So That Happened: Sixers Win (?) Game Three After Battling Back in Fourth

So That Happened: Sixers Win (?) Game Three After Battling Back in Fourth

"If there ever a time for the Sixers to win one BS, low-scoring close game..." tweeted
friend of the blog Where is Ben Rivera with about five minutes left in
this game. Indeed, recent history—including the last time the Bulls
played at the Wells Fargo Center—suggested that, injuries to Chicago
stars Derrick Rose and (now) Joakim Noah be damned, the Sixers were not
gonna find a way to take this game. Down 14 early in the fourth, they
would battle back, cut it to three or four, miss a couple crucial
jumpers or blow a couple key stops, and lose in unnecessarily
heartbreaking fashion. It's been the same story for as long as we can
remember as Sixers fans.

Yet, either due to genuine team
evolution or some working principle of how you Can't Lose 'Em All, the
Sixers did indeed find a way to take and hold the lead in this one. Jrue
Holiday (17 points, six rebounds, six assists) and Evan Turner (16 points, nine rebounds) were given the reins down the stretch and they
responded, scoring or assisting on 13 of the team's final 15 points in
the last five minutes, including going seven of eight form the line in
the final 90 seconds to seal the deal. Spencer Hawes also rebounded from
a tough start to the second half to finish with a team-high 21 points
and nine boards, and Philly was able to scratch out the W in an ugly
79-74 slugfest that not a lot of people outside of the City of Brotherly
Love are gonna have fond memories of watching.

Through
three-plus quarters, the outlook on this one was not good. The Sixers'
guards were playing solidly, if unspectacularly, but the frontcourt was a
total no-show. Through three quarters, the big-man rotation of Thaddeus
Young, Spencer Hawes, Elton Brand and Lavoy Allen were shooting a
combined 4-24, with the Old Schol Chevy Brand in particularly picking a
bad time to suffer engine failure, ending the game with 0 points (0-5
FG) and just two boards. Worse, they got killed by the Bulls on
the boards, resulting in a stretch of consecutive offensive rebounds in
the third and fourth that actually inspired boos from the WFC. Spencer
Hawes, while technically doing the best of the bench with his nine
points and six rebounds, had missed a series of good-look jumpers and
absurdly easy layups early in the half, leading me to wonder if Coach
Collins was gonna put him in the sleeper hold after yanking him to the
bench, and just have one of the assistants wake him up when the game
ended.

But the Sixers somehow managed to stay tough, and both
the shots and the offensive boards started to dry up for the Bulls after
Rip Hamilton's pull-up three put them up 14 with ten to go. Hawes
started converting on his chippies and jumpers, Jrue and Lou Williams
made plays, and all of a sudden, the team was back in the game. The team
defense just got tighter and tighter as the exhausted and undermanned
Bulls went totally cold, and suddenly, the team was up 72-71 with 90
seconds left and a chance to actually win this damn thing, for once.

What
happened next can be explained by a number of factors. For one
thing—and I feel this has to be acknowledged—they got a lot of help from
the refs, who had called a tight game the whole way, and whistled a
number of borderline calls on Chicago that I personally didn't toally
agree with. But this was systematic of the fact that the Sixers were
attacking the basket—especially Jrue and Evan, the duo of whom Coach
Collins finally entrusted with ball-handling and play-making
responsibilities down the stretch. The two forced the issue time and
time again, most notably when Evan Turner went down among the trees on
the clinching possession, rebounding his own miss twice and eventually
getting the foul call, in a play that Collins would later deem the "play
of the year" for the Sixers, calling Turner a "big-game player" in
turn.

It's hard to overstate just how encouraging this final
stretch was for the Sixers. At a certain point it occurred to me that I
didn't really even care if the Sixers won or lost—well, I cared, of
course, but I realized it wasn't the most important thing—because I was
just so glad that Collins finally handed the keys to the team over to
his two young bonafides, and so glad that they were rewarding his faith.
Lou wasn't even out there for the final stretch once Evan checked back
in, and after bricking an open three with 2:54 left that would've put
the team up two and brought the house down—as emblematic of 'Dre's
late-game futility as a shot could be—he was not asked to contribute on
offense again. This is Evan and Jrue's team now—finally—and that's far more important a development for this team than anything that could happen in this series.

So
hey, speaking of this series—it does bear mentioning that we're up 2-1
on the hurting Bulls now, with a chance to take a commanding 3-1 series
lead at the WFC again this Sunday. But as positive as things may seem at
the moment, and as much as we want to start eyeing the Celtics/Hawks
series to see who would make a more favorable second-hand matchup for
this team, let me remind you that this is not the first time we've been
in this situation as an underdog—we took similar leads against both
Orlando and Detroit, then proceeded to lose the next three games to
each. Now, this seems different, with the Bulls' best (and possibly
their second-best) player injured, and the Sixers clicking in some
importantw ays, but just because it seems different doesn't mean that it is different. Let's talk about that again after Game Four, shall we?

And
a final note, about that second-best Bulls player and the injury he
suffered tonight: You're probably going to hear a lot of crap over the
upcoming days about the way the Sixers fans reacted when Joakim Noah
brutally twisted his ankle on Andre Iguodala's foot in the open court,
and we cheered as he writhed on the floor in pain, booing when he
finally got back up. And we'll deserve most of it—it was a classless act
on the part of the WFC crowd, and names like "Michael Irvin" and "Santa
Claus" will be not wrongly invoked. But let's also keep in mind that
Noah is a historical NBA irritant, someone who takes pride in getting
under the skin of opponents and their fans, and while such methods are
All In the Game as far as the NBA is concerned...well, sometimes people
are going to take joy in your misery. No disrespect, and frankly, any
Sixer fan who doesn't have a great deal of admiration for how he hobbled
back onto that court after his injury and managed to hit a couple free
throws and a jumper before limping back off is simply out they damn
mind.

1:00 tip from Wells Fargo this Sunday for Game Four. Still
a ton of questions to be answered, still a whole lot undecided in this
series, but even if we lose the next three games, tonight was progress
in this team's evolution that can and should not be ignored. It might
not mean we're any closer to contending, but it means we're a lot closer
to understanding who we are as a team, and where to go from here, and
at this stage in the 76ers' development, that's nearly as important. Go
Jrue and Evan, go Coach Collins, go you marvelous bastard 76ers.

Despite blowout loss, Sixers see potential in Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor playing together

Despite blowout loss, Sixers see potential in Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor playing together

BOX SCORE

Brett Brown was ready to do it Wednesday night. The matchup against the Kings presented an opportunity to experiment with playing Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor together. That pairing had to wait two days, though, after the Kings game was postponed

On Friday, Embiid and Okafor shared the court for just under 13 minutes in the Sixers' 105-88 loss to the Magic (see Instant Replay), who also rolled out a duo of bigs in Bismack Biyombo and Nikola Vucevic. 

“I thought we had our moments,” Embiid said. “We shared the ball, we made shots. Obviously we need to play more together and learn how to play with each other.”

Embiid and Okafor first played together for 5:29 in the second quarter. They scored all of the Sixers' 12 points during that time, including a pair of threes by Embiid. They also combined for five boards. The Sixers outscored the Magic, 12-9, with the bigs in together.

The benefits of the floor spacing was apparent. Oftentimes in the game, Okafor could be seen open at the basket with a hand up for the ball while Embiid was also getting looks from long range. 

“I liked our spacing, I liked the high-low stuff we were doing,” Brown said. “I think when you post Joel, that Jahlil is going to play sort of hide-and-seek on the other side of the floor, and work that low zone, and become — I hope — a potent offensive rebounder. When you post Jahlil, Joel has the ability to space to three.”

Brown turned to Embiid and Okafor again in the fourth. At that point, the Magic had a 23-point lead. Their next 7:25 together was a chance to give them a long run in live game action. They combined for another 12 points and four rebounds. All of their buckets were layups, dunks or free throws. Both teams scored 19 points with Embiid and Okafor in that segment.

Both Embiid and Okafor finished the game with double-doubles: 25 points, 10 rebounds and four assists for Embiid; 16 points, 13 rebounds and two blocks for Okafor. 

“I thought they played well together,” Vucevic said. “I thought it was tough to guard them because they’re both really good offensively.”

Okafor credited his friendship with Embiid, which dates back to high school, as a key to coexisting well on the court. Both emphasized their off-the-court relationship would help them in a game situation. 

“I think the communication piece went really well,” Okafor said. “He was talking to me, I was talking to him.”

Scoring and communication always seemed to be the easier parts of the pairing to tackle. Defense, though, was the challenge given that one of the centers would have to guard the four spot. Okafor noted their transition D as an area that needs improvement.

“We’re both used to going right to the rim,” Okafor said. “I think I had a couple easy buckets. That’s something we’ll be able to fix.” 

Brown had based his decision of when to play Embiid and Okafor together on the matchups. While the two could boast their own edge on the offensive end, Brown didn’t want to play them in a scenario in which they’d be at a huge defensive disadvantage. 

“It’s not offense to me, it’s defense. That’s the thing that is most challenging,” Brown said. “We want to play fast. We want to put points on the board. You don’t want to play in the 80s. You don’t want to do that, that’s not our sport anymore. So you want to make sure that you're capable of guarding the opposition.”

Vucevic noticed the challenge from an opposing perspective. He understands the necessary changes since playing alongside Biyombo.  

“It takes time for them to get adjusted, especially for the guy that will be playing the four defensively,” Vucevic said. “They’re not used to that because they always back down to the paint guarding the fives. It’s a different look. They have to work on it, communicate, and I think they’ll be fine.” 

On a night with few highlights in a 17-point blowout loss, Brown was able to take away a positive from this anticipated duo.

"I thought Jahlil and Joel did a really good job," he said. 

Sixers Notes: Joel Embiid unhappy with effort; Robert Covington hurt

Sixers Notes: Joel Embiid unhappy with effort; Robert Covington hurt

Joel Embiid didn’t see four quarters of basketball from the Sixers in their 105-88 loss to the Magic Friday night (see Instant Replay). Their efforts were inconsistent as they fell flat in long stretches and allowed the Magic to build up double-digit leads as high as 29 points.

The Sixers gave up a 16-0 run in the first and shot just 6 for 26 (23.1 percent) in the quarter. The Magic, who had lost a one-point game to the Grizzlies in Memphis the night before, rallied together to seize this opportunity.

“They just made a lot of shots that we didn’t,” Embiid said. “That’s the game, but we didn’t play hard all 48 minutes and we need to do a better job next time.”

The Sixers didn’t break 30 points until 4:33 to go in the second and attempted just two free throws in the first half. By the end of the third, the Magic had a 21-point lead which they held on to with in ease in the fourth. 

The Magic outshot the Sixers on all areas of the floor: 47.4 percent to 37.9 from the field and 50.0 to 28.1 from three. While the teams had nearly equal percentages from the line, the Magic shot 18 for 26 compared to only 7 for 10 from the Sixers. 

“They missed a lot of shots,” Magic forward Jeff Green said. “We got stops, were aggressive, guys just played hard and created for one another and played as a team.”

Covington injured
The Sixers are waiting to learn more news on the extent of Robert Covington’s injury. In the fourth quarter, Covington exited and did not return after suffering a left knee sprain when he collided with T.J. McConnell chasing a loose ball in front of the Sixers’ bench. If the starting small forward has to miss time, Sixers head coach Brett Brown is thinking ahead to possible lineup changes. 

“We'll try to figure out what his next week represents,” Brown said. “If we aren't with him, maybe there's a chance we can look at Dario [Saric] a little bit at the three.”

Covington is averaging 8.5 points, 5.1 rebounds and 1.9 steals in 27.5 minutes per game. Saric has been coming off the bench at power forward behind Ersan Ilyasova. He started 10 games earlier this season at the four spot. 

Embiid honored
The Sixers honored Embiid during a timeout for being named NBA Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month (October and November). Embiid was appreciative of the award and has his sights set on the bigger picture this season.

“All the hard work I’ve put in, it feels great,” Embiid said earlier in the day at shootaround. “Obviously, maybe the bigger picture is Rookie of the Year, that’s what matters. … I don’t have my mind set on that. But if I can get it, that would be nice.”

Brown sees this recent showing as just a glimpse into what Embiid will be able to do over his career. Embiid leads the Sixers with 18.7 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.2 blocks. 

“This in infant stages, early days for him,” Brown said. “His body of work, given his lack of playing basketball, really is jaw-dropping for what I think he can be. To jump in and get rookie of the month I think is a real, sort of, quick snapshot view of him now. I think what he’s going to be is going to be extremely special.”

Embiid also is shooting 51.4 percent from three, including 3 for 5 against the Magic. When asked if he would like to participate in the three-point contest All-Star weekend, he said "it would be nice" and noted he would have to work on the speed of his release.