| The Sixers are trending up as they begin a difficult part of their schedule. Corey Brewer made his mark, but is there another addition on the horizon? |
1. Simmons Challenges his Teammates
After a bad 123-121 loss to the Hawks last Friday, Ben Simmons was clearly not happy with the defensive effort.
“I think we were too soft,” Simmons said of the team’s performance. “I just don’t think we’re physical enough. I think defensively, we’re not taking it personal enough when guys score on us. It should be a pride thing when somebody scores; you should be frustrated every time.”
Simmons raises a good point. On the surface it appears that he’s simply commenting on the team’s defense. Jimmy Butler responded to those comments, and wasn’t entirely in agreement.
“I don’t like the word ‘soft,'” Butler added. “I’m not gonna say that anybody’s soft. I just think that we got beat in every aspect of the game. They came out from the jump and did what they wanted to do, and they did that for 48 straight minutes.”
Butler has a point. Statistically, they’re actually a solid defense compared to the rest of the league. You don’t do that without an edge and certain amount of toughness, at least mentally. But they are prone to bad losses to teams below them in the standings. They’ve lost to the Hawks, Nets, Wizards, Cavs and Magic so far this year. It’s a long season and occasion slip ups are not uncommon, but I think you can interpret these comments as Simmons urging his teammates to raise their game against lesser teams. Simmons wants his teammates to be embarrassed by Kevin Heurter scoring a career high 29 points, because no one knew who he was until he did it!
2. Good Start to a Tough Stretch
However Ben Simmons’ post-game comments can be interpreted, the team responded to the message. They won three straight over the Knicks, Timberwolves, and Pacers. The win over Minnesota was especially emphatic; the Sixers put up 149 points. Jimmy butler didn’t say much to rub salt in the wound of his former team, but Embiid was there to do just that.
Embiid is referencing the infamous practice that Butler had prior to his departure from Minnesota, in which he reportedly joined the Wolve’s third stringers and beat the starters in a scrimmage.
In their next contest they dropped 120 points on the Pacers, one of the best defensive teams in the Eastern Conference, even with Joel Embiid fighting through a back injury. Charles Barkley was critical of Embiid’s decision to play, but Joel insisted that his teammates needed him in a matchup that could affect playoff seeding.
“I’m a warrior. I wouldn’t let my teammates down, and I felt like we needed this game for home court advantage, so I had to play to give us a better chance to win the game,” Embiid said after the game.
Things were certainly trending upward heading into Saturday’s marquee matchup with the Thunder. Games between these teams are always entertaining. I want to petition the NBA to put them into the same conference so that they play more often. The latest contest saw the lead change multiple times down the stretch, as well as more beef between Russell Westbrook and Joel Embiid
Russell Westbrook on the foul from Joel Embiid, and then asked if they are “cool.” (Warning: language): pic.twitter.com/7i0ahyEFTH
Drama aside, it appeared that the Sixers were in a position to beat the Thunder for the first time in 19 tries. Jimmy Butler appeared to have won it with a clutch steal and score, but Paul George continued his MVP caliber season with a dagger 4-point play.
Finally they played the Rockets on Martin Luther King Day, but they were without Butler Embiid.
3. Tough Schedule Only Gets Tougher
The schedule won’t be slowing down any time soon. Their next nine games are all against teams currently over .500 (San Antonio, Denver twice, the Lakers twice, Golden State now with DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento, Toronto, and Boston). Those are a lot of Western Conference teams, so losses to most of them won’t exactly sink them in the standings, but all of those teams present legitimate challenges and will speak to how the Sixers measure up against the league’s best.
4. Corey Brewer Proving His Worth Quickly
The Sixers signed swingman Corey Brewer to a 10 day contract last Tuesday. He saw his first major action Monday versus the Rockets, where he got the start, and boy did he make a first impression. He was routinely tasked with guarding his former teammate James Harden. It’s a tall task to defend the reigning MVP, and Harden managed to score 37. But considering he had scored 57, 58, and 48 in the previous three games, it was a disappointing night for Harden. Brewer routinely played Harden closely and baited him into both an offensive and technical foul.
Brewer has probably earned a contract for the rest of the season. It will be important to keep up this level of defensive pressure as the Sixers badly need it. One thing to consider; is this a one off performance because Brewer is familiar with Harden as a former teammate? If so, he doesn’t entirely fix their perimeter defense. I wouldn’t rule out the team still adding another piece. The team still seems optimistic that Zhaire Smith could play this year, but it would be expecting a lot of the rookie to be a key defensive cog in the playoffs. Markelle Fultz remains in limbo. If the Sixers add another depth piece, I would wager on it being someone who can defend multiple positions in the playoffs.
5. RoCo and The Homie Get a Warm Welcome
On Jan. 15th, Robert Covington and Dario Saric finally returned to Philadelphia for the first time since the trade that sent them to Minnesota in exchange for Jimmy Butler. Covington did not play, but he and Dario received a standing ovation on the sideline.
Either player could have harbored resentment for being traded, especially Covington who signed a long term deal just one year before the trade. But neither displayed any sort of hard feelings about the situation. In fact, both players were quick to praise their former home. “If you can make it [in Philadelphia], you can make it anywhere,” Covington said. “This is my true first home, I’ll always love here, and I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
Saric, a fan favorite who endeared himself by being a newcomer to an American city, focused on his relationships with his former team. “I’ve got friends, friends in the locker room there and the staff too. That’s one thing, you know? Playoff run is another thing, it was just an amazing atmosphere,” Saric said of the Sixers. “Everything else, this was my first American home, so of course you have some things you remember.”
Both Saric and Covington will have their place in franchise history. They made the dark days of The Process a little bit brighter. It’s nice to see the fans and team give them their props. The organization can also be somewhat relieved by how highly their former players speak of the team that traded them away.
Saric’s best friend on the Sixers, TJ McConnell, gave us an amusing moment during the actual game. After crossing up his former teammate, McConnell gave him some love.