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Joel Embiid downplays sideline argument with Shake Milton

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The good vibes around the 76ers new starting lineup lasted 12 minutes.

At the end of a sloppy first quarter, Philadelphia found itself down six, with eight turnovers, and they had watched T.J.Warren go off for 19 against them (he was just getting started). Joel Embiid was frustrated, and he said something to Shake Milton while shaking his finger at him like a disapproving parent, Milton took offense and started to go hard toward Embiid, but teammates came in and kept them separated.

After the game, Embiid tried to play the incident down, via Noah Levick of NBC Sports Philadephia.

“It’s basketball,” he said. “Everybody makes mistakes. It happens. We’ve gotta communicate better. As players, it happens everywhere. … You discuss what’s going on and you move on, you find a solution. But it’s nothing. It happens. It happens on every team and you just figure it out and you move on, and I’m sure everybody’s going to be better moving forward.”

Milton had a rough first night as a starter, with zero points on 0-for-1 shooting and three assists in fewer than 20 minutes on the court. Defensively the Pacers targeted him at times. In the fourth quarter, coach Brett Brown was going with Raul Neto at the point.

The Sixers’ new starting five can’t be written off after one game, but in this condensed restart to the NBA season there also isn’t a lot of time to ride out things that are not working and see if it will come around. Already this loss put the Pacers in control of the five seed in the East.

Embiid was a beast with 41 points and 21 rebounds on the night. Ben Simmons, starting at the four, had 19 points on 8-of-14 shooting but took just one shot outside the paint, a missed midrange jumper. The 76ers were considered a sleeper coming into the NBA’s restart in Orlando, but in the first game they looked like a team with the same old problems that held them back all season. Now with just more arguing.

Watch T.J. Warren drop career-high 53, lifts Pacers past 76ers

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — T.J. Warren scored a career-high 53 points, Victor Oladipo added 15 after reversing course on opting out of the NBA restart and the Indiana Pacers beat the Philadelphia 76ers 127-121 on Saturday night.

A sixth-year player acquired from Phoenix in an offseason trade, Warren was 20 of 29 from the field and 9 of 12 from 3-point range in his first game with at least 50 points.

The Pacers (40-26) took control of the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference by breaking a tie with the 76ers and winning the season series. Both teams have clinched playoff spots.

Joel Embiid had 41 points and 21 rebounds for the Sixers, who couldn’t hang on after turning a 10-point deficit late in the first half into a 10-point lead early in the fourth quarter. Before the pandemic-forced shutdown, Philadelphia had lost 10 of its past 11 games away from home.

Tobias Harris scored 30 points for Philadelphia, and Ben Simmons had 19 points and 13 rebounds.

Embiid and Shake Milton had to be separated during an argument near the bench after the first quarter.

The Pacers got the restart-opening win without two starters. Domantas Sabonis left the bubble with a left foot injury a week ago and is out indefinitely. Malcolm Brogdon, who had recovered from a COVID-19 infection that was announced on June 24, missed the game with a neck injury sustained in final scrimmage game before the restart.

Myles Turner, who scored nine points before fouling out, made his only 3-point attempt to put Indiana up for good at 110-107 with 4:34 remaining. Harris hit a 3 in the final minute before a long clinching 3 from Warren.

Oladipo joined his teammates in Florida after initially staying home and said he was practicing with the intent to play. But there wasn’t any official word until coach Nate McMillan said before the game the seventh-year guard was starting.

Five dark horse teams to watch during NBA Orlando restart

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We all know the contenders: The Bucks, Lakers, and Clippers. In the East, Boston or Toronto will be there should Milwaukee stumble.

But who are the NBA dark horse teams? What teams could come out of the pack to make a surprising deep playoff run?

Here are the five dark horse teams to watch at the NBA restart in Orlando.

1) Houston Rockets

Small ball — microball, really, with their best center being 6’5” P.J. Tucker — could be big in Orlando.

While Houston’s unorthodox style gets all the press — they do put out athletic lineups that can score a lot of ways — the real key is James Harden and teammates are rested. In his last five games before the league was shut down Harden looked worn down, shooting just 37.4% overall and 25% from three. His legs were not under him. Same with Tucker, who was asked to play more minutes and a larger role in this small-ball system and shot 30% overall and 25% from three in his last five games before the break.

Now Tucker and Harden are rested (Harden had 24 points and 10 assists in the Rockets first scrimmage), paired with the athletic Russell Westbrook (whose shot selection improved over the course of the season). Plus, Eric Gordon is finally healthy and the addition of Robert Covington should be a perfect fit. The Rockets are going to launch threes, attack the rim, put up points, and unapologetically be who they are under Mike D’Antoni. It all could come together and surprise some teams — the Rockets and their small-ball ways are poised to make a deep playoff run.

2) Philadelphia 76ers

The Sixers have been a sleeping giant all season long. The problem was their big off-season acquisition, Al Horford, was just not fitting in. When Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Horford shared the court this season, Philadelphia’s offense scored less than a point per possession (0.98) and had all the spacing of a New York subway at rush hour.

At the Orlando restart, Horford will come off the bench and Ben Simmons will start at the four, working more off the ball. That means Shake Milton will get the start at the point, adding a second ball handler and a catch-and-shoot threat. The starting five will be Embiid, Simmons, Milton, Tobias Harris, and Josh Richardson. Will it work? Who knows, that lineup has played zero minutes together this season. But it works on paper, especially now that Simmons is now fully healthy — he even hit a corner three in a scrimmage this week.

If this comes together quickly, Philadelphia is a serious threat to Milwaukee to come out of the East. It could work. If not, coach Brett Brown likely pays the price.

3) Oklahoma City Thunder

The Thunder were already better than you realized: From Dec. 1 until the shut down they were 33-13 with a +3.9 net rating, and OKC had a top 10 offense and defense. Chris Paul, in the midst of a bounce-back season, has been arguably the most clutch player in the NBA all season — he has shot 57.7% in the clutch (last five minutes of a game within five minutes) and orchestrated a dangerous offense.

Oklahoma City has been at its best this season with a three-guard offense of CP3, Dennis Schroder, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (+28.6 net rating in those minutes, giving up less than a point per possession defensively).

Roll that threesome out for some key minutes, get the usual solid minutes from Steven Adams, and the Thunder could surprise teams in the West. OKC simply is better than many fans realize and are a real dark horse in the NBA Orlando restart.

4) Dallas Mavericks

Luka Doncic. Do we need to say more?

Dallas has the ultimate pick-and-pop partner for Doncic in Kristaps Porzingis (he can roll and finish a lob, too), plus a lot of shooting depth across this roster. Seth Curry looked fantastic in his first game back. They have guys like Tim Hardaway Jr. and Dorian Finney-Smith who knocked it down this season.

Most importantly, Dallas has depth — which can translate into versatility — and a coach in Rick Carlise who knows how to use it. Look for Dallas to move up the West ladder in the seeding games and be a real threat once the playoffs start.

5) Miami Heat

Jimmy Butler showed up and was a perfect fit with the Heat culture this season — now he’s healthy, rested, and ready to go. Remember how far he led Philadelphia last season in the playoffs (but for a couple of crazy Kawhi Leonard bounces the 76ers could have been in the Finals).

The Heat have Bam Adebayo at center, who made the leap to All-Star level player this year. They have scoring off the bench in Goran Dragic. They added veterans who should fit in perfectly in Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder. They have talented rookies in Kendrick Nunn, Tyler Herro, and Duncan Robinson. There is just a lot to like about this roster, and how a smart coach like Eric Spoelstra can make it all fit together.

Miami could burn a few teams in the East this postseason.

Ben Simmons’ move to power forward has league saying, ‘but if it works…’

Ben Simmons power forward
Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images
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Every minute Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Al Horford shared the court this season, Philadelphia’s offense looked stuck in the mud, scoring less than a point per possession (0.98) and with all the spacing of a New York subway at rush hour.

For a few games in February, coach Brett Brown came upon a “this might save my job” solution — moving Horford to the bench to get more shooting on the floor. That lasted just three games before reality hit hard, first Simmons’ back pain had him out (meaning Horford was back in as a starter), then came the coronavirus and the interruption of the season.

In Orlando for the restart and with a fully healthy Simmons (something the 76ers would not have had if the playoffs started as scheduled in April) Brown is leaning into his February idea:

Ben Simmons has been practicing at the four, Shake Milton moved in as the starting point guard, and Al Horford has slid to the bench.

On paper, this looks like the kind of move that could unleash the sleeping giant that is the 76ers.

However, the reality is this new starting five — Milton, Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris, Simmons, and Embiid — has not played one minute together this season, and after just eight seeding games they are going to be asked to play important minutes together against quality teams.

It’s a move that has the league saying, “but if it works…”

Brown’s high risk/high reward play makes the Sixers the most interesting team to watch in Orlando.

If this comes together quickly, Philadelphia is a threat to Milwaukee to come out of the East. Or, the Sixers could continue to be an all defense, no offense team that finds itself leaving Florida after the first round of the playoffs.

Both outcomes feel legitimately possible. Throw in questions about how Philadelphia will deal with what is essentially the longest road trip of their lives — Philly was a dreadful 10-24 away from the Wells Fargo Center, but 29-2 in it — and there are even more unknowns.

Brown, an eternal optimist, likes what he sees in an Embiid and Simmons front line. Here is Brown after watching the new look for a few practices (via NBC Sports Philadelphia).

“Just a chemistry, a relationship in finding each other. Just with Ben playing sort of an interior position, more than being the primary ball carrier … you could see sort of like that big-big relationship, high-low duck-ins, Joel would be posted, Ben would play peekaboo at a low zone on the other side of the floor, come down and trail, we throw it to Jo and a rim run guy would duck in. And I felt the partnership, the relationship. The big-big mentality of finding each other was crazily obvious.”

Simmons added:

“I feel like I have a very high IQ on the court and see things a lot differently and can pass the ball very well, so that’s a threat. But I love playing in that pick-and-roll situation, or pick and pop, whatever it is. it just gives us so many different options and is tough to guard.”

Moving Simmons off the ball opens up pick-and-roll options for the Sixers — Milton (or Harris) can have the ball as a playmaker and Simmons can set a screen then dive hard to the rim, or work on the short roll and distribute, taking advantage of his 6’10” frame and quickness. Simmons mentions pick-and-pop, other teams pray he tries it. (While there is a video floating around NBA Twitter of Simmons hitting threes in an empty gym with no defenders around him, don’t think for a second that means he will start taking them in games, let alone making them.)

With this lineup Embiid can become more of a post-up man where he is a beast scoring a league-best 1.12 points per possession (with at least 100 post-ups, via NBA.com stats). This is where Milton becomes a threat, he shot 44.2% on catch-and-shoot threes this season. Combine that with Harris and Richardson — both respectable from beyond the arc — and the Sixers have a starting five that looks to be a real threat. On paper.

Expect Simmons to get minutes as the primary ball-handler and shot-creator with the second unit, which also will have Horford, Matisse Thybulle (producer of the best content coming from the bubble), Furkan Korkmaz, and some combination of Harris and Richardson. Brown envisions that group playing fast.

“You’ve get Ben with the ball and you play downhill and you space everyone else out. There’s a lot of great things that happen from that, as simple as that sounds.”

Philadelphia’s championship aspirations are built on its defense — and that has been and should remain elite. The 76ers were sixth in the league overall on defense for the season, and while that slipped after the All-Star break it should be back in Orlando. The 76ers are long and disruptive, plus they have one of the game’s best rim protectors in Embiid. As his minutes go up in the playoffs, the defense should improve with it.

That defense will keep Philadelphia in games. A healthy and motivated Embiid makes them a threat. This is a team that came within a handful of bounces on the rim on a wild Kawhi Leonard shot from being in the NBA Finals a season ago. The defense can get them back to that spot.

Do they have enough offense to win those games? That is another question.

Their only hope to take a step forward was playing Simmons off the ball and limiting the painful Embiid/Horford combined minutes. With the season on the line Brett Brown if finally playing to the Sixers biggest strengths.

Whether that is enough will be answered in the heat of a Florida gym next month.

Matisse Thybulle’s Vlog is the best content coming out of the NBA bubble

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Philadelphia’s Matisse Thybulle is the star of the NBA restart.

At least on YouTube.

Philadelphia’s defensive-focused rookie has given the world a glimpse of life inside the bubble with a Vlog that is simply the best content coming out of Orlando — with all due respect to Ben Simmons and his inability to throw a fish two feet.

Thybulle developed a following during the NBA’s forced hiatus by taking to TikToc to build toy cars out of Legos and take his vacuum cleaner for a walk.

That proved just to be the opening act. Once inside the NBA’s restart campus on the Walt Disney World property he started a Vlog — a video diary, for the uninitiated, each one a polished 10 minutes or so edited together — of life in the bubble. He showed off his hotel room and the snacks that were in it waiting for him, he’s shown a little of practice on the court, but it’s more the personal parts — the inability to launch a drone he got for Christmas, for example — that have sucked people in.

Matisse Thybulle told reporters he had to build up the confidence to do this (hat tip Sixers Wire).

“Whether it was when I was in college or while I was going through the draft process, but I never really had the confidence to do it or it just never felt right…

“For me, coming into this situation knowing how many eyes were going to be on it and finally feeling enough pressure to go through and get over my discomforts whether it’s being in front of the camera or just putting myself out there like that I felt like this was a good opportunity to just see what happens.”

What happened is he gained a lot of new fans.

There will be a lot of eyes on Thybulle and Philadephia on the court — they are one of the most unpredictable and interesting teams in Orlando. Philly will start Ben Simmons at the four, Shake Milton at the point, and bring Al Horford off the bench in an effort to find better offensive spacing and some points to go with an elite defense. It’s a roll of the dice, this starting five has never played together before, but if it works the 76ers become a serious threat in the East.

Thybulle and his defense off the bench will be a part of making it all work.

Which might get more people to watch his Vlog entries – and they should. It’s the best content coming out of the NBA’s bubble.