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."

Report: Bulls continuing trade push for Jahlil Okafor

Report: Bulls continuing trade push for Jahlil Okafor

The Bulls are apparently still after Jahlil Okafor.

Chicago has continued its trade push for the Sixers’ big man, according to a report Wednesday night by The Vertical's Adrian Wojnarowski.

In early February, the Bulls inquired about Okafor, according to a report by CSNChicago.com.

With Thursday’s 3 p.m. deadline nearing, the clock is ticking on the Sixers’ possible trade of Okafor, who will get moved” by the mandatory cutoff date, according to NBA.com’s David Aldridge on Tuesday.

The Sixers already have one trade nearly completed. They are currently finalizing a deal that will send Ersan Ilyasova to the Atlanta Hawks, a league source confirmed to CSNPhilly.com Sixers Insider Jessica Camerato on Wednesday night (see story).

With Okafor, aside from the Bulls, other teams have reportedly expressed interest in the second-year center, including the Pacers, Blazers and Pelicans (who are expected to be out of the running after landing DeMarcus Cousins).

Okafor is averaging 11.4 points and 4.8 rebounds in 23 minutes per game this season over 38 contests. Last season, he played 53 games (48 starts) as a rookie and averaged 17.5 points and seven rebounds.

The 21-year-old has taken all the trade buzz in stride.

“Trade rumors are something that’s going to be part of my life probably for as long as I’m in the NBA," Okafor said on Feb. 4 after the Bulls’ reported interest originally surfaced. "I’ve been hearing it since I’ve been in the NBA about me being traded. I just try to focus on what I can. That’s being here on this team and trying to help this team win.”

Sixers trade Ersan Ilyasova to Hawks for Tiago Splitter, draft pick considerations

Sixers trade Ersan Ilyasova to Hawks for Tiago Splitter, draft pick considerations

Updated: Thursday, 12:04 a.m.

Ersan Ilyasova’s time with the Sixers is over after just 53 games.

The Sixers on Wednesday night sent Ilyasova to the Hawks in exchange for big man Tiago Splitter and a 2017 second-round pick, as well as the option to swap 2017 second-round selections.

The Sixers have not determined if they are going to keep Splitter or waive him, as they have done with previous trades. Splitter’s contract will expire after this season. 

Looking at the two picks, the Sixers will receive the Heat’s 2017 second-rounder. In addition, they will have rights to a pick swap of the Hawks’ 2017 second-round pick and the least favorable of the Jazz’s four second-round picks. That pick is between the Jazz, Knicks, Pistons and Warriors, and will most likely result in the Warriors’ selection at 60. 

Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical first reported the trade. 

Ilyasova has an expiring contract. Instead of letting it run out and getting nothing in return, the Sixers added to their mounting stockpile of picks. These picks will be important to keep in mind should the Sixers look to make a deal before the draft. 

The Sixers acquired Ilyasova in November from the Thunder for Jerami Grant. The ninth-year veteran added instant leadership and accountability, both in practices and in games, which was needed upon the retirement of Elton Brand. 

Ilyasova also served as a go-to for rookie Dario Saric. Not only do they play the same position, Ilyasova could help him navigate his first season in the league after a career in Europe. Ilyasova’s departure creates the opportunity for Saric to step back into the starting power forward role. Saric is averaging 16.1 points and 6.7 rebounds off the bench in his last 10 games.

Ilyasova quickly fit into the Sixers’ system upon being traded, scoring 21 points against the Cavaliers in his second game. He seamlessly slid into the starting lineup while Saric was moved to the second unit as he learned the NBA. Ilyasova ranked second on the team in scoring (14.3 points) and third in rebounds (5.9). He led the Sixers with 46 games in double-figure scoring (including 12 of 20-plus) and 10 double-doubles. 

Ilyasova struggled as of late, though. This month, his shooting percentage dropped to 35.6 from the field (the first month below 40 percent) and 23.4 from three-point range. He scored a combined 10 points in the Sixers’ final two games before the All-Star break, going 4 for 16 from the field and 1 for 7 from three. 

“I am not going to say it’s just because of free agency,” Ilyasova said last week (see story). “You have 82 games, you can’t play perfect. Sometimes you have good games and bad games. Last week, I was kind of out of rhythm and missed a lot of shots.”

After playing his first seven NBA seasons with the Bucks, the Hawks are now Ilyasova’s fifth team in two seasons.

Like Ilyasova, the 6-foot-11 Splitter is a veteran with international experience. Splitter, 32, is in his seventh NBA season. He has been sidelined all season, though, by calf and hip injuries. On the day of the trade, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported his return “is not imminent” but the Hawks did not expect him to miss the entire season. 

Splitter most recently averaged 5.2 points and 3.3 rebounds in 16.1 minutes for the Hawks last season. 

Brett Brown is very familiar with Splitter. He was on the Spurs’ coaching staff when Splitter began playing for the team in 2010. Splitter spent his first five seasons in San Antonio before being traded to the Hawks in 2015. 

There could be more moves on the horizon for the Sixers. Wojnarowski also reported the Bulls are continuing to push for a Jahlil Okafor trade (see story).

The NBA trade deadline is Thursday at 3 p.m.