Competition to be wide open for in-shape Sixers

slideshow-sixers-brett-brown-ap.jpg

Competition to be wide open for in-shape Sixers

Hey, are you a basketball player looking to show off your skills? Can you shoot, run all day and play a little defense, too?

In that case, Sixers head coach Brett Brown might be looking for you …

OK, it’s not exactly a want ad or a Craigslist posting. But with the opening of NBA training camps coming in the next two days, the 76ers have an abundance of what many players are seeking and the team’s new coach thinks it can be a selling point to motivate his players.

“How would you like to be a young guy coming into the Sixers with an abundance of minutes available?” Brown said during Wednesday’s media availability. “Of course we need shooters, but they’re hard to find. We want people that compete.”

For the plethora of young players headed to camp with the Sixers this weekend, from high draft picks like Nerlens Noel and Michael Carter-Williams to the undrafted players trying to catch on with a team like Khalif Wyatt, Brown’s selling point sounds almost too good to be true.

If a player wants an opportunity to compete, the field is wide open.

“This year’s team is about development,” Brown said.

There will be some prerequisites, of course. To start with, players better show up in camp in shape because fitness and the ability to use that youthful exuberance will be the Sixers’ only means to compete this season. After all, the Sixers will be short on experience and talent, but they should be able to lead the league in youth and energy.

Brown’s predecessor, Doug Collins, was a stickler for fitness, routinely weighing players to see if they were getting sloppy -- or worn down -- as the season wore on. But Brown is making fitness his hallmark. It’s all about development, Brown says, and the young players are going to have to figure it out quickly.

“As a professional athlete, it’s your responsibility to get in great shape,” Brown said. “Your skin-fold test (measuring body fat) is this and your weight is this. That’s non-negotiable.”

Coming from San Antonio where Brown was an assistant coach under Gregg Popovich, the Sixers’ coach saw what focusing on fitness did for future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan. As he aged, Duncan’s weight climbed to a little more than 270 pounds. That weight mixed with his 6-foot-11 frame left Duncan ripe for injuries and ineffectiveness.

But when Duncan returned in 2012-13 at a svelte 240 pounds, it was as if he had found the fountain of youth and the Spurs were minutes away from winning another NBA championship.

So, for those young ballplayers looking for a chance to play and compete with an NBA team, get in shape. Brett Brown might have a spot for you.

Sixers-Hawks 5 things: Looking to keep win streak alive without Joel Embiid

Sixers-Hawks 5 things: Looking to keep win streak alive without Joel Embiid

Sixers (15-26) at Hawks (25-18)
7 p.m. on CSN, CSNPhilly.com and the NBC Sports App; Pregame Live at 6:30

Coming off a thrilling comeback win over the Trail Blazers on Friday, the Sixers travel to Atlanta to take on the Hawks at Phillips Arena in the second game of a back-to-back. 

1. Going streaking
It's been a long time since the Sixers have had anything resembling a winning streak. No longer is that the case, as the Sixers have won three straight games, with Friday's win capping their fifth-straight home win. 

The Sixers have also won eight of their last 10 games — with only the Warriors posting a better record during that span — and are playing with a confidence and energy that hasn't been seen in Philly for years. 

One streak they'll try to end, however, is their recent losing streak to the Hawks, as the Sixers haven't beaten Atlanta in six straight matchups.

2. Injury scare
Fans at the Wells Fargo Center held their breath Friday night as Joel Embiid came down awkwardly on his left knee and came up limping. 

Embiid ran to the locker room on his own and was cleared to return to the game, though he never did. He was diagnosed with a left knee contusion and said after the game that everything was fine.

"I'm great," he said. "The knee's fine. They did an MRI and stuff, and everything looked good."

Despite not having Embiid for the final minutes of Friday's game, the Sixers were able to pull together and rally for a 93-92 win over the Blazers. 

Embiid won't travel with the Sixers to Atlanta, as he is scheduled to miss the game against the Hawks for a day of rest. 

3. Playoffs?
Hey, crazier things have happened, so let's not rule this one out. 

With the Sixers in the midst of their hottest strech in recent years, Embiid has the team and city thinking playoffs. After notching yet another win Friday night, the Sixers are just 4½ games back from the eighth seed in the East. 

"I look at it every day," Embiid said Friday. "We’re coming for those playoff spots. We’re going to keep on getting better, keep working and winning games."

If the wins actually do keep coming, this might be something to keep an eye on as we get deeper into the season. 

4. Tall task 
With Embiid scheduled to miss Saturday's game against the Hawks, the Sixers will lean on Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel to carry the load in place of their superstar center. 

A night after facing a dynamic backcourt featuring Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, the Sixers will turn their attention to the dominant frontcourt duo of Paul Millsap and Dwight Howard. 

Millsap comes in averaging 17.8 points and 8.1 rebounds, while Howard averages 13.7 points and an incredible 13 rebounds per game. Without Embiid, the Sixers might have a hard time stopping Millsap and Howard from having their way in the paint. 
 
5. This and that
• The Sixers have made three go-ahead field goals in the final five seconds of the fourth quarter/OT this season — the most in the NBA.

• The Sixers have 15 wins at the halfway point of the season. They had just 10 wins total all of last season. 

• Jahlil Okafor last played on Jan. 14 against the Wizards, posting 26 points, going 10 of 16 from the floor. 

• The Sixers are 13-17 with Embiid, but just 2-9 without him. 

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."