6 observations from Sixers-Raptors

slideshow-sixers-tony-wroten-uspresswire_2.jpg

6 observations from Sixers-Raptors

BOX SCORE

Believe it or not, the Toronto Raptors wrested first place in the Atlantic Division away from the Sixers on Wednesday night with the 108-98 victory (see Instant Replay).

At 5-8 and riding a four-game losing streak, the Sixers are a half-game off the pace in the division.

Here are a few things that caught our eye in the epic, first-place showdown:

1. Michael Carter-Williams returns
After missing four straight games, rookie point guard Michael Carter-Williams returned to the lineup for the Sixers. Before the game, coach Brett Brown said Carter-Williams would have no restrictions and he wasn’t kidding. The rookie logged 34 minutes.

2. Banging in the post
Toronto big men Jonas Valanciunas and Tyler Hansbrough were a bundle of energy (and elbows) in the low post. Though neither player made much of a dent into the stat sheet, they mixed it up with Sixers big men Daniel Orton, Lavoy Allen and Spencer Hawes. Fortunately the battle in the post didn’t go beyond clean, hard basketball. A few times the players got all tangled up and fell into a heap on the floor. But that was it … just some big guys pushing each other around.

3. Defend the house
Certainly the mission of any team in the NBA is to force the opposing offense to take shots from the yard, which is the area outside of the paint and inside of the three-point line. If a team is going to beat you, the reasoning goes, let them do it with long two-pointers.

The Sixers did a good job of forcing the Raptors into taking shots from the yard in the first quarter. But after chucking up eight of them in the first, the Raptors took just nine more from the yard for the rest of the game.

That hardly compares to the efficiency of the Houston Rockets, though. In last week’s overtime victory, the Rockets took just five shots from the yard in the entire game. Somehow they figured out how to lose.

4. No Thad
The Sixers played without veteran Thad Young, who was not with the team on Wednesday night because of “personal reasons.” Young would have been valuable for the Sixers in pick-and-roll defense and in running the fast break. Instead, Hawes started the game at power forward with Orton at center.

5. Hawes’ career night
On Jan. 1, 2010, Spencer Hawes shot 12 for 20 with four three-pointers in a one-point loss to the Lakers for a career-high 30 points.

Since then the 30-point game had not been threatened by Hawes.

That is until Wednesday night.

Hawes shot 10 for 13 with three three-pointers and 10 rebounds for 28 points, just missing the career high. Meanwhile, Hawes notched his eighth double-double of the season, second-most in the NBA.

6. Homecomings, of sorts
Cardinal Dougherty and Villanova product, Kyle Lowry, had 13 points and 10 assists in his former sometime home court. Lowry entered the game averaging 12 points and six assists per game. His steady hand at point guard helped keep the Raptors’ turnover tally to a paltry nine.

Additionally, Raptors assistant coach Tom Sterner was close to his hometown of York and his old stomping grounds of Lancaster, where he attended Millersville U. and coached at Lancaster Catholic and Franklin & Marshall College. Sterner was a scout for the Sixers two years ago.

Nerlens Noel joins Sixers in New Orleans, may play Sunday vs. Pistons

Nerlens Noel joins Sixers in New Orleans, may play Sunday vs. Pistons

NEW ORLEANS — Nerlens Noel made another step toward his return from arthroscopic left knee surgery by joining the Sixers in New Orleans for their game against the Pelicans.

Noel arrived on Wednesday with Robert Covington, who is slated to start after missing the last three games with a left knee sprain. Noel is not cleared to play, but Brown doesn’t think it will be long until he suits up. 

“I don’t think far away,” Brown said of Noel’s regular-season debut after shootaround.

When asked about the possibility of Noel playing this weekend when the Sixers face the Pistons on Sunday in Detroit, Brown replied, “Maybe.” 

Noel has missed the entire regular season recovering from elective surgery for an inflamed plica in October. He completed the first phase of his rehab in Birmingham, Ala. and has been continuing his work with the Sixers. This trip to New Orleans is the first time he has been with the Sixers on the road. 

“[He is] integrating with the team, studying a lot of tape, scripting with his teammates with the understanding that we have a chance to see him soon,” Brown said. “All that trying to ramp it up where he can go to an NBA court more comfortably.”

Noel spoke out about his displeasure with the Sixers crowded frontcourt at the start of the preseason. He recently stuck with his stance, saying, “I don’t think the roster’s changed.”

Brown is working to keep the team moving forward as a unit while still being aware of and recognizing Noel’s perspective. 

“It does,” Brown said when asked if Noel’s open frustration concerns him as it pertains to team cohesiveness. “But I feel like it’s so much a part of what we try do around here that it’s not like you’re going to blink and you’ve forgotten something that equals camaraderie, that equals team, that equals trying to keep this together, and you’ve left it for a week … 

“It’s a day-to-day focus for me and it’s a very candid conversation with me and the player. The team hears it, the individual hears it, we all understand it … We need to coexist and we need to understand the reality of it all, too. There’s a human side you understand. It’s also pride, it’s competitiveness, it’s do your job, it’s nothing is given, you’ve got to take stuff, draw your own line in the sand, competitors rule the day.”

Last season Noel averaged 11.1 points and a team-high 8.1 rebounds per game. The Sixers will look forward to having him back on the court in that once-crowded frontcourt that is now shorthanded. Jahlil Okafor remained in Philadelphia with gastroenteritis. Ben Simmons still is rehabbing from a right foot fracture. 

"Soon you’re going to see Ben Simmons coming to a team bench where he doesn’t come out with boots and have to push him in some type of wheely apparatus," Brown said. "We’ve dealt with so many injuries trying to find that balance of dealing with their health and so on, and then trying to integrate them back into a team is part of growing a program."

Sixers-Pelicans 5 things: Joel Embiid takes on dominating Anthony Davis

Sixers-Pelicans 5 things: Joel Embiid takes on dominating Anthony Davis

76ers (4-18) vs. Pelicans (7-15)
8 p.m. on TCN and CSNPhilly.com, Pregame Live starts at 7:30

The Sixers will try to snap their eight-game losing skid when they take on the New Orleans Pelicans at the Smoothie King Center on Thursday night.

Let's take a closer look at the matchup:

1. Walking wounded, part II
After the Sixers were limited to nine available players in Tuesday's loss to the beat-up Memphis Grizzlies, things won't be much better in the health department in New Orleans.

Sure, Joel Embiid's expected return after sitting out the second half of a back-to-back set for rest will be a welcome boost. However, the Sixers are still dealing with a host of other ailments that will likely limit them to just 10 healthy bodies on Thursday night.

The Pelicans surely won't shed a tear for the Sixers because they have their own injury issues. New Orleans could have as many as five players sidelined, including former Sixer Jrue Holiday with turf toe.

2. The next big thing
All of the injuries won't decrease the game's intrigue, mainly because of the matchup at center between Embiid and Anthony Davis.

Embiid is coming off a subpar performance in his last outing against the Denver Nuggets, but the big man has still been as advertised this season. The rookie is putting up 18.5 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.4 blocks in 23.3 minutes a game. Embiid is also shooting 46.8 percent from the field and an even 50.0 percent from three-point range.

On the other side, Davis has been an absolute monster for the Pelicans this season, even if it hasn't translated into many wins. 

The three-time All-Star leads the NBA in scoring with 31.6 points per game on 50.3 percent shooting. While carrying the scoring load, Davis has still been able to average a career-high 11.5 rebounds, 2.8 blocks, 2.2 assists and 1.8 steals a night.

This should be the first of many meetings between two big men that look to dominate the future of the league.

3. Glass repair
With Embiid out on Tuesday, the Sixers were dominated 69-54 in the rebounding battle against the Grizzlies.

They should find things a little easier in that department against the Pelicans. Despite Davis' best efforts on the boards, New Orleans has allowed a league-high 48.9 rebounds to opponents this season. 

With Embiid back in the lineup, Ersan Ilyasova coming off a 17-rebound game and Richaun Holmes always active, the Sixers should be able to control the rebounding category.

4. Injuries
Robert Covington (knee/illness) is available to play. Jahlil Okafor (illness), Jerryd Bayless (wrist), Nerlens Noel (knee) and Ben Simmons (foot) are out for the Sixers.

Holiday (toe) and E'Twaun Moore (toe) are questionable. Tyreke Evans (knee), Dante Cunningham (knee) and Quincy Pondexter (knee) are out for the Pelicans.

5. This and that
•  The Sixers are trying to avoid a franchise-record 24th straight road loss.

•  The Sixers and Pelicans split the season series in 2015-16 with each team winning at home.

•  Ilyasova is averaging 16.2 points and 8.2 boards so far in December.