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The Philadelphia 76ers mobbed Furkan Korkmaz after his winning buzzer-beater in Portland on Nov. 2, but what they have cherished more than the win is the night that unfolded afterward. Tobias Harris organized a gathering at a local club to celebrate. Every player on the trip came but Al Horford, who says he was more or less a DNP-OLD.
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They toasted Korkmaz. At one point, Josh Richardson approached Korkmaz and asked what he was feeling. “This is the best day of my life,” Korkmaz replied with an earnestness that surprised Richardson. Mike Scott raised his voice an octave to imitate Korkmaz’s giddiness in a separate conversation at the club: “‘I never felt like this beforeeeeeeee!’”
Three nights later at the Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City, Ben Simmons texted his half-brother, Sean Tribe, to see what he was up to. Tribe responded that Richardson and Joel Embiid were watching the Chicago Bulls-Los Angeles Lakers game with some team staff in the hotel lounge, and suggested Simmons join. Simmons came and watched with Embiid as LeBron led a huge comeback. It struck several people — including Simmons — that such a gathering would not have happened last season.
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“Definitely,” Simmons told ESPN. “The chemistry is much better. Guys are giving up their time to bond.”
After Game 7 of their epic series against the Toronto Raptors, the parent of one Sixer confided to higher-ups that the team’s chemistry felt off, sources say — that they seemed like a group that would rather ride home in separate cars.
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Kawhi Leonard’s epic four-bounce shot plunged those Sixers into the unknown. Three starters — Harris, JJ Redick, and Jimmy Butler — entered free agency. Philly had given up two popular Process holdovers — Robert Covington and Dario Saric — for Butler in the first of two mega-trades that roiled the roster. In the playoffs, he became the centerpiece of their offense.
But on June 30, there was no five-year maximum offer for Butler, multiple sources say. Perhaps the Sixers pivoted after learning of Horford’s interest in joining. Perhaps they were concerned about tension between Butler and some within the team, including on the coaching staff. Maybe those two things were interrelated. Like every team chasing Butler, they probably wondered how he would age.
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They effectively replaced him with Horford and Richardson on long-term deals. Every key player is under contract for at least the next two seasons. Finally, calm.
After years of absurdist drama — the Process, the resignation letter, Markelle Fultz, the Bryan Colangelo Twitter scandal, last season’s roster upheaval — the Sixers are counting on a new tranquility to grease the team’s development.
Harris and Horford are ringleaders in organizing dinners. Attendance has been robust — “sometimes 14 or 15 guys,” Harris says. He and Horford are Michelin star aesthetes. At the upscale Italian restaurant Barolo Grill in Denver, some younger teammates joked they could not read the menu, Harris says. Embiid is a steak guy. Harris has resolved (for now) to just pick the best steakhouse in each city.
“That stuff is important,” Horford says. “The longer you advance, the more you need everyone connected.” Maybe some bond formed deep in the night will spur the hard conversation that nudges Simmons into shooting jumpers, or Embiid into focusing even more on his conditioning.
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Then again, despite whatever strains hovered last season, the Sixers might have been one bounce from the conference finals — perhaps from a championship.
Good vibes are fragile. If Philly’s offense — 16th in points per possession — flounders, caught between tentpole stars who don’t yet complement each other, the inevitable frustration could create fissures. The relationships that really matter are those between Simmons, Embiid and coach Brett Brown.
“You really find out about culture,” Harris says, “when you drop five games in a row.”
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The Sixers have lost five of their last nine, but the starting lineup has been dominant when intact. Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
On the Sixers’ practice court, Brown sometimes outlines two rectangular areas along the baseline on either side of the paint, extending a few feet toward each corner and up to the foul line. Brown calls it the “low zone,” aka the dunker spot, and it is where Simmons should often be when he’s not handling the ball or spotting up. It is an imperfect solution to the Sixers’ defining structural issue: Their point guard can’t, or won’t, shoot. (His free throw attempts have also dropped by almost half, slightly alarming.) Hanging in the low zone is a way of keeping Simmons productive — as a lob threat, cutter, offensive rebounder — when he is otherwise in the way.
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Brown and Simmons both harbor ambitions for Simmons well beyond the low zone. Brown says he has designed plays specifically for Simmons to shoot corner 3s; Simmons had taken none until draining his first career triple against the Knicks Wednesday night. “I want him in the corners,” Brown says. “I want him shooting 3s — on his time frame.”
But if Simmons arrives in the low zone, he needs to stay there, Brown says. “Two inches outside that, and it’s the dead zone,” Brown says. “You’re killing plays. You’re in Joel’s way. You will either be in the corner, or the low zone. Anything else is unacceptable.”
PHILADELPHIA — The 76ers entered Saturday night’s game against the Miami Heat hoping to prove a point.
Their old friend Jimmy Butler was back in the City of Brotherly Love for the first time since leaving the Sixers and joining the Heat in a sign-and-trade deal this offseason. Philadelphia had followed a 5-0 start to the season by going 5-5 over its previous 10 games, leading to renewed questions about the way its roster fit together.
But then Saturday night’s game began. And by the time it was over, the Sixers had secured a 113-86 victory over the Heat, one that sent a loud and clear message to the rest of the NBA: They’re going to be just fine.
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“We all stepped up,” Philadelphia point guard Ben Simmons said. “We’ve had too many games where we waited too late, until the fourth and third quarters, and I think with this game we showed throughout the whole game we can hold that [energy].”
The Heat were the unfortunate recipients of that effort. It isn’t often a 27-point margin of victory undersells the performance by the victor. This game, however, was one of them. The Sixers led wire to wire, and led by as many as 41 points. All five starters finished with a plus/minus of at least plus-28, and four of them scored in double figures — led by a season-high 32 points from shooting guard Josh Richardson, who was playing in his first game against his old team as well. Overall, the five-man lineup of Simmons, Richardson, Tobias Harris, Al Horford, and Joel Embiid outscored Miami 33-10 in only 11 minutes on the floor together.
And the one starter who didn’t score in double figures — Simmons — hounded Butler relentlessly to start the game, getting him out of sorts and allowing Philadelphia to immediately jump out to an early lead it didn’t look back from.
Joel Embiid and Jimmy Butler were teammates in Philadelphia last season, but Butler’s return to South Philly was spoiled in a decisive 76ers win. Eric Hartline/USA TODAY
It was a game that perfectly encapsulated the vision for this team that general manager Elton Brand had when he put it together this summer. Richardson, Harris and Horford, all of whom have struggled to shoot the ball to start the season, went a combined 25-for-35 from the field, and 9-for-13 from 3-point range. The Sixers controlled the boards, forced turnovers and hit open 3-pointers.
But what particularly stood out was the way Philadelphia smothered Miami defensively. It was reminiscent of the performance the Sixers had in the season opener against the Boston Celtics. Like Boston in that game, Philadelphia’s defense forced Miami to play far faster than it wanted to. With so much size and speed across their lineup, the Sixers shrink the court in ways no other NBA team can — and it takes some getting used to.
“They’re definitely unique,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “The way they protect the paint is really unique, and you really have to work your offense with a little more energy, a little more commitment, a little more calories burned.
“The last couple games, we’ve been getting great looks on the initial trigger,” Spoelstra continued. “Against a team like this, with that kind of size, you’re going to have to be a little more aggressive, while still being patient. It’s a balance that you have to have.”
The Heat didn’t have it Saturday night — in large part because the Sixers didn’t let them.
PHILADELPHIA — It finally happened.
After more than two seasons and in his 172nd NBA game, Philadelphia 76ers star Ben Simmons made a 3-pointer.
“It feels good to put work in in the summer and it pays off,” Simmons said after Philadelphia’s 109-104 win over the New York Knicks at Wells Fargo Center on Wednesday night.
The moment 76ers fans have been waiting for came with 8:20 to go in the first quarter, when Simmons caught a swing pass from forward Furkan Korkmaz in the corner in front of Philadelphia’s bench, squared up to the basket and knocked down the shot. He turned and calmly ran downcourt while the fans went wild.
Simmons said he didn’t notice the reaction, but he is aware of the attention that has been paid to his shooting — as is his coach, Brett Brown. But even Brown, who has tried to tamp down the speculation about when — or if — Simmons will start taking and making 3s on a regular basis, said it was an important step to knock down a triple in an NBA game.
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“Like I’ve said for a while now, other people get more excited about it than I do. But how can that not be a good thing?” Brown said. “And really, if we’re all honest, that’s the first legitimate sort of 3 he’s taken. A lot of them have been heaves at the end of periods and stuff like that. But I think his footwork, his confidence — he rose up and he didn’t blink.
“He looked great.”
Simmons finished with 18 points, 13 assists and seven rebounds, with his defense and increasing of the tempo in the second half helping the Sixers (9-5) recover from a 17-point third-quarter deficit to beat New York (4-11) and remain undefeated at home.
But for as well as Simmons played, it was his shot that was the biggest topic of postgame discussion.
It had been almost four years — since Nov. 30, 2015, when Simmons was a freshman at LSU playing against the College of Charleston — since he made a 3-pointer in a competitive game. It was the first time this season Simmons had even attempted a 3-pointer after an offseason full of speculation that it could become a bigger part of his game. Video of him taking them in pickup games surfaced this offseason and again after he made his first triple of any kind in a Sixers uniform, during a preseason game last month against the Guangzhou Long-Lions of the Chinese Basketball Association.
“It’s not that I don’t need to do it,” Simmons said during the preseason, when asked if he needs to add a 3-point shot to his game. “I’m confident in saying I’m not a great shooter. I’m getting better, though.”
Besides the act of actually making a 3, the shot stood out for several other reasons. It was the first time in Simmons’ career that he attempted a corner 3-pointer, as well as the first time he attempted one of a catch-and-shoot variety, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
It also was just the third of Simmons’ 17 3-point attempts in regular-season games (he also missed one during the playoffs) that came within the flow of regular offense. Both of the others came last season — on Feb. 10 against the visiting Los Angeles Lakers and Feb. 25 against the New Orleans Pelicans.
Ben Simmons’ first official NBA 3-pointer came in his 172nd game and followed an 0-for-17 start to his career from beyond the arc. Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
“We need him to shoot,” Sixers center Joel Embiid said. “It’s great to see him make it, take it, most importantly make it. That’s great. He’s going to keep getting better and make it happen. But it was nothing special. We see it in practice. We’ve seen it a lot, so it’s not surprising to me.”
Simmons’ shooting has become such a topic of discussion thanks to the amount he has already accomplished in his time in the NBA. The No. 1 pick in the 2016 NBA draft, Simmons was the 2018 Rookie of the Year (he missed his first full season with a broken foot) and was an All-Star last season. This summer, the Sixers agreed to a five-year, $170 million maximum contract extension with Simmons to keep him paired with Embiid for years to come.
“It’s happening,” Brown said. “He’s 23 years old. He’s gone from a college 4 man to an NBA point guard to an NBA All-Star and was rewarded with a significant contract. His progression has been pretty good. So this is a small step, but a step, toward the other pieces of his growth.”