Game Preview: Bench Production Providing Boost

by Brian Seltzer
Sixers.com Reporter

Sizing Up the Sixers (1-8):
There are a handful of promising takeaways to draw from the 76ers’ first nine games.

Most obvious, their rookie big man clearly can play, and possesses immense potential to be a major difference-maker. Yes, Joel Embiid, who's expected to be back in action Monday, has been that good. 

Jahlil Okafor, a little bit leaner, and with a year of experience under his belt, has been active on the defensive end, seemingly committed to growing that part of his game. His scoring touch remains strong as well. 

Dario Saric has looked like the do-all, versatile forward that he was advertised to be coming out of Europe, and his 3-point shot has so far translated to the NBA. 

Two new seasoned backcourt starters, Sergio Rodriguez and Gerald Henderson, have left their respective marks, with the former proving to be a reliable, creative facilitator, and the latter a productive, veteran leader.

On top of these developments, another encouraging sign to emerge during the opening three weeks of the campaign has been the Sixers’ second unit.

As of Monday morning, the Sixers, according to stats.nba.com, were fourth in the league in bench scoring (41.7 ppg), third in rebounding (19.4 rpg), fifth in assists (8.9 apg), and second in blocks (2.4 bpg).

In terms of individual performances from members of the Sixers’ second group, Okafor and Ersan Ilyasova have led the way. As a result of Embiid serving as the club’s starting center, Okafor, really for the first time in his career at any level, has willingly assumed a reserve role (he’s started twice the last three games, however, with Embiid receiving scheduled rest). 

The output of the Duke product, when measured on a per-36 minute basis and compared to his rookie season, has been steady. His scoring rate has actually gone up.

The acquisition of Ilyasova, meanwhile, has been beneficial. Not only has the 29-year old brought an extra veteran voice to the Sixers’ locker room, he’s also bolstered the Sixers’ 3-point shooting and rebounding efforts.

“I think Ersan coming off the bench is sort of a stable force,” Brett Brown said last week, “along with Jahlil.”

The rest of the heart of the Sixers’ reserve corps is made up of T.J. McConnell, Nik Stauskas, and Hollis Thompson. McConnell, in his second season, paces all NBA bench players averaging at least 15.0 minutes in assist percentage (38.1), a statistic that accounts for the number of made baskets a player sets up.

“I think for the most part, we’ve came in and done what we’ve needed to do,” said McConnell, a point guard who places among the league’s top five reserves in assists per game (4.8), too. “I think the bench unit’s supposed to come in and provided a spark, and I think we’ve done that, for the most part.”

Stauskas heads into Monday’s match-up with Houston coming off one of his most efficient weeks since he joined the Sixers last year. While generating 9.5 points in 21.7 minutes per game his past four outings, the two-guard has hit 61.9 percent of his field goals (13-21 fg), shot 6 for 13 from 3-point territory, and converted all seven of his attempts within five feet of the basket.

Thompson, more often than not, has been a reliable, trustworthy option. He delivered a 19-point showing in the Sixers’ overtime loss at Indiana last Wednesday.

"I think Hollis has been probably the surprise,” Brown said two days later, when discussing the Sixers’ reserves. “I think he’s had a good year. He’s come in and probably been the most consistent. T.J. comes in and gives us that spark. I think Nik’s shown signs that he’s got a lot more to offer than we saw last year. I know that he wants to come in and please and has played well.”

Brown has even been able to work Richaun Holmes into the mix as of late.

At the outset of the season, playing time was hard to come by for the second year forward due to the need to have Embiid and Okafor on the floor. Because of the minute restrictions placed on both centers, and the recent high volume of games on the Sixers’ schedule (Monday is their fifth contest in eight days), Holmes has been getting more run.

“Richaun’s the one that I feel almost the most disappointed about the opportunities I’ve been able to give him, because we saw what he was able to do in preseason,” Brown admitted. Holmes averaged 10.9 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks in seven exhibition outings. 

“He’s so different than Jahlil and Joel in that he’s got bounce, he’s got pace, and he plays above the rim, and got sort of that athletic ping to his game,” said Brown. “I just haven’t been able to find minutes for him while those two bigs are playing.”

Down the road, when the middle segment of the season rolls around, the Sixers figure to be a healthier bunch than they are at the moment. Jerryd Bayless, Nerlens Noel, and Ben Simmons each are currently sidelined with injuries. 

As for how the eventual return of these players could ultimately enrich the Sixers’ depth, Brown hasn’t given the possibility much thought, at least for now. 

“I’m very sort of grounded on what we have, and very committed to taking what we have and figuring out the best way to make it work, and win,” Brown said. “That has been very, very much on my mind since [training camp]. Wondering about benches or futures has not entered my mind very much, certainly lately not at all.”

The head coach stated that his present mission is “just trying to move forward” with the group at his disposal.

The second-stringers have aided this pursuit. 

“The bench unit, we kind of talk a lot and say when we come in there, we’ve kind of got to… make a difference,” said McConnelI. “I think we do a good job of that.”

Sizing Up the Rockets (5-4):
Houston has yet to post consistent results; however, its schedule could be partially responsible. Per basketball-reference.com, the Rockets have played the sixth most difficult slate in the NBA to date.

Not only was Houston on the road for seven of its first eight contests, the caliber of its opposition has been strong. The Rockets’ four losses have come against the suddenly resurgent Lakers (6 points), the defending champion Cavaliers (eight points), the surging Hawks (15 points), and the always-challenging Spurs (6 points).

Mike D’Antoni assumed the helm of Houston this past May, appointed to an NBA head coaching post for the fourth time in his career. He spent the final four months of last season with the Sixers acting as Brett Brown’s associate head coach.  

Four-time All-Star James Harden has been a menace to start the year. He entered the week fifth in the league with an average of 30.0 points per game, and first in assists (117), assists per game (13.0), and assist percentage (62.1).

Big man Nene Hilario and dangerous sharpshooter Ryan Anderson were among the Rockets’ noteworthy off-season signings. 

Series History:
The Sixers have dropped five meetings in a row to the Rockets, and last prevailed on the road in the series in February of 2011.

The Sixers and Rockets squared off in Houston last year the day after Thanksgiving. James Harden exploded in the fourth quarter to finish with 50 points. Robert Covington tallied 28 points, seven rebounds, five assists, and eight steals in an entertaining pairing, which the Rockets won, 116-114.

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