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Can Philadelphia win playing big in a small-ball era?

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This story is part of our NBCSports.com’s 2019-20 NBA season preview coverage. Every day between now and when the season opens Oct. 22 we will have at least one story focused on the upcoming season and the biggest questions heading into it. In addition, there will be podcasts, video and more. Come back every day and get ready for a wide-open NBA season.

Ben Simmons, 6’10”.
Josh Richardson, 6’5”.
Tobias Harris, 6’8”.
Al Horford, 6’9”.
Joel Embiid, 7’0”

That’s the height of the Philadelphia 76ers starting lineup — without shoes. Add another couple of inches for each of them when they step on the court.

That lineup isn’t just big, it’s massive. It’s long. It’s a lineup that runs counter to the NBA’s trend of going smaller — the Warriors best lineups have 6’7” Draymond Green at center. Plenty of teams have tried to mimic that (with varying degrees of success), rolling with players who should be undersized stretch fours at center to help create spacing. It’s led to improved offenses, but often at the sake of defense (except in Golden State, thanks to Green).

Philadelphia is bucking that trend — they are going big.

But can they win big doing it?

Can size bring the Sixers its first title since Moses Malone and Dr. J were on the court together?

Sixers GM Elton Brand — a power forward and center himself who played for the 76ers — is betting they can because the Sixers bring skill and defense with all that size.

It’s the defense that will carry this team — they should be a top-three defense. Josh Richardson is versatile and can harass opposing point guards or wings, Simmons length causes issues, and with Horford and Embiid on the backline it’s going to be hard to get to the rim. Horford is also someone who has shown he can defend some in space, and in the playoffs and give other bigs real trouble. The Sixers are going to be a lock-down defensive team.

The questions with the 76ers big lineups are on the other end of the court.

Calling the curry NBA trend “small ball” is a bit of a misnomer; some “small” lineups roll-out guys 6’10” or taller (think Kevin Durant). It’s about having more skill players on the court, more shooting, replacing the old-school bulk and muscle. Philly brings size but it also brings plenty of skill.

That starts with Simmons, the point-forward who will have the ball in his hands to start most possessions. At 6’10” he has the handles of a guard and is one of the best passers in the NBA, in part because he can see over defenses (ala Magic Johnson). Simmons was an All-Star who averaged 16.9 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 7.7 assists a game last season with an efficient 58.2 true shooting percentage.

This season that will not be enough, not if Philly dreams of playing in June.

Jimmy Butler was the guy with the ball in his hands at the ends of games last season, and by the time playoff games were on the line Simmons would find himself in the dunker’s spot along the baseline. Butler has taken his talents to South Beach, now the critical moments of perimeter shot creation fall on Simmons. He has to be able to create offense at the end of games, which means he must be more of a threat to take and hit a jumper so defenders don’t just back off and clog the paint (and passing lanes). Going into this season Butler is 0-of-18 from three in the regular season and playoffs, which is not only an ugly percentage but shows a guy not confident in taking the shot. That has to change, particularly the willingness part. The Sixers are saying all the right things about Simmons shooting in training camp, but opponents will make him prove those words when it matters.

Joel Embiid brings some skill along with everything else he does, which is why the Sixer offense was nearly 7 points per 100 possessions better with him on the court last season and fell apart in the playoffs when he sat. Embiid has to get the ball in the post — he had the third most post touches in the league last season and the Sixers scored 1.05 points per possession on those plays, the highest mark of any center getting regular post-ups. Embiid’s ability to pass out of the double-team in the post is improving.

Embiid can also step out, he took 4.1 threes a game last season and hit 30 percent, a respectable number for a big man but opponents would rather he shoot threes than own them on the block. Embiid has the handles to face guys up and some shooting touch from the midrange, but all of that mostly just sets up his nearly unstoppable power game.

Embiid remains the heart of Philly’s offense, and that takes skill.

Tobias Harris is an All-Star level wing (he just hasn’t gotten the votes, yet) who can be efficient creating for himself (1.22 points per possession with the Clippers last season, via Cleaning the Glass) who also is a good passer. In Los Angeles, Harris was both the ball handler on pick-and-rolls and could create in isolation, but with Butler and Simmons last season in Philly Harris often found himself in the role of a catch-and-shoot wing. Not this year, Harris will get the ball and opportunities. His sweet pull-up jumper is going to get Philly a lot of buckets.

Horford is versatile, skilled, and pretty good at everything. Richardson shot 35.7 percent from three last season (and will be used in a way that better suits his skill set this season, Miami asked a lot more of him). The bench of Mike Scott, Zhaire Smith, James Ennis, rookie Matisse Thybulle, and Kyle O’Quinn has potential — and size. And athleticism.

There’s an old basketball adage that says “tall and good beats small and good.” Philadelphia is the test to see if that rule still applies in an NBA where guards can bomb away from 28 feet and be in their comfort zone, where stretch fives are a thing.

Philadelphia is betting that size matters. And they may well be right.

J.R. Smith caught on video beating up man who allegedly vandalized his truck

J.R. Smith
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Sunday was a day of mostly peaceful protests in Los Angeles in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota last week. However, some bad actors used the protests as camouflage to loot and vandalize businesses and property near the protests.

One of those people allegedly broke the window of former NBA player J.R. Smith’s truck — and Smith ran him down and beat him up for it. Video of the beating emerged first on TMZ. (Warning, NSFW language.)

Smith quickly posted a video on his Instagram story trying to get out in front of this, saying the guy broke his truck window in a residential street — and Smith was having none of it.

“I just want you all to know right now, before you all see this s*** somewhere else. One of these little motherf****** white boys didn’t know where he was going and broke my f****** window in my truck. Broke my s***. This was a residential area. No stores over here. None of that s***. Broke my window, I chased him down and whooped his ass.

“So when the footage comes out and you all see it, I chased him down and whooped his ass. He broke my window. This ain’t no hate crime. I ain’t got no problem with nobody and nobody got no problem with me. There’s a problem with the motherf****** system, that’s it. The motherf***** broke my window and I whooped his ass. He didn’t know who window he broke and he got his ass whooped.”

It’s unknown at this time if any other legal action will come out of this, the police and prosecutors have a lot on their plates right now.

Smith was out of the NBA this season, despite getting a couple of workouts with teams.

George Floyd’s death brings back painful memories for Rockets’ Thabo Sefolosha

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — Thabo Sefolosha knows what it’s like to be a black man, on the ground, being beaten by police officers.

Such was the scenario when George Floyd died in Minneapolis last week.

And five years ago, Sefolosha found himself in a similarly frightening place.

“I was just horrified by what I saw,” Sefolosha said. “That could have been me.”

Time has not healed all wounds for Sefolosha, the NBA veteran who said he was attacked by a group of New York Police Department officers in April 2015 while they were arresting him outside a nightclub in the city’s Chelsea neighborhood. The leg that was broken in the fracas is fine now. The emotional pain roared back last week when he saw video of Floyd, a handcuffed black man who pleaded for air in the final moments of his life as a white police officer — subsequently charged with murder — pressed a knee on his neck.

Sefolosha has seen the video. He hasn’t watched much news since. His experience with police in New York has left him with a deep distrust of law enforcement, the pangs of angst flooding back even when he walks into NBA arenas and sees uniformed officers. And the latest example of police brutality left him even more upset.

“People talk about a few rotten apples,” Sefolosha said in an interview with The Associated Press. “But you know, in my experience and from what we’re seeing, I think it’s deeper than that as a culture that’s deeply rooted in it, to be honest. That’s just my honest opinion. I think it’s really … part of a culture where it’s deeper than just a few bad apples.”

The four officers who were involved in the incident where Floyd died were fired; the one who knelt on Floyd’s neck, Derek Chauvin, has been charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Massive protests have broken out in several cities in recent days, the country torn again over a black man dying at the hands of police.

Sefolosha — a black man of Swiss descent who plays for the Houston Rockets — considered but decided against joining protests in Atlanta, where he is waiting for the resumption of the NBA season that was shut down in March because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’m mad, for sure,” Sefolosha said. “That’s for sure. I mean, it’s 2020. Nobody should have to go through this in this time, especially after black people have given up so much for America. Black people have given up so much and done so much for this country. It’s hurtful to see it this way.”

Sefolosha’s perspective changed forever on April 8, 2015. Chris Copeland, an NBA player at the time, was among three people stabbed outside the club where Sefolosha was that night; police arrived and ordered everyone to leave the area. Sefolosha says he complied but began getting harassed by officers anyway.

Before long, he was on the ground.

Sefolosha’s leg was broken and some ligaments were torn in the fracas, and he was arrested on several charges that a jury needed about 45 minutes to determine were unfounded. He wound up suing for $50 million, alleging his civil rights were violated, settled for $4 million and gave much of that money to a public defenders’ organization working in marginalized communities.

“It changed me a lot, toward the way I see law enforcement in this country,” Sefolosha said. “And also toward the way I see the whole justice system. I went to court and I had to do all of this to prove my innocence. It really got me deep into the system and I’m really skeptical of the whole system.”

NBA players have used their platforms often in recent years to protest racial inequality. Sterling Brown of the Milwaukee Bucks filed a federal civil rights lawsuit after police used a stun gun on him and arrested him over a parking incident in 2018. On Saturday, Malcolm Brogdon of the Indiana Pacers and Jaylen Brown of the Boston Celtics were among those taking part in Atlanta protests.

“You see what happened in Minnesota where three human beings with a badge are watching another human being killing somebody,” said Sefolosha, who has played in the NBA since 2006 and intends to return to Switzerland when he retires. “And instead of saying, ‘OK, this is my duty as a human being,’ the duty was more toward not interfering with the other officer and saying, ‘We are clan, we stick together no matter what.’ It should be the other way around.”

The NBA is closing in on finalizing a plan to resume the season in July at the Disney complex near Orlando, Florida. Sefolosha and the Rockets figure to be contenders for a championship when play resumes.

For obvious reasons, Sefolosha’s mind isn’t there yet.

“I’ll be happy to be with my teammates and reunited with basketball in general,” Sefolosha said. “But you know, we’re human beings, and the fight has been going on for too long and the same protests have been going on for too long. I think it’s definitely time for change and that should be a priority for all of us.”

Michael Jordan releases statement: “I am deeply saddened, truly pained, and plain angry”

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Michael Jordan has been famously apolitical through his playing career and after, rarely commenting on social issues. While the “Republicans buy shoes, too” comment has always stuck to him, as Roland Lazenby points out in his biography “Michael Jordan: The Life,” Jordan’s “keep your head down and don’t draw attention” political outlook was passed down as a family demeanor used to survive in rural North Carolina.

However, in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis Police officer, and the eruptions of protests nationwide, Jordan felt compelled to speak and released this statement.

Jordan’s voice is a powerful one and carries a lot of weight, as do his actions.

How he uses that voice, and the actions he takes going forward, will be watched and can hold a lot of sway.

 

On this date in NBA history: J.R. Smith forgot the score

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There comes a point in almost every NBA playoff series when one team knows it’s beat. That team threw its best punch and the other team took it and won anyway. While no NBA team would never go into the postgame press conference and say “we’re beat,” it shows up in their tone and body language.

In the 2018 NBA Finals, that moment came after Game 1.

Two years ago today, May 31, the Cavaliers went to Golden State and were on the verge of stealing Game 1 on the road. LeBron James had targeted Stephen Curry on switches to keep the Cavaliers ahead, LeBron thought he drew a charge on Kevin Durant but it was overturned on review and called a block, and a back-and-forth end of the game saw the Warriors go up one when Curry drew and and-1 foul on Kevin Love with 23.5 seconds left.

Of course, the Cavs put the ball in LeBron’s hands out top, the Cavaliers got the switch and had Curry trying to guard LeBron, when LeBron threw a bullet pass to a cutting George Hill. Klay Thompson hooked Hill, and Hill went to the ground. The foul was called and Hill went to the free-throw line.  He hit the first and tied the game 107-107.

Then came the moment.

“He thought we were up one,” Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said after the game, although Smith was selling at the time he was trying to bring the ball out to get a better shot. The Warriors players thought he was trying to get the ball to LeBron, maybe.

Game 1 went to overtime, where the Warriors dominated (17-7) and got the win. After the game, you could feel it around the Cavaliers — this was their chance and they missed it. The series ended in a Golden State sweep.

It’s a legendary moment of the NBA Finals, even if it’s one Smith and Cavaliers fans would like to forget.