Remember those times the Atlanta Hawks could just bring their B-game to the table, and still run said table on most nights against the Philadelphia 76ers? Well, hopefully, you enjoyed those games, because those days appear to be tabled for the foreseeable future.
Nobody’s chanting “fo-fi-fo” up in the City of Brotherly Shove just yet, but the Sixers arrive in Atlanta for tonight’s game (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, CSN Philly) having won eight of their last ten, including last night’s thrilling 93-92 comeback win at home against Portland. That’s the best string of Sixer success since the outfit led by Jrue Holiday and Andre Iguodala broke into the 2011-12 season with an early 9-1 run. By comparison, they were 7-24 before this latest stretch, 10-72 all last season.
It’s not just patsies, either, that Philadelphia (15-26) is pheasting on. This past week, the Sixers took out visiting Toronto and knocked off the Bucks in Milwaukee. Last week, they fumigated the Hornets at home, one week after putting a late scare into their old rival Celtics in Beantown.
For long-middling franchises like the Hawks, winning ten out of 12 doesn’t cause anyone around town to start planning parade routes. But for a team as historically miserable as the latter-day 76ers, these days, it’s as if the Mummers never left South Broad.
2016 #1-overall pick and soon-to-be-rookie Ben Simmons placed an exotic pet cat atop his head for an Instagram earlier in the week, and just that simple act has spawned a flurry of #RaiseTheCat tweets among Philly’s Pheline Phaithphul. Need we mention that Simmons has yet to play a regular-season game? All that town needed to go paws-itively cat-crazy is the most magnetic personality since Allen Iverson to finally make an impact on the floor.
Back in October, Joel Embiid was in just his second game as a pro, when the Hawks obligatorily pasted the Sixers, 104-72. Yet he was thrilled with what he perceived as a dominant performance (14 points, 2 blocks, 2 rebounds in 15 minutes) versus former All-Stars Dwight Howard (2 points, 3 blocks, 7 rebounds in 19 minutes) and Paul Millsap. “Everybody has flaws,” Joel not-so-humble-bragged to the Philadelphia Inquirer, “I thought I took advantage of that by attacking (the Hawks’ bigs) and creating fouls. I got the shots that I wanted.”
Such paltry contributions don’t excite Embiid anymore. He’s become a per-minute-MVP candidate, for turning around Philly’s fortunes while remaining on a team-mandated 28-minute restriction. 22.9 PPG, 2.5 BPG, 8.5 RPG, 1.1 SPG, and nearly one made three-point shot per game would be a dream for most starting NBA bigs, to say nothing of these averages Embiid produced in his past 15 appearances (in just 26.8 minutes/game).
There are also 3.8 turnovers per game in those abbreviated stints, but hey, this is Philly, and at least he’s trying. Beyond just the highlights and the numbers, Embiid has emerged as the NBA’s premier social media magnet, building legions of fans awaiting his next tweet or Instagram post. Whether it’s flowering praise upon longtime crush Rihanna, bottling Shirley Temple drinks for a city that needs, if nothing else, sugary beverages, or revealing he and Johnny Football were summertime pals, Joey Basketball is taking the NBA world by storm, off the court as much as on.
Sixers coach Brett Brown is certainly happy to still be along for the ride. His former boss, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, rarely reveals many “joys in life,” but one of them apparently is “to watch (the 76ers) win basketball games, because if there’s any team that deserves it, it’s those guys,” he told ESPN.com.
“They’ve had it really tough for all the obvious reasons,” Coach Pop explained, “and there’s nobody in this business that is more positive, and more day-to-day upbeat than Brett Brown.” The signs that Brown had something simmering even without Simmons has been evident for a couple months.
When the Hawks raised their record to 9-2 on November 16, they were the Eastern Conference’s most defensively-efficient team (95.1 D-Rating, 2nd in NBA), and despite combusting every now and then, they remain so (102.5 D-Rating, 5th in NBA). But in the games since that November 16 date, it’s the Sixers – yes, the Sixers – who have boasted the most efficient defense in the East (103.4 D-Rating, 5th in NBA since 11/17).
Coincidentally, Embiid began stringing consecutive games together, even more so by mid-December with just 2 DNPs in Philly’s last 17 games (4th in team D-Rating since 12/14). Sixer opponents have shot just 46.9 eFG% in January; only Atlanta’s next opponent, the L.A. Clippers (46.3 eFG%) has been better.
It’s just been a matter of the 76ers’ offense finding a way to catch up, and T.J. McConnell has helped in that regard. He has averaged 7.1 APG (2.1 TOs per game) in his last 20 games (8.1 APG in January; 2nd in NBA for Assist Ratio this month), and Philadelphia is 8-2 with McConnell as a starter. Helping cut down on the mistakes keeps Philly (still NBA-worst 17.2 January TO%) in contention by eliminating the runouts at the other end of the floor.
McConnell can dish out lobs to Embiid, but he is also feeding the Sixers’ second-leading scorer well. Ersan Ilyasova arrived along with another future protected first-round pick from OKC in exchange for Jerami Grant back in November, and Philly Phans will start calling him “E.I.” if he keeps sinking jumpers.
The ninth-year forward is averaging a career-best 15.3 PPG as a Sixer, including 2.2 threes per game. He has ebbed this month (35.3 January 3FG%), but he has been balancing that offense by crashing the glass and scoring more efficiently around the rim (career-high 65.7 FG% within 3 feet).
Compensating for Ilyasova, Robert Covington’s jumper is beginning to reappear (41.7 3FG% last six games; game-winning contested 3FG last night vs. POR), while rookie forward Dario Saric has been putting some big plays together.
The Sixers built up their confidence by coming back to win last night while Embiid was on-and-off and finally off the floor after hyperextending his knee. He was left behind in Philly for scheduled rest, but the spirited 76ers should still be a tough out in tonight’s contest without their current franchise rookie star.
Right before finding their defensive groove, the Sixers visited Philips Arena on November 12, Embiid again a scheduled DNP. Even without him, Philadelphia sprinted to a 27-23 first-quarter lead, led by Saric’s seven points. Then Atlanta turned on the jets along the way to a 117-96 win. The trio of Tim Hardaway, Jr., Kyle Korver, and Dennis Schröder sank half of their 20 three-point shots, while Dwight Howard and Kris Humphries (combined 23 points and 20 boards) pummeled Jahlil Okafor and the Sixers’ frontline around the glass.
A ton of Philly’s turnovers involve either Embiid (5th in NBA for TOs per game; 3rd in TOs per 36 minutes) experimenting, or teammates desperately trying to feed him the ball. They’ll miss his impact on the floor, but his absence should help them keep Atlanta from piling up easy buckets in transition. The Hawks’ 17.4 points per-48 off turnovers ranks second in the East, while the 17.6 points the 76ers allow ranks as the second-worst in the conference.
This will be a chance for Nerlens Noel, who contended Mason Plumlee’s would-be-game-winner at the rim to seal the victory last night, and perhaps Okafor to shine, or at least to showcase their skills for other teams.
Inactive until mid-December, Noel enjoyed 20+ minutes of playing time in consecutive games for just the second time this season. Those minutes came courtesy of the sudden mid-game absence of Embiid, along with continued ankle soreness for Okafor (season-high 26 points last Saturday @ WAS). Noel’s opponents have shot just 40.8 FG% (2nd-best in NBA, min. 4.5 opponent FGAs) on shot attempts he has defended, a value that compares favorably with the favored Embiid (39.6 defended FG%, 1st in NBA).
Similarly marginalized after a rocky rookie season, Jahlil was DNP’d in seven of the last ten games, including the last two Sixer games. If he doesn’t play, Brown will likely turn to Richaun Holmes. Despite limited minutes, the second-year big has more points and rebounds versus Atlanta than against any other team. All of these frontcourt players know their playing status is in jeopardy with the pending arrival of a healthy Simmons.
The long-tanking Sixers actually have an incentive to keep winning. Besides Embiid’s insistence on carrying this team into the postseason, Philadelphia also has a pick-swap option with the Kings, thanks to the summer 2015 deal that relieved Sacramento of Nik Stauskas. The Kings just lost Rudy Gay for the season, have lost four straight and seven of eight, and now sit perilously (0.5 games) in front of Philadelphia in the NBA standings.
Atlanta will need much more out of their bench players than they presented in last night’s 102-93 roller-coaster ride versus Chicago. Hardaway’s near-halfcourt buzzer-beater to close Atlanta’s 35-13 first quarter mattered much more than it should have. The reserves allowed the Bulls to stampede back from 30 points down, at the start of the fourth quarter, to within 5 in the closing minutes, forcing coach Mike Budenholzer’s hand in making Millsap and Dennis Schröder 25 points on 11-for-14 FGs vs. CHI) re-lace their shoes.
If the Hawks’ starters, led by Schröder (70.7 FG% last 3 games), Howard and Millsap, take care of the ball and defend well enough through three quarters to build a sizable lead, coach Bud will turn to once again to the other Mikes (Scott and Dunleavy, with Muscala still out), plus 10-day pickup Gary Neal and rookies DeAndre’ Bembry and Taurean Prince, and expect they won’t again turn a laugher into a thriller. Scott (4 assists in 21 minutes), particularly, must provide a stronger defensive presence around the paint and take some pressure off Humphries, while Prince must make better decisions with the ball in their hands.
Philly doesn’t really need Embiid to compete for 48 minutes tonight, but they’d much rather save up their budding big men to face Dwight and the Hawks in the playoffs. Wait, did I actually type that?
Rise Up! And Let’s Go Hawks!