7.6 Takeaways | Finishing First Month Strong

by Brian Seltzer
Sixers.com Reporter

1. What a difference…

If you ever want to get a better appreciation for how long a week really is, just think about the NBA regular season. Things can change, quick.

Take this case, for instance. 

Heading into last Sunday’s stop at Cleveland, the 76ers were in need of a spark, having lost two in a row, and five of seven. They got the win, and now look where they are – riding the high of a four-game surge, their latest victory a total laugher against the Miami Heat.

Yes, fortunes and vibes can swing dramatically in a short, seven-day period of time.

“We don’t have many games we can say we’ve had our starting five, so from that perspective, I get excited,” said Brett Brown.

With the first quarter of the Sixers’ season (amazingly) almost in the books, Brown has noticed particular progress on the defensive end of the floor.

While the Sixers’ opening night starting line-up of Ben Simmons, Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris, Al Horford, and Joel Embiid has only logged a total of 81 minutes together, the contingent boasts an exceptional net rating of 29.4. It’s the NBA's best mark for any five-player group that’s logged at least 80 minutes.

2. Ben Simmons, Stopper 

One of the hopes in the aftermath of last season’s second-round playoff loss to the Toronto Raptors was that Ben Simmons would be able to take his experience guarding Kawhi Leonard, and apply it towards continued defensive development.

Regardless of whether or not that specific assignment has been the catalyst, the Aussie’s defense has so far been exceptional. His latest job-well-done came Saturday, in the Sixers’ 113-86 win over the Miami Heat, when he went toe-to-toe with former teammate Jimmy Butler.

Butler entered the evening averaging 18.8 points (42.9%) and 6.7 assists per game. Simmons helped contain the All-Star to 11 points on 4 for 13 shooting.

The defensive showing was just the latest in a recent string of really good ones for Simmons. Earlier in the week, against the New York Knicks and the San Antonio Spurs, it was Simmons who assumed a central role in taking the Sixers’ “D” to the next level.

“Ben was elite again defensively,” said Brett Brown. “His performance in guarding Jimmy was outstanding. Ben puts his mind to it [defense] and uncoils [his wingspan]. He’s 6-10, he’s strong, and he’s got a desire to guard like he has been guarding, I don’t care who it is, that’s a tough person to have on you. Tonight, what he should be remembered for was how tenacious, committed and constant he was defensively.”

All around, Simmons said he’s been focused on elevating his personal game lately.

“I just know I need to,” said the 2016 no. 1 pick. “We always have to pick each other up and help each other. It starts on defense."

A month into the new season, Simmons ranks second in the NBA with 2.3 steals per game, and third in the league with 3.8 deflections per game. His individual defensive rating is 102.6.

3.  Al automatic

Over the course of the NBA’s long, marathon season, ebbs and flows are a natural – read also normal - part of the business. Players are probably best served by simply riding the wave, and sticking to their guns.

With that being said, it was nice to see Al Horford end last week on a high note. To be clear, he – in our opinion – has been excellent for the Sixers, both in terms of performance and leadership.

But going into the Sixers’ home-and-home back-to-back on Friday and Saturday, the veteran had been 17 for 47 his previous four outings. In wins over San Antonio and Miami, he combined to go 15 for 23 from the field, looking as sharp as ever.

Brett Brown praised Horford for getting his rhythm back, and playing effectively within the structure of the Sixers’ offense.

Now in his 13th season, Horford is scoring 14.7 points per game, his highest average in four years.

4. What they’re saying…

…about Josh Richardson.

The fifth-year guard was terrific Saturday against Miami. He spent the first four seasons of his career with the Heat.

Richardson’s 32 points matched the second-highest total of his career, and came on the heels of a two-game absence caused by a hip issue.

Afterwards, Brett Brown said he learned a little something more about one of his newest players, with Richardson stepping up against his former squad.

“I saw a two-way guard,” said Brown. “He was stalking people down, making people have to chew up clock on full-court entries. He made it difficult all over the place. From that, you then saw him score. I really think it was as fine a performance on both sides of the ball that should be reflected on how we judge him tonight.”

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the work does the talkin’.

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Before Saturday’s tip off, Brown’s counterpart in Miami, Erik Spoelstra, had effusive praise for Richardson, the 40th pick in the 2015 draft. Here’s a transcription of his comments.

“It’s one of our stories that we really connect to. I still remember his draft workout like it was yesterday. As an organization, we take a lot of pride in trying to help players achieve their dreams, particularly ones who have to take a different path – if you’re a second rounder or non-drafted [player], guys who are a little bit off the radar. We want to serve, we want to help, make sure that they accomplish what they want to accomplish. We feel like hopefully we can be part of that journey. Josh is one of our great success stories. He just fit in so many ways what we’re all about. He’s a true pro, he’s a great human being, you want to be around guys like J-Rich, and he really grew in his time. When he started out with us, he didn’t play the first full half of the season. We sent him to the G League for a game, and it was going to be a lot longer, but we had injuries. He had an electrifying second half to his rookie season. Each year, he took on more responsibilities, and last year he was our no. 1 option. He earned it, really put in a lot of time to get to that [point]. I love J-Rich, all the clichés. Man, I’ll roll with that guy.”

5. Doing damage to doubles

A trend the Sixers liked this past week? Joel Embiid making quick decisions when he was double-teamed by the opposition.  

Here are two examples from the Miami Heat game:

 “We have spent a lot of time on floor spots,” said Brett Brown. “[Embiid] knows now his outlets when he wants to quarterback a gym. He understands, and we can help him, where the double teams are coming from. We found those spots quickly and made shots from those spots. It’s always rewarding for him.”

When Embiid makes his reads both quickly and effectively, he only becomes that much more of a weapon.

6. Zoning in

Brett Brown readily admits it – he doesn’t like when opponents throw zone defense at the 76ers. Which is precisely the reason why the seventh-year head coach has recently started sprinkling some zone wrinkles of his own into his club's defense. 

“We feel that a 1-3-1 zone – there are lots of species of zone - best suits this team,” said Brown, citing the size of the Sixers' roster. “I like trying it from time to time and test driving it and seeing if it’s something that we might be able to use in sort of brief moments to change a game.”

In Friday’s victory over the San Antonio Spurs, for example, the Sixers came out of the first timeout of the game in a zone look, and stuck with it for a few possessions.  

As far as the big picture is concerned, Brown doesn’t plan to rely on zone too much, especially when the playoffs roll around. He feels the postseason is much more of a man-to-man environment.

“For us, I think it will be more of an outlier and something we can use sporadically as opposed to heavy doses of it.”

7. Three falling

Over the last 10 days, the 76ers have been one of the most efficient 3-point shooting teams in the NBA. They’ve converted 42.3% of their perimeter attempts during this four-game stretch, dating back to a November 15th overtime loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Several players have shot the ball especially well amidst this period. Josh Richardson has gone 11 for 18, Tobias Harris 10 for 19, and James Ennis III 8 for 15.

7.1 After his Miami Heat’s tough night at The Center, Erik Spoelstra gave a nice nod to the Sixers’ defense, saying:

“Their defense really gave us some challenges. We struggled to get clean looks and you have to credit them, especially their length, on how they really protected the paint and forced us into some pretty rough possessions.”

7.2 Before leaving Philadelphia following Saturday’s game, Jimmy Butler was asked about his relationships with Joel Embiid and Mike Scott.

“Those are my guys,” Butler said. “Basketball is basketball, but this will, and always will be, a brotherhood. As much as I want to win a championship, I want them to strive for that exact same trophy. Those are always going to be my guys. Basketball is just what we do.”

7.3 With the holiday season almost in full swing, some of the guys were out and about in the community last week.

7.4 Joel Embiid is a nifty, nimble fellow.

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light pregame work.

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7.5 Really enjoyed sitting down with first-year assistant coach Ime Udoka this past week for the latest episode of our pod.

7.6 The lighting enhances the look. Our Photo of the Week comes from Alex Subers.


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