Philadelphia 76ers

Joel Embiid, Sixers prove plenty with benchmark win over Raptors

Joel Embiid, Sixers prove plenty with benchmark win over Raptors

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The Sixers weren’t supposed to beat the Raptors, were they? This was going to be an “easy” game for the visiting team, which was coming to Philadelphia on a back-to-back that started in Brooklyn. The Raptors are a playoff team, and second in the Eastern Conference at that. Not to mention, they had defeated the Sixers in their last 14 meetings.

Maybe easy would have been the case the last time the two teams played back in mid-December. For the Sixers, though, things have changed since then and a 94-89 win over the Raptors on Wednesday proved this recent success is not fleeting (see Instant Replay).

“I don’t think it’s a fluke,” Joel Embiid said. “We’re competing. We’re winning games. We’re playing great defense. We finally found what we’ve been looking for.”

The Sixers had been missing clearly-defined roles and a defensive identity (see story). Now that Brett Brown has whittled down his roster to 10 players and laid out a starting five and second unit, the team has been gelling in those two aspects. The Sixers have won seven out of their last nine games, with the Raptors being the highest caliber of competition.

The Raptors entered the game averaging 111.5 points per game, first in the East and third in the NBA behind only the Warriors and Rockets. They had scored less than 100 points in just seven games this season. Additionally, the Raptors had been held to under 90 points by a single opponent: the Spurs. Not bad company to be in. 

Embiid led all players with 26 points (including 12 for 14 from the free throw line) to go with nine rebounds (see highlights). The Sixers staved off 25 points (11 for 21 from the field), six assists and three rebounds from DeMar DeRozan and 24 points (11 for 16 from the line), four rebounds, four assists and five steals from Kyle Lowry, who fouled out. The Raptors shot 25 percent from three and 65.2 percent at the free throw line.  

“We’re playing with a spirit, we’re playing with a defensive mindset,” Brown said. “There is a belief within each other amongst the team that is the best that it’s been since I’ve been here.”

The Sixers' winning stretch began against subpar teams, opponents who earlier in the season some would look at the schedule and say, the Sixers could probably take that one, as they tried to project a batch of victories. The Sixers turned those wins over the Nuggets, Timberwolves and Nets into momentum and carried it into a matchup against the Knicks.

Even though the Knicks are looking lost this season, they still have veteran offensive firepower that can take over a game against a struggling opponent. The Sixers made noise by beating them at the buzzer, then escalated their performance against the postseason-hungry Hornets and Bucks. 

The Raptors are different, though. There is no questioning their success and potential to make a deep playoff run … again. Nonetheless, the Sixers handled this well-seasoned opponent with composure and confidence down the stretch. 

They stayed together when DeRozan hit a jumper with 1:53 to play to give the Raptors their first lead since the second quarter. The Sixers responded to the one-point deficit with a 7-0 run to push the edge up to six points with 20.7 seconds to go.

“I think it says we’re for real. It shows our consistency that we’ve built throughout the year,” Nerlens Noel said. “We’re relentless. We have a young group of guys that know how to play the game and play it the right way and will come out there and compete against anybody in this league. I think the perception should be a whole different one now.”

The Sixers showed they can compete with top talent. Their wins aren't just coming from teams at the bottom of the standings. 

"That gives us a lot of confidence," Embiid said. "Coming into the game, we had a lot of confidence. Winning against the second-best team in the East is just amazing. We’re going to keep on working."

Markelle Fultz guarantees playoffs, talks LeBron James joining Sixers, Lonzo Ball

Markelle Fultz guarantees playoffs, talks LeBron James joining Sixers, Lonzo Ball

Joel Embiid has said it. Charles Barkley has said it. And Markelle Fultz has heard it.

The Sixers will make the playoffs this year. 

And on Thursday at the Sixers' day camp at Valley Forge Military Academy, it was Fultz's turn to utter that one word that Sixers fans haven't heard since 2012: Playoffs

"We’re going to be in the playoffs this year, and I think everybody is willing to put forth their best effort and listen to the coaches and listen to the bench. We've got to just do whatever it takes to get there," Fultz told CSNPhilly. "That’s practicing even harder, that’s doing extra work in the gym by ourselves, I mean, we’re going to do whatever it takes." 

As a newcomer, Fultz hasn't had to suffer through the worst years of The Process like others on the team. But now that things are looking up, Fultz understands the weight of 253 losses in the last four years and thousands of more jokes online hang over the team like a rain cloud. 

"I think we all know that we’re going to go against the odds, really," Fultz said. "Everybody thinks we’re not going to do it, but I think we know we’re going to make mistakes and we’re just willing to work through them."

Last season, the Sixers finished 28-54 and 13 games out of the 8-seed in the Eastern Conference. But with a revamped roster that includes Fultz, a healthy Ben Simmons and the big free-agent signing of JJ Redick, that dark cloud hanging over the Sixers has turned into a perfect storm for the team to grow now and add key pieces in the future.

On LeBron James potentially joining the Sixers
Could LeBron James be one of those future pieces the Sixers need to capture their first championship since 1983?

“Definitely, he would be a great fit," Fultz said. "I think he would be good, somebody else I can pass the ball to. Everybody, I think the whole city will love him, but I mean, at the end of the day you gotta do what you gotta do, but we’ll love to have 'Bron in Philly.

Anyone else on the wish list?

“We’ll take anybody right now, LeBron, Kyrie (Irving). If they want to come, come on. (Carmelo Anthony), anybody.

James can opt out of his contract following the 2017-18 season. He's also raised the eyebrows of Sixers fans everywhere with a back and forth with Simmons. Even Mike Trout has gotten in on the recruitment. 

On expectations for his rookie season
But regardless of what happens next offseason, Fultz is focused on what happens on the court this season. 

“My expectations are really just to give it my all," Fultz said. "I don’t really have any set goals or anything like that. Just play as hard as I can and live with the results. But also, getting us back on the winning side, getting us to the playoffs and everything like that. But in order to do that, you've got to play as hard as you can and that’s what I’m looking forward to doing."

On rehab
Fultz considers himself lucky to even be on the court this season. Fultz had to be helped off the floor in his Las Vegas summer league debut, as the entire city of Philadelphia let out a collective, "Not again." As it turns out, it was just a sprained left ankle, and Fultz appears on track to be a full participant in training camp.

“Rehab’s going real great," the rookie said. "Everybody knows I sprained my ankle, but my ankle’s a lot better thanks to the training staff. I give big props to them, one of the best in the business. ... I’ve been working out. I’ve been jumping, shooting, everything like that, so I’m real healthy, so I’m happy."

Fultz sat out the remaining four games of summer league while rehabbing. 

"Not even being the No. 1 pick, just being a basketball player and having a love for the game, it was bad, really," Fultz said. "Just being out there with my team, of course, it was fun being there with them, but I wanted to play every game. And not just to prove myself, just because I love the game. I don’t feel like I have to prove anything to anybody. I think it’s just me going out there and doing what I want to do and have fun and doing what's best for the team. It was disappointing when I got hurt but everything happens for a reason. That’s how I looked at it."

On Lonzo Ball
And of course, that meant missing out on the highly-anticipated showdown with No. 2 pick Lonzo Ball and the Lakers. 

"Me and him are cool," Fultz said of Ball. "I’m pretty sure we’re going to meet each other during the season. The NBA, I think, is going to do a good job of making that happen and I look forward to it. I wish him the best of luck this season, just like I’m pretty sure he does to me, but it’s going to be good. I’m looking forward to it.”

On the hype surrounding the Sixers
When Fultz takes the court for the Sixers' home opener (the regular season schedule has not yet been released), it'll be in front of a sell-out crowd — a rarity the Sixers haven't seen in quite some time. But with the team seemingly on the uptick, Sixers fans have already bought a franchise record number of tickets. The hype is real.

“Definitely, we feel all the hype. You can tell just walking around, everybody knows who you are. Just the hype is real. And I can’t wait to get in the crowd and just hear the packed out, sold-out arena and I think that just fires us. We stand behind our fans, especially me. I love the fans here and I think we’re going to put on a show for them and start winning."

Fultz was able to experience the frenzy surrounding Embiid and the Sixers firsthand in April when he attended a game during the pre-draft process. The Sixers were a longshot to land the No. 1 pick and nab Fultz then, but with some Hinkie-esque maneuvering, the Sixers jumped up to No. 1 to select Fultz in June. From that one game, Fultz knew he was meant to be in Philly. 

"It’s kind of crazy, but at the end of the day, like I said, I think God does everything for a reason. That’s the reason I took that visit, really. People were like, ‘why is he in Philly?’ But you never know what might happen.

"I kind of had a feeling that I was going to end up here. It’s kind of crazy, but I’m just glad it happened, really. I don’t wish I was anywhere else. I think this is the perfect spot for me. A young team, coaching staff is great, the training is great, everything. The fans are the best in the world.”

NBA Notes: Cavaliers' front office downplays Kyrie Irving trade talk

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NBA Notes: Cavaliers' front office downplays Kyrie Irving trade talk

INDEPENDENCE, Ohio -- Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert spent more than 30 minutes presenting a positive portrait of his franchise.

The reality is that the Cavs are troubled.

In his first public comments since Kyrie Irving asked to be traded, Gilbert would not confirm whether he'll honor the All-Star point guard's request, but he also didn't rule out the real possibility that Cleveland may deal its second best player -- or if he thinks LeBron James will stay around beyond next season.

"These things are fluid," Gilbert said. "We think that Kyrie Irving is one of the best guards in the NBA. He was part of a championship, three years straight to the Finals and we value his talent -- significantly."

Despite several direct questions about Irving's status, Gilbert would not provide any specifics about recent conversations with him or his agent. Gilbert said he expected the 25-year-old, whose jumper in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals propelled Cleveland to its first championship since the Browns in 1964, to be at training camp with the team in September.

"Right now Kyrie Irving is under contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers for two or three years, depending on the last year," Gilbert said. "As of now he's one of our best players and sure, we expect him to be in camp" (see full story).

Wizards: Team announced Wall’s $170 million extension
WASHINGTON -- The Washington Wizards have signed John Wall to a $170 million, four-year contract extension that begins in 2019-20.

Team President Ernie Grunfeld announced the completion of the deal Wednesday. Wall said in a video posted on Twitter on Friday that he had agreed to the extension.

Wall's deal includes a player option for the final season in 2023-24.

Owner Ted Leonsis said extending Wall gives the Wizards stability for years to come. The team also matched a $106.5 million, four-year offer sheet that forward Otto Porter Jr. signed with the Brooklyn Nets and has guard Bradley Beal signed through 2020-21.

Wall, a four-time Eastern Conference All-Star, is the third player this summer to get a designated player "supermax" extension, joining Houston's James Harden and Golden State's Stephen Curry (see full story).

Suns: Williams signs 3-year, $17 million deal
PHOENIX -- The Phoenix Suns have signed big man Alan Williams to a three-year, $17 million contract.

The restricted free agent agreed to the deal earlier this month and the Suns announced he re-signed on Wednesday.

The 24-year-old Williams averaged 7.4 points on 51 percent shooting and 6.2 rebounds in 47 games last season, his second in the NBA.

Williams signed a 10-day contract with the Suns in 2016 and averaged 2.9 points and 3.8 rebounds. He played the 2015-16 season in China after being an undrafted free agent from UC Santa Barbara.

Lakers: Guard Tyler Ennis re-signs
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- The Los Angeles Lakers have re-signed guard Tyler Ennis, a late-season addition who played his way into a job.

The Lakers announced the deal Wednesday.

Los Angeles acquired Ennis from the Houston Rockets on Feb. 23 in a trade for Marcelo Huertas. Ennis appeared in 22 games for the Lakers, averaging 7.7 points and 2.4 assists.

The Lakers are the fourth NBA team in three seasons for Ennis, a Syracuse product chosen 18th overall in the 2014 draft by Phoenix.

Ennis is likely to vie for a backup role behind point guard Lonzo Ball, the No. 2 overall pick.

The Lakers met with Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo and George Hill in their quest for a veteran backup point guard to work with Ball, but all three signed elsewhere.