Sixers 108, Thunder 104: Tobias Harris, Jimmy Butler star as Sixers finally beat Thunder

Sixers 108, Thunder 104: Tobias Harris, Jimmy Butler star as Sixers finally beat Thunder

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By day, Philadelphia was overcome by Bryce Harper hysteria, but it was the Sixers' two newly-acquired stars that shined by night.

Tobias Harris and Jimmy Butler led the way as the Sixers snapped a 19-game losing streak to the Oklahoma City Thunder in a 108-104 win at Chesapeake Energy Arena.

The last time the Sixers beat the Thunder was Nov. 15, 2008, a game that featured GM Elton Brand in the starting lineup.

All-Stars Joel Embiid (knee) and Paul George (shoulder) were both out Thursday night.

The victory brings the Sixers to 40-22 on the season.

Here are observations from the win:

• The Sixers’ ball movement was extraordinary at times. The unselfish brand of basketball they're playing is leading to some pretty buckets.

They had 13 assists on 16 makes in the first quarter and 21 on 25 in the first half. To the Thunder's credit, they turned up the defense in the third, going on a 16-4 run late in the period to get them within two and eventually tie the game in the fourth. The Sixers held on and still finished with 33 assists on 42 made field goals. Impressive against a strong defensive basketball team in OKC.

• Before the Phillies got Harper, the Sixers landed Harris. Sometimes you don’t realize how good a player is until you get to watch him on a nightly basis. That is definitely the case for me with Harris. I knew he could play, but man, this guy is really freaking good.

He dropped a Sixers-high 32 points (11 of 19, 5 of 7 from three) after dropping 29 the other night in New Orleans. He hit some enormous buckets down the stretch. He also made two fanastic defensive plays at the rim late in the fourth quarter to help keep the Sixers in front. This was easily his best performance as a Sixer.

As mentioned many times, there is nothing flashy about his game. He can score on all three levels and do so at an elite level. He’s good with the ball. He’s good off the ball. His skills also fit in so well with Ben Simmons’ and Embiid’s. 

Brand pulled a master stroke with this trade and, like Matt Klentak with Harper, will likely look to lock up the 26-year-old for a long time this offseason.

• There’s been a lot of talk about Butler needing to take more shots. Sometimes, that may be the case, but perhaps Butler is fine just the way he is, playing efficient basketball and picking his spots to be aggressive.

Butler isn’t Allen Iverson. He’s not the type of player that needs to jack up 30-plus shots in order to get his. It also looks like Butler has fully embraced the role of facilitator and initiator of the offense. He nearly recorded a triple-double with 20 points, eight rebounds and eight assists.

• Brett Brown has found something with the way he’s been using Simmons recently. Simmons is a doing a ton of damage in the post and that continued against the Thunder.

He was able to bully former Sixer Jerami Grant for an early bucket and consistently took the smaller Russell Westbrook into the weight room. He recorded his ninth triple-double this season with 11 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists.

Simmons also went with the exact same defensive strategy teams use on him against Westbrook. He sagged way off the All-Star guard and allowed him to take as many outside looks as he wanted. It seemed to work as Westbrook went just 8 of 24 for 23 points.

• Jonah Bolden got the start and turned in a solid performance Thursday. He tied a rookie career high with 14 points on 6 of 7 from the field and 2 of 3 from three. More importantly, he played solid defense and, even more importantly, he played disciplined basketball.

The rotational issue that is fair tonight is the decision to play Amir Johnson and not just see what you have in Justin Patton. 

Brown has an allegiance to Johnson and wants to reward the veteran for being a great teammate and continuing to be ready to play. But we all already know what Johnson is. Give the kid a chance and see if he can give you something. You can just as easily pull him out of the game if he looks overmatched.

• With no Embiid and Steven Adams being a beast on the glass, this seemed like a board battle the Sixers would lose, much like last Saturday against the Blazers. But the Sixers did a great job of team rebounding as each team finished with 44 rebounds. Adams had eight offensive boards, but nobody else on the Thunder had one.

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Sixers' week ahead: Joel Embiid's possible return, Brett Brown's rotation

Sixers' week ahead: Joel Embiid's possible return, Brett Brown's rotation

The Sixers are entering an interesting and potentially exciting week.

After a two-game road swing in New Orleans and Oklahoma City, they’ll return home Saturday to host the defending world champion Warriors.

Let’s take a look at the storylines heading into the week.

The return of Embiid?

Joel Embiid has missed the Sixers’ last two games with left knee soreness that Brett Brown described as “tendinitis.” After the Sixers beat the Heat on Thursday, his absence was clearly felt in a drubbing by the Blazers. The Sixers are 2-4 without their big man this season.

When the injury was announced, the team said that the All-Star center would be reevaluated in approximately a week. That means Embiid will miss Monday’s matchup against a resurrected Jahlil Okafor, Anthony Davis (maybe?) and the Pelicans, but could return to play his nemesis Russell Westbrook and the Thunder.

Davis didn’t play Saturday in a win over the Lakers as his saga in New Orleans continues. Embiid has owned the matchup against Davis, but without Embiid, Davis will be a near-impossible matchup for Boban Marjanovic. It’ll be interesting to see how Brown handles Davis — if he plays.

The Sixers have not beaten Oklahoma City in forever. Since the Seattle SuperSonics became the Thunder, the Sixers have lost 19 of 20 to them. That win came on Nov. 15, 2008 — a game in which GM Elton Brand logged 27 minutes. 

You could tell it bothered Embiid that it’s been so long after the loss at the Wells Fargo Center back on Jan. 19. Add that to his rivalry with Westbrook and it looks like a matchup he’ll want to be a part of. And he surely wants to be out there against the Warriors on national TV Saturday.

With all that said, nothing is more important than making sure Embiid is ready to roll for the playoffs.

What's up with the rotation?

This seems to be the fan base’s biggest point of contention with Brown. Some of it is fair, but a lot of the criticism is unwarranted.

His decision to put Amir Johnson in the second half of the loss against Portland was mind-boggling. With Marjanovic struggling to defend the pick-and-roll, it made sense to get the hulking big man out of the game. It would’ve made more sense to go with rookie Jonah Bolden.

Sure, Bolden can be undisciplined — a big reason why we didn’t see more of Richaun Holmes when he was here — but Marjanovic and Johnson had no chance on Sunday. Bolden did get overly aggressive on a couple pick-and-rolls, but still seemed like he gave the Sixers the best chance Sunday.

With all that said, there’s not much else Brown can do about his rotation. It’s understandable that the way he staggers his starters' minutes frustrates some fans, but he’s making sure his top guys are playoff ready.

Jimmy Butler is a prime example. As much as Butler loved him, Tom Thibodeau ran Butler into the ground. Butler averaged 37.6 minutes a game in five full seasons under Thibs. He’s averaging just 32.7 as a Sixer. If you don’t think the 29-year-old will feel that difference come postseason, I don’t know what to tell you.

Brown’s rotation is 10-deep right now. He’s said he’d like to cut it to nine for the playoffs. There could be certain nights when the number goes down to eight, depending on the game and the matchup.

It’ll be fair to question Brown’s rotation once there’s more at stake. For now, it’s just a way to kill time over the next 22 games.

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Joel Embiid vs. Russell Westbrook has become must-watch television

Joel Embiid vs. Russell Westbrook has become must-watch television

Joel Embiid vs. Russell Westbrook has become must-watch television.

In the national spotlight Saturday, the Sixers and Thunder put on one hell of a show at the Wells Fargo Center (see observations). Paul George’s four-point play with 5.1 seconds remaining sealed a 117-115 win for Oklahoma City.

What happened with 1:46 left in the fourth quarter was at the height of the day’s entertainment. 

Off a Sixers’ turnover, Westbrook took off in transition with Embiid waiting for him at the other end. Westbrook then lost the handle as he went up for the shot. As he was reaching to grab the ball, Embiid, who was attempting to block the shot, fell on top of Westbrook.

Westbrook was less than thrilled at the exchange.

I don’t think he just landed on me. He added a little extra to it. But it’s OK.

So everything is good between the two, right?

F--- no.

Westbrook doesn’t exactly have a warm and fuzzy relationship with the media, later telling a reporter, “Go home, bro,” when pressed further on his relationship with Embiid. Ben Simmons did a pretty good job on Westbrook, holding the perennial All-Star to 8 of 21 from the field.

Embiid, who finished with 31 points, eight rebounds and six assists, didn’t see anything wrong with the play and wasn’t really sure what Westbrook’s problem was. 

I don’t know why he was mad. I have no idea. But he’s always in his feelings, so I have no idea.

These two, of course, have a history dating back to last season.

It started on Dec. 15, 2017, during an epic triple-overtime game at the Wells Fargo Center. Embiid was able to get the better of big man Steven Adams. After Adams fouled out, Embiid waved to him as he was leaving the court — Embiid also waved after Westbrook fouled out Saturday.

After Oklahoma City got the win, Westbrook then waved to Embiid. Embiid went on to roast Westbrook postgame for shooting too much after the point guard went just 10 of 33 from the field.

In their next matchup a month later, Embiid posterized Westbrook and stared him down afterward.

The unfortunate thing for Embiid is that the Sixers just can’t seem to get the better of Westbrook. The team hasn’t beaten the Thunder in 11 years. That’s 19 straight games now.

Embiid was questionable again Saturday afternoon with a sore back. He was pretty clear as to why he wanted to play.

“Because the Sixers haven’t won against them in [11 years],” Embiid said. “That’s just ridiculous. I wanted to get the win. That’s one more reason that it pisses me off that we gave [the game] away and we had it.”

Embiid and the Sixers get another crack at Westbrook in Oklahoma City on Feb. 28. A good suggestion would be to get your popcorn ready.

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