Serena Winters

2020 NBA playoffs: Predictions for Sixers' postseason fate

2020 NBA playoffs: Predictions for Sixers' postseason fate

What should we expect from the Sixers as they resume their season at Walt Disney World? 

Before the team's first seeding game Saturday night against the Pacers, NBC Sports Philadelphia's Serena Winters, Danny Pommells, Paul Hudrick and Noah Levick predict how the team will fare in the playoffs.

Hudrick 

What I’ve learned in my time covering the Sixers is that you can’t predict anything with this team … ever. They have the talent to make a run to the Finals but underperformed through 65 games and could just as easily lose in the first round.

There are just so many questions. Will the new-look starting five give the offense a spark? Can Al Horford find his place and play well next to Joel Embiid? Will Embiid and Ben Simmons elevate their games? The bench is deeper than last season, but is there enough postseason experience among the reserves? Is Brett Brown the guy to get this team over the top?

Though they’re not unbeatable, the Milwaukee Bucks have the best record in the NBA and arguably the best player in the world in Giannis Antetokounmpo. While the Sixers match up well with two big bodies to contend with the Greek Freak, I don’t think they can beat them in a best-of-seven series. So, whether it’s the second round or the Eastern Conference Finals, I see Milwaukee ending the Sixers’ season.

Winters 

If the Sixers can stay healthy, I’m taking them to win the East. The more we’ve talked to the players over the past couple weeks in the bubble, the more I get a sense that the time off, coupled with an environment where players are building an off-court chemistry (playing golf, fishing, team dinners, etc.), could be just what this team needed. On top of that, we’re seeing significant on-court changes being made to remedy what has been the Sixers' most prevalent issue on the court: spacing.

Are you ready for my run-on sentence? If sliding Simmons over to the four in the starting unit gives Embiid more space to go to work, while adding another perimeter shooter in Shake Milton, while also tapping into Simmons’ scoring ability at the elbow and giving him the freedom to run in transition, and Horford is there to lock down the Embiid-less units (which was one of the biggest concerns last postseason), well then … hello, Eastern Conference Finals!

But I’ll be watching like everyone else as the new starting five takes the court for the very first time in a meaningful game, just eight games before the playoffs. I do know one thing — when Embiid is at his best, there is no stopping him. And if this new unit increases Embiid’s productivity, the Sixers are going to be a problem.

Pommells 

There's no Sixers fan around the globe that isn’t expecting something significant from this talented team come the postseason. Time, an abundance of talent and dollars spent has backed the Sixers into a high-stakes corner. Can they deliver is the ultimate question ... and I say yes! If you haven’t been paying attention since the season's restart, the Sixers are exuding more chemistry and camaraderie than Matisse Thybulle loaded down with a team’s worth of Popeye’s biscuits.

The Sixers are the sixth seed no one wants to face. The biggest reason isn’t Horford coming off the bench or Milton in the starting lineup. It’s not even a healthy Embiid. Simmons at the four has made him more free and able to roam, morphing into a pick-and-roll nightmare. His playmaking ability coupled with a group who can shoot and spread the floor is the team no one wants to face. I see the Sixers in the Eastern Conference Finals. Where they go from there will be the biggest test of their resolve to date, but undeniable progress for a team whose superstars are in their mid 20s.

Levick

The Sixers are highly talented and what seemingly every player on the roster has said about team chemistry having improved in the four-plus months since their last game shouldn’t be discounted, but they have issues that may plague them in the playoffs. We don’t know precisely what to expect with the Embiid-Horford pairing, since those two only played together for a little under four minutes in the Sixers’ first scrimmage before Embiid exited with a right calf injury. Still, it’s worrisome to consider that the Sixers have a minus-8.8 net rating with that duo on the floor since Dec. 1. Maybe elite defense will paper over the pre-hiatus problems we saw in the minutes when Horford and Embiid were together, or perhaps Brown will be ultra-frugal with the time those two share the court if things aren’t working.

The team’s bench is deeper than last year’s, though likely reliant on young players in Thybulle and Furkan Korkmaz. In their first 65 games, the Sixers had little continuity or fluidity, and an offense that ranked 18th in the NBA. They’re healthier and better positioned to make a deep run than when the season shut down on March 11, but the path won’t be easy, regardless of seeding.

While there’s an especially wide range of possible outcomes with a team that has a brand-new starting lineup, was so brilliant at home and so perplexingly poor on the road, I’ll say the Sixers’ season ends with a six- or seven-game loss to the Bucks in the second round.  

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The Ben Simmons-Joel Embiid pairing, bubble chemistry and big takeaways on the Sixers

The Ben Simmons-Joel Embiid pairing, bubble chemistry and big takeaways on the Sixers

The Sixers have officially survived 10 days in the Orlando bubble and their first week of mid-season training camp. Here are my biggest takeaways from the team's first week back on the court:

Starting lineup change?

The biggest news out of Sixers training camp (though not necessarily surprising) is that Shake Milton has been practicing as the starting point guard, alongside Tobias Harris, Josh Richardson, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. (To backtrack, remember Brett Brown was experimenting with bringing Al Horford off the bench back in February, which lasted three games before Simmons was sidelined with a lower back injury).

Though Brown hasn’t "stamped off" on anything yet, I’d be surprised if this wasn’t the starting lineup when the Sixers' regular-season games resume on Aug. 1. From everything we hear, this unit has fared well in training camp.

Sliding Simmons to power forward for the majority of his minutes gives the Sixers a vastly different look to their offense, most notably adding more pick-and-roll options. Milton being a willing shooter should force defenders to chase over on screens, opening up possibilities for Simmons as a roll man, whether he’s finding the open guy, feeding a cutter or taking it to the rack himself.

Which leads us to the next question coming out of training camp …

What might the first group off the bench look like?

As evidenced in the playoffs last year, when the Raptors outscored the Sixers by 109 points in the 99 minutes Embiid was off the floor, the units without Embiid are crucial to the Sixers' success. On Thursday, Brown began using a lineup of Simmons, Matisse Thybulle, Harris, Furkan Korkmaz and Horford in practice, which he really likes for two reasons, both connected to the speed of the group.

First, the "versatility," "switchability" and "disruptive mentality" of the defense, which can then be a launching pad for the second strength of the group, playing fast on offense.

“You've get Ben with the ball and you play downhill and you space everyone else out,” Brown said this week. “There’s a lot of great things that happen from that, as simple as that sounds.”

Brown also said that he believes a lot of how he ultimately uses Thybulle, Glenn Robinson III, Alec Burks, Korkmaz and Mike Scott will be "driven out of matchups."

Something else to keep in mind: Brown said he expects to use a 10-man rotation in the eight seeding games before shrinking to nine once the playoffs hit.

The Simmons-Embiid pairing

In the very limited amount of practice footage that I get to see, there is one thing that's stood out: Simmons and Embiid were in each others’ ears.

Just a chemistry, a relationship in finding each other,” Brown said before Thursday’s practice on what he’s seeing out of the Simmons and Embiid pairing. “Just with Ben playing sort of an interior position, more than being the primary ball carrier … you could see sort of like that big-big relationship, high-low duck-ins, Joel would be posted, Ben would play peekaboo at a low zone on the other side of the floor, come down and trail, we throw it to Jo and a rim run guy would duck in. And I felt the partnership, the relationship. The big-big mentality of finding each other was crazily obvious.

How their pairing evolves throughout the course of scrimmages and preseason is certainly something to keep our eyes on.

Simmons' shooting

When the Sixers tweeted out a snippet of practice footage this past week, fans couldn’t help but notice Simmons pulling up from three.

“His three-point shot is looking good,” Brown said this week. “He’s shot more threes in practice the last few days than he might have for almost half a season. He looks good, he feels good and I know he’s getting tremendous encouragement from his teammates.”

Simmons, who's recovered from a nerve impingement in his lower back, said he feels strong and explosive and "probably the fastest I’ve been since I’ve been on the floor."

Chemistry building 

If you’re not watching Matisse Thybulle’s vlog, what are you even doing with your life?? In all seriousness, one of the many things the rook gives us some insight into is how much time these guys have to bond off the court — whether it’s fishing, boating, golfing, eating together, you name it. The importance of this cannot be understated, especially for guys like Burks and Robinson III who joined the team at the trade deadline in February.

Burks said the bubble feels like a summer camp, that it "brings you back to being like a kid, in a sense."

But it’s not just for new guys. Prior to leaving for Orlando, Embiid had this to say about his reserved personality off the court:

I’m not too worried about not being able to be with each other at all times. I won’t lie, I’m not that type of guy. I’m more reserved. I keep everybody close, my family. And all I want to do is play video games. I don’t want to be going out. The last time I probably went and did something was probably four years ago, so I just don’t like doing anything. Some guys do, I don’t. I don’t have any hobbies, I don’t drink alcohol, I don’t do anything. We’re all different.

But something interesting that came out of Saturday’s practice was that Brown said Embiid came up to talk to him about the togetherness and camaraderie created by the bubble environment.

“He and I talked a lot about that yesterday," Brown said, "and he was the one that brought it to me, saying, 'absolutely.' It’s hard to explain sort of the forced camaraderie, forced — because of the environment — togetherness. You really don’t have anybody else.

"And Joel, we all understand, he comes in, he brings it, he practices or has a game and then he goes home. And there are a lot of players that are like that. I’m kind of like that. And this environment here I just think is surreal in the fact that you’ve got no choice. Here you are, with each other, and I love it. I love it, and I think our guys have most importantly appreciated each other’s company.” 

Other nuggets

• Milton has been meditating a lot. (He even said that Harris bought him meditation chairs!)

• Richardson, who has his own DJ setup in his room, has also been taking online DJing classes.

• The consensus seems to be that Simmons is the best fisherman and Burks is the best golfer.

• Practices have been highly competitive. Richardson even said Saturday that a few practices have gotten "a little chippy," which he really likes "because it shows that people care ... but at the end of the day, we are all brothers and that when we walk off the court, we are back to being friends like we were before."

• Quote of the week: “The freedom of a gymnasium is priceless. You take off your mask and you’ve got a basketball in your hands, you’ve got a passport to what you remember and what you feel like brings you to a level of normality that none of us had.” –Brett Brown

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2020 NBA restart: What Sixers experienced in quarantine at Disney World

2020 NBA restart: What Sixers experienced in quarantine at Disney World

After the Sixers boarded the plane on Thursday afternoon to head to Orlando, Florida, to enter "the bubble" for the NBA’s restart, Tobias Harris got on the speaker before takeoff.

“Welcome back, y’all. Welcome back!”

The laughs echoed through the rows of empty seats (as mandated by the NBA’s health and safety handbook) on the Sixers' chartered plane.

Upon arrival to the Walt Disney World Campus, the entire traveling party was immediately tested for the coronavirus, both with a saliva test and two nose swabs. (These nose swabs are a much less invasive testing option, in comparison to the deep nasal swabbing that was originally used to test for the virus.) All players and staffers were then given a green wristband to indicate that they were officially in quarantine, which was in effect until Saturday morning, until both coronavirus tests came back negative. A green wristband indicates that a resident cannot leave their room, and security is in place to ensure all residents abide by the league's protocols. 

After testing on Thursday night, the traveling party made its way through socially distanced stations, like the "Health supplies station," to pick up items like Clorox wipes and hand sanitizer, before making it to their rooms, where they would reside for at least the next 36 hours.

Meals were provided three times per day and dropped off at each resident's door in compostable containers.

Multiple sources described the meals as "suspect."

An Instagram story from Joel Embiid showed beef ribs, chicken breast, mashed potatoes, pasta, two salads, pretzels, berries, a cheese and nuts plate, and a sandwich as one of the meal options.

Every member of the traveling party was provided with a daily health checklist, which includes taking a “symptom questionnaire” in the MyHealth app, and taking temperature and blood oxygen levels with the provided thermometer and fingertip pulse oximeter.

For the next 36 hours, players found different ways to occupy their time.

For Josh Richardson, quarantine meant watching Netflix, listening to music, and rearranging his room.

For others, like Ben Simmons and Mike Scott, it was spent playing video games (Richardson said on an Instagram Live that he could hear Scott on his gaming headset across the hall).

For rookie Matisse Thybulle, he started perfecting his videography skills in a video he put together documenting Day 1 in the "bubble."  

For Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic provided him entertainment from his balcony.

And for most, they just couldn’t wait to get the “OK” to get out of their room on Saturday morning.

“I've been looking out my window just trying to peep and see the other teams that are here,” Glenn Robinson III told NBC Sports Philadelphia. “I’m just happy to get out of the room!

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