroit with a right ankle sprain, and then had a 36-point performance in Atlanta Monday. Three games in, we’ve gotten the full Joel Embiid Experience.

In their first matchup back in 2016, Towns and the Timberwolves cruised. It’s been all Embiid and the Sixers in the last four matchups since. I’m curious to see how Towns will come out. Embiid has generally taken him out of his game and Towns has played a lot of disinterested basketball against him. I see an improved and more mature Towns giving a better showing and the fans getting their money’s worth watching these two square off.

The return of Cov

Robert Covington epitomizes everything that was good about former GM Sam Hinkie's Process. He was undrafted, crushed it in the G League, was picked up by a Sixers team that was trying to lose and played so well that he turned himself into an All-NBA First Team player and earned a nice contract.

Covington’s Sixers tenure came to an end last season when GM Elton Brand made the move for Jimmy Butler. Unfortunately, Covington played in just 22 games for the Timberwolves last season while dealing with a right knee bone bruise.

He recently opened up about the mental aspect of coping with that injury and the trade itself in an article for the Star Tribune.

“Imagine two years worth of stuff that you’ve been holding on to and everything just keeps piling up to the point where the pot just overflows,” Covington said. “You know what happens when a pot overflows? It hits the side of the pan and it hits the fire and the fire just explodes.”

The article is 100 percent worth your time.

As for on the court, this will be Covington’s first time actually playing his former team. He’ll undoubtedly receive a warm applause for his efforts. For a guy that’s had to earn everything in his career, it will be well deserved.

A Shake-up in the rotation

Second-year guard Shake Milton will miss time with a bone bruise and left knee sprain. The timing isn’t great as Milton was playing well and appeared to be earning more minutes.

With that, expect Furkan Korkmaz to reclaim some of the minutes Milton took from him. Korkmaz, who Brett Brown has said he’d like to develop as a “bomber” off the bench, is just 1 of 6 from three through three games.

The better option could be to get an extended look at one of the veteran point guards off the bench. Raul Neto and Trey Burke both have proven track records of being average to above average three-point shooters. Neto is more of a crafty floor general while Burke is more of a “waterbug” guard that can create his own shot — something the Sixers could use. With the size and versatility throughout the roster, the Sixers should be equipped to overcome any issues that arise from either guard’s size.

It’s also worth pointing out that James Ennis has had a tough go so far. He re-signed here after an excellent postseason but has been unable to replicate that so far this season. He played just over eight minutes in Atlanta. That number will have to go up tonight — and really for the rest of the season if the Sixers want to have a strong bench unit.

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