Russell Westbrook

Joel Embiid stars, Russell Westbrook struggles in Sixers' NBA2K simulation win over Rockets

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NBCSP

Joel Embiid stars, Russell Westbrook struggles in Sixers' NBA2K simulation win over Rockets

Give virtual Russell Westbrook credit for one thing — he never stopped shooting.

Westbrook put up 28 shots Tuesday night in NBC Sports Philadelphia’s NBA2K simulation of the Sixers’ game vs. the Rockets, missing 22 of them in a 72-47 Houston loss (eight-minute quarters). 

Here are a few observations on the Sixers’ 2K win: 

Not Westbrook’s night 

Westbrook’s 21.4 percent mark from the field was his worst a Rocket. Shake Milton guarded him well, sagging off and encouraging Westbrook to shoot while also not allowing him to accelerate on drives toward the rim.

Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni left Westbrook in for the bitter end of the blowout, apparently not concerned with giving one of his best players a little rest. 

Coming up big 

Though it took the Sixers a few minutes to get comfortable with the Rockets’ style, Houston was always going to be vulnerable against Joel Embiid and Al Horford. The Rockets don’t play a true center, which meant players like P.J. Tucker and Austin Rivers were guarding Embiid. He took advantage, scoring 24 points (22 in the paint).

Horford was effective down low, too. He hit his first four shots and had the Wells Fargo Center crowd very much on his side.

There was even a Horford Fathead visible in the stands early in the second quarter.

Thybulle is not a point guard 

It’s nitpicking in a game in which the Sixers were very strong across the board, but 2K Brett Brown’s insistence on using Matisse Thybulle as a backup point guard remains perplexing.

Sure, the Sixers don’t exactly have an excess of capable ball handlers with Ben Simmons injured, but Josh Richardson, Alec Burks and  Furkan Korkmaz would seem to be better suited for that job.

Thybulle's defense was excellent, as usual. 

What’s up with the blimp? 

Sixers fans were obviously very excited during the action, enjoying Embiid’s dunks and Westbrook’s woes. They were generally quiet during timeouts, however, which is one reason why we couldn’t help but notice that a large Sixers blimp — seemingly close to the size of an entire section of fans — floated around during breaks in the action. The blimp is certainly a curious addition to the game presentation experience. 

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Sixers show fight but too much James Harden leads to 4th straight loss

Sixers show fight but too much James Harden leads to 4th straight loss

BOX SCORE

It wasn’t going to be an easy task. The Sixers were looking to snap a three-game losing streak against one of the most prolific scorers in NBA history.

Instead, James Harden dropped a 44-point triple-double and the Sixers lost a season-high fourth straight, 118-108, to the Rockets at Toyota Center Friday night.

Despite a stellar performance from Ben Simmons, the Sixers’ offense couldn’t keep up with Houston’s prolific offense. Unlike their putrid effort in Indiana, the Sixers did show fight in this one. They simply couldn’t get over the hump after the Rocket’s 40-point second quarter and couldn't get stops on Harden in key spots.

After losing all four games on their road trip, the Sixers fall to 7-12 on the road and 23-14 overall. They return home Monday to host the Thunder (7 p.m./NBCSP).

Here are observations from the loss.

Playing at Simmons’ speed

The Rockets play at the second-highest pace in the NBA. That pace seemed to suit Simmons just fine. Simmons was aggressive attacking the rim and pushing the ball in transition. He actually led the team in scoring at the half with 13 points and had just one turnover.

Those transition opportunities were created by some exceptional defense from Simmons. He had turns on both Harden and Russell Westbrook and acquitted himself well. Harden got his because, if you haven’t heard, he’s really freaking good. But Simmons did well to make him work and easily did the best job of any of the Sixers' defenders.

This was one of, if not Simmons’ finest performance of the season. Of course, you’d still like to see him incorporate more shooting from outside the paint and do better at the foul line (3 of 7). But this version of Simmons will help the Sixers win a lot of games. He took a season-high 20 shots, making 13 for his 29 points, and had a triple-double with 13 rebounds and 11 assists. He also added four blocks and three steals.

A rusty Embiid

At times, Joel Embiid looked like a guy that hadn’t played in almost a week.

He had a difficult matchup in the high-flying Clint Capela. Capela used his speed and high fitness level to his advantage, beating Embiid rim to rim. The pick-and-roll was an issue and helped Capela score a season-high 30 points.

Embiid seemed to be pushing himself. He had an early block and challenged a shot in transition. He also had a nice give-and-go with Simmons in transition after coming away with a steal.

Embiid used his strength advantage over Capela and forced the Rockets to double team him fairly frequently, but he just wasn’t quite himself, going 7 of 17 and finishing with 20 points and 12 rebounds.

Burke at the two

With rookie Matisse Thybulle (right knee bruise and sprain) and veteran James Ennis (stomach illness) out, Brett Brown needed to get a little creative with his wing minutes. On Friday, he used Trey Burke as a small two.

The strategy worked quite well as Burke provided a spark as a player that can create off the dribble in the half court. Playing alongside Simmons, it creates an interesting backcourt. You lose a little something on defense because of his size, but Burke sure can score. He had 11 points and three assists in 16 minutes.

Just not enough firepower

The Sixers’ defense actually wasn’t horrible. Yes, the Rockets scored 118 points, but outside of Harden and Capela, it’s not like they shot the lights out (47.7 percent).

The issue was the Sixers’ offense couldn’t keep up. Josh Richardson (seven) and Al Horford (seven) didn’t provide enough scoring punch. Richardson had something going with Simmons in the pick-and-roll and did record eight assists. Mike Scott’s struggles also continued (0 of 4). 

Outside shooting was an issue. The Sixers hit only 2 of 13 from three in the first half and just 6 of 27 for the game. The Rockets were 12 of 32 from beyond the arc.

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Sixers at Rockets: 3 storylines to watch and how to stream the game

Sixers at Rockets: 3 storylines to watch and how to stream the game

The Sixers (23-13) are reeling, having lost three straight. The schedule doesn’t get any easier with a road matchup against the Rockets (23-11) Friday night.

Rookie Matisse Thybulle (right knee sprain, bruise) remains out. James Ennis (stomach illness) is also out. Since they're shorthanded on the wing, 2018 first-round pick Zhaire Smith will be with the team in Houston.

Here are tonight's essentials:

When: 8 p.m. ET with Sixers Pregame Live at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Toyota Center
Broadcast: NBC Sports Philadelphia
Live stream: NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com and the NBC Sports MyTeams app

And here are three storylines to watch:

Talking about ‘accountability’

After the Sixers took it on the chin Tuesday in Indiana, Josh Richardson raised issues with the team’s “accountability” to reporters postgame. The team mostly agreed with that sentiment after practice Thursday.

Joel Embiid took it a step further.

“We just got to look at ourselves and see what we can do better individually,” Embiid said. “We gotta help each other, even if that means being outside of your comfort zone as far as to help the team win. Meaning that if you gotta space and shoot it, you gotta do it. We need everybody to buy into that. We'll be fine. We're gonna be fine.”

While that criticism seems pointed at a specific player, Embiid himself said that both he and Ben Simmons are not above reproach despite being the team’s All-Stars and longest-tenured players.

“Everybody has the freedom to do whatever they want,” Embiid said. “[Ben and I] are not entitled. I've been here the longest. Ben has been here. We're not entitled. The way I get better, I like people telling me what I don't do best, and I feel like every time, if I do something wrong, these guys let me know. Like I said, we're humble. We want to learn. We want to get better.”

Everyone that spoke Thursday said the message was positive. We’ll see if it helps tonight.

Winging it

Thybulle and Ennis are out.

So what does Brett Brown do?

The guess here is he leans heavily on Furkan Korkmaz and second-year guard Shake Milton. There are fans that are anxious to see Smith and that’s understandable. The team clearly targeted him last year as a super bouncy guard that they viewed as a potential elite NBA defender.

The reality is that when the Sixers acquired Smith last year, he was seen as a long-term project. He was 19 years old and was playing as undersized power forward at Texas Tech. His broken foot followed by an allergic reaction that caused serious health issues made last season essentially a redshirt year. It’s clear Smith still has some development to go through.

With that said, who knows? Maybe Brown will look for a defensive spark and hope Smith can get out in transition for an explosive lob. Just don’t get your hopes up.

Hope you like offense

If you haven’t been keeping tabs on the rest of the NBA, the Rockets can score … like, a lot.

Houston is tied with Milwaukee for the NBA’s lead in points per game (119.4) and second in the league in offensive rating. Under head coach Mike D’Antoni, the Rockets play at a breakneck pace (second-highest pace in the NBA) and hunt threes aggressively (44.6 attempts a game).

They also lead the league in free throw attempts, largely thanks to James Harden. Harden is having one of the most prolific scoring seasons in NBA history, averaging a league-leading 38.2 points per game. Simmons will likely get the defensive assignment and that’s surely a matchup to watch.

The matchup of Richardson and Russell Westbrook should also be pretty darn entertaining. Richardson has been strong on the defensive end for the Sixers while Westbrook has fared better than most expected playing alongside Harden.

The Sixers’ pick-and-roll coverage will also be tested to its limits with center Clint Capela. Capela is a super athletic rim-running center that blocks shots and catches lobs. Embiid and Al Horford will have their hands full.

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