After surprising start, Sixers come back to reality

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After surprising start, Sixers come back to reality

Thaddeus Young heard the talk -- the endless chatter about the Sixers tanking (or rebuilding, if you prefer a more genteel euphemism). He’s been here six seasons. Young has seen all sorts of Sixers iterations -- from teams that struggled to win 27 games to the squad that overachieved and came within one victory of the Eastern Conference Finals to this year’s squad and its early-season surprise.

Young recently talked about the organization’s ebb and flow. But when he was asked about playing for a franchise that everyone thinks is focusing on tomorrow instead of today, Young brushed it aside.

“I don’t get into that type of stuff,” Young said. “I just show up ready to play and help my team win games. I’ve been helping with these young guys. Hopefully, they’ve been able to take in some of the things that we’ve been trying to instill in them or teach them or show them and they can take it with them on the court.”

They took it on the court. Then they took it right to the Heat. And the Wizards. And the Bulls, too. The first three games were excellent. The fourth was not.

The Sixers did not take it to the Warriors. Golden State thumped the Sixers, 110-90, at the Wells Fargo Center on Monday (see story).

“When we dribble a lot and don’t move the ball, it becomes very stagnant and terminal and we have real issues,” Brett Brown said. “And we’re not dynamic. We don’t boast [isolation] guys that are going to go break people down one-on-one and people are going to stand there and watch them. We need to move the ball. I didn’t feel like we did that [Monday]. I thought we were very static. I thought we were individual. That’s on me to help them continue to understand the importance of playing as a team so it doesn’t become an individual exercise.”

If they don’t move the ball, they become “stagnant and terminal” and “have real issues.” That about covers it.

The Sixers shot 35.2 percent from the field, 20 percent from distance and 62.2 percent from the line against the Warriors. They totaled 19 assists but a season-high 24 turnovers (see Instant Replay).

Brown went out of his way to credit the Warriors for being “a very underrated defensive team," but the head coach also admitted the Sixers were “sloppy” and “careless with the ball.”

If their ball handling was ugly (and it was), this was worse: Andre Iguodala had a game-high 32 points (27 in the first half), several highlight dunks, a ridiculous leaping, behind-the-back pass and seven three-pointers (see 5 observations). The Sixers, as a team, hit only five three-pointers.

And what of Michael Carter-Williams? He was just the second rookie ever to be named Player of the Week to start his career (see story). But on the same day that was announced, MCW went 4 for 17 from the field (1 for 7 from three-point range) with six rebounds, four assists and six turnovers.

“I think he wants to attack bigs,” Brown said. “It’s his nature. I like it … but he’s going to have to get use to going at that size. And then there will be an education where you have to kick it out to shooters or maybe you have Spencer [Hawes] or the pick-and-pop guy behind you that’s open. It’s part of the process. It’s part of his learning curve.”

His learning curve -- and the team’s. The Sixers got off to their best start since going 3-0 in 2006-07. Now they have a loss. It was bound to happen. They will lose quite a few more before the season is over. That is also bound to happen. This is one of the few towns where writing sentences like that is somewhat necessary. Sometimes people can get a little carried away and forget about reality. You are no doubt shocked.

This is a fickle place. Always has been. The wind likes to blow through Philadelphia first before deciding which way public opinion is gusting for the moment. Some fans and media members who initially wanted the Sixers to tank this season in a blatant attempt to increase the odds of landing Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker changed course completely after the Sixers won their first three games. Suddenly, certain people started talking openly -- and without irony -- about the Sixers making the playoffs.

That actually happened during a popular sports talk radio program on Monday. The hosts wondered whether we might have been wrong about the Sixers (reasonable). At which point they fielded a call from a man who suggested they would go 25-5 to start the year (far less reasonable). After playing three games and winning three games. That is staggering and willful delusion, even in this city.

It should be noted, again, that the Sixers were really good in their first three games. But it should also be noted, again, that they were pretty terrible in their fourth outing. So where does that leave the Sixers? Where are they on the good-to-terrible spectrum?

“I have no idea,” Brown said.

It was an honest response. He must be new.

Robert Covington, Sixers show 'swagger' without Joel Embiid in comeback win

Robert Covington, Sixers show 'swagger' without Joel Embiid in comeback win

BOX SCORE

The Sixers began the season looking lost without Joel Embiid. Now they are finding ways to win when he is not on the court. 

Embiid suffered a left knee contusion in the second half of Friday’s 93-92 win over the Trail Blazers (see story). He was sidelined for the decisive 8:50 of the game (see Instant Replay).

The Sixers trailed, 81-78, when he subbed out for the second time because of the injury, and outscored the Trail Blazers, 15-11, from that point on.

So how was this team that battled with inconsistency and reliance on Embiid able to pull out a comeback win punctuated in the final seconds? Ask the Sixers and they’ll give varying answers, a sign they are getting the job done in multiple ways and aren’t relying on just one key to success.

The most glaring difference was the hero of the game. Robert Covington drained two three-pointers in the final 40 seconds. His trey from Dario Saric with 38.2 remaining cut the Trail Blazers' lead to just one, 91-90. With 4.5 to go, he nailed the game-winning three from T.J. McConnell to give the Sixers their eighth victory in 10 games (see feature highlight).

“That’s resilient Cov,” Nerlens Noel said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a good shot or a bad shot; he’ll pull it in your face. That’s the confidence he has and that’s the confidence we need him to have. He steps up and makes two big shots like that, that’s enough said. He won us that game.”

Critics have called out Covington’s up-and-down performance from three all season. (They’ve made their feelings known with loud boos at home games.) Covington shot 5 for 12 behind the arc on the night but his 2 for 3 performance in the fourth was what mattered most. 

“I am a fighter, that’s what I have been my whole life,” he said. “Just because fans are booing me at one point doesn't mean anything. I just keep working. I am not going to let that deteriorate my game. It goes in one ear and out the other.”

Without Embiid in the game, the Sixers had to rely on a total team effort. After he went to the bench, the final points were scored by a combination of Covington, Gerald Henderson, Noel, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and McConnell.

“Ball movement,” head coach Brett Brown said. “We had 25 assists out of 36 made baskets. It’s not like we’re going to give the ball to Damian Lillard (guard for the Blazers). That’s not who we are. Whatever we do, it has to be done by committee, by a group, by a team. It’s even more exposed when Joel isn’t in the game. They did that. Unlikely people ended up with the ball sometimes in unlikely spots. … You have to move the ball. That’s what the team has learned without Joel.” 

Several of the players on the court in critical moments were from the second unit. Since Brown locked in on his rotation, the reserves don’t have a drop-off in confidence from the starters. 

“It’s the mentality,” Covington said. “Everybody has that swagger about us right now because once Joel comes out, the next person steps in and fills that void. It’s a matter of that contagious feeling that trickles into the second unit that’s making us that much more valuable.”

Then there's always defense, the foundation of any solid NBA team and a focal point for the Sixers. Noel saw that as the difference-maker when subbing in and out. The Trail Blazers scored just two points in the final 1:56. 

"The second unit goes there and does a great job guarding the yard, not letting up easy baskets," Noel said. "The offensive side is fluid motion. Guys get shots, pick-and-roll, it opens up open threes for guys, driving lines, pump fakes, it’s a great unity."

Embiid liked what he saw from a distance. He will not travel with the team to their game on Saturday against the Hawks in Atlanta. 

"I’m just happy we’ve been closing out games, and the main thing I’m really happy [about] is they’ve been able to do it without me," he said. "That’s going to give us a lot of confidence when I’m missing back-to-backs. My teammates are going to have more confidence to come in and play the same way."

Joel Embiid feels 'great' after injury scare to left knee

Joel Embiid feels 'great' after injury scare to left knee

Of the nearly 20,000 people in the Wells Fargo Center on Friday night, Joel Embiid was seemingly the least concerned when he came down and injured his left knee. 

Fans held their breath and the Sixers looked on anxiously as the standout big man got up in visible discomfort and limped off the court (see highlights). Embiid, however, wasn’t worried. 

“I knew it was OK. I just landed the wrong way,” he said after the Sixers' 93-92 win over the Trail Blazers (see Instant Replay). “I’m great. The knee’s fine. They did an MRI and stuff, everything looked good.”

Embiid ran off the court on his own, was diagnosed with a left knee contusion and was cleared to return to the game. He aggravated his knee again driving to the basket and this time, the team held him out to be careful.

“The review is that he hyperextended his left knee,” head coach Brett Brown said. “There was a minor tweak again, and for precautionary reasons only, the doctors did not allow him to return. There will be more information given as we know it. But quickly, that's what we know.”

Embiid understood the team’s decision to sideline him for the final 8:50 while the Sixers went on a comeback run (see feature highlight). He still finished the game with an 18-point, 10-rebound double-double, five assists and four blocks in only 22 minutes.

“Obviously those guys, the front office, they care about my future, so they just shut it down,” Embiid said. “But I was fine.”

Embiid will not travel to Atlanta for Saturday’s game against the Hawks (pre-scheduled rest). He expects to be available for Tuesday’s home matchup against the Clippers. 

"You know how tough he is," Nerlens Noel said. "If it isn’t anything serious, he’ll be right back. At the end of the game, he was telling me was he was feeling great and there was no pain. He wanted to come back in the game … he’s a trooper. He always gives it his all and always plays hard."

Injuries to any player are worrisome, especially a franchise centerpiece with two years of rehab (foot) behind him. The Sixers have been methodical and cautious with his playing time. Embiid is on a 28-minute restriction and can play in only one game of a back-to-back series. 

The same player who is so closely watched, though, also plays with sky-high energy that doesn’t have a brake pedal. 

“You're concerned,” Brown said of seeing Embiid get injured. “It's clear to all of us that he plays with such reckless abandon. I think that we're all going to be seeing this and feeling this regularly. From flying into stands to stalking somebody in the open court to block a shot to the collision he often is in trying to draw fouls. That's just who he is. 

“I think that as he just plays more basketball and continues to grow, to not necessarily avoid those situations, just to perhaps manage them a little bit more. Right now, he's just a young guy that's just playing that doesn't know what he doesn't know and has a fearless approach underneath all that attitude.”

Fearless is an accurate description considering Embiid's trouble-free reaction to the awkward way his leg bent (he hadn’t seen a replay). 

“I kind of had that in college, too,” he said. “I think I’m flexible, so it’s supposed to happen.”