Sixers Can’t Quite Crack Cold-Shooting Warriors

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

Golden State 119, Philadelphia 108 – Box Score

As what’s been a rough month for Philadelphia 76ers fans winds down, they took another punch to the gut earlier in the day Monday with the announcement that Joel Embiid would require an MRI due to increased swelling in his knee. If there was any doubt before, it now looks to be certain that the once-runaway Rookie of the Year favorite will be out for the remainder of the year.

In other less-than-encouraging housekeeping news, Ben Simmons is undergoing a minor procedure to try and stimulate growth in his foot (always what you like to hear!), and the Sixers finalized the buyout with Andrew Bogut (way to read the market again, Bryan Colangelo).

Amidst all that commotion, the Sixers had the almost-two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors coming to town. Thanks to an uncharacteristically poor shooting performance from the Dubs, the Sixers were able to hang around within striking distance for the entirety of the game. Golden State shot just 6-29 from behind the arc as a team, missing their first 8 shots from downtown. Steph Curry did not have his usual allotment of NBA Jam TE-style power-ups, missing all 11 of three-point attempts, including a pair of airballs in the first quarter.

The really nice thing about having 4 top-notch Olympians on your team though, is when one is having an off night, others are right there to pick up the slack. Draymond Green was all over the court as usual, finishing with 14 points, 11 assists and 5 steals. Meanwhile, Kevin Durant got to the foul line 11 times (making 10), on his way to 27 points, 8 rebounds, and 4 assists.

Still, given the fact that the Warriors weren’t their usual Super Saiyan selves from downtown, the Sixers might have been able to pull off the upset if they had taken better care of the ball. Philadelphia gave it away 23 times, with the biggest culprit being Jahlil Okafor.

Coming off his strong performance Saturday night against the Knicks, Jah was unable to string two good outings together, recording 4 points and 3 rebounds, against 7 turnovers and 5 personal fouls in just 17 minutes. Unsurprisingly, he was a team-worst -15 on the evening. Not only was he barreling into Golden State defenders like a poorly-designed soap box derby car and getting whistled for charges, but Okafor was often caught displaying his customary level of defensive “awareness”. The way his mind wanders puts a new spin on pace-and-space (slow and off-in).

There were bright spots for the Sixers. Dario Saric saw his string of double-doubles broken, but did have an excellent line of 21 points, 7 rebounds, and 7 assists. The fact that he’s scoring so efficiently without shooting well from the outside (0-6 from three), could bode very well if his shot adjusts in the NBA like it did given time in Europe.

Robert Covington continues to perform like an elite 3-and-D guy, tallying 15 points, 8 rebounds, and 4 steals. Rock has even expanded his offensive game with some nice drives to the hoop, something completely foreign to him as recently as the beginning of this season. With his ability to shut down multiple positions defensively, he’s providing tremendous value on both ends of the floor. Colangelo needs to use some of that money he won’t be spending on Nerlens Noel and hammer out an extension with Covington this summer before he hits the open market next year.

Finally, the other side of the current Sixers center duo fared much better than his counterpart. Richaun Holmes played with tremendous energy on both ends of the court and wound up with 15 points and 3 blocks. Few players have the kind of pogo-stick-like leaps that Holmes shows when he tenaciously attacks the offensive glass. He also owned Draymond Green on a play, dunking the ball so hard that Green’s face transformed into a trampoline on its return trip down through the hoop.

Ultimately, it was a missed opportunity to catch a good team on a bad night and provide some much-needed added excitement for fans with a win. The Sixers still put on a good show for most of the evening, and really, every loss counts with the team’s best two players out for the season and the controls on this tanking vessel set to dive. The team will next take on the Heat in South Beach Wednesday night.

Sixers Remind Fans of Fun in Win Over Wizards

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

Philadelphia 120, Washington 112 – Box Score

We are coming off a trade deadline where not only did many people, myself included, think Bryan Colangelo made a huge mistake in giving away Nerlens Noel for cents on the dollar, but Ben Simmons was also officially announced as being out for the season, crystallizing the Sixers organization’s long-standing tradition of being dishonest about injuries with the public. So it would be understandable if Sixers fans wanted to wave their hands in the air and wipe their hands of this whole convoluted mess of a franchise.

However, at least when it comes to what happens on the actual hardwood, any time you begin to think you’re out, this Sixers squad pulls you back in. Playing a Washington Wizards team that has been red-hot the last couple months and entered the conversation among Eastern Conference contenders, Philadelphia absolutely wiped the floor with them, leading by as many as 17 before a referee-fueled comeback made a game of it late.

While the Wizards didn’t get much help from beyond their pair of dynamic guards, with Bradley Beal dropping 40 points and John Wall tallying 29 points and 14 assists, the Sixers were propelled by a complete team effort.

We’ve long talked about how getting rid of one of the centers would open up deserving minutes for Richaun Holmes. While I and many others would argue they traded the wrong one, it was still terrific to see Holmes go out there and put up 12 points, 10 rebounds, and 5 blocks. Holmes had a bounce in his step all game long, finishing lobs with authority, racing out to trap pick-and-rolls, and generally proving to be a menacing force in the painted area. The fact that he punctuates nearly every big play with a roar makes for an even more fun viewing experience.

Also grabbing a double-double was Robert Covington, recording 25 points, 11 rebounds, and 4 steals. Rock knocked down 5-9 from behind the arc and is now shooting 45.7% from three in the month of February. His season average is back up to 33.3%, steadily getting back toward career norms after a rough start to 2016-17. Oh, and he’s flashing Kawhi-esque hands on the defensive end on a regular basis. Sign this man to an extension this offseason, Bryan, before you let another core piece walk out the door.

The third double-double came via Dario Saric, who accomplished the feat for the third straight game with 20 points, 11 rebounds, and 4 assists. Colangelo cited Saric’s emergence as one of the reasons for the Ersan Ilyasova trade, and I’m A-OK with all things leading to more playing time for the Homie Dario. There was a stretch where Saric looked unstoppable in the mid-range, and any time he had a smaller guard switched onto him, he put him in the torture chamber down in the post. It took a few months, but Dario looks fully adjusted to the NBA game and the results are fun to watch.

I hate to pick on him, because honestly, I feel somewhat bad about it at this point, but the turd in the punch bowl on the evening was starting center Jahlil Okafor. After not being traded by Colangelo despite being left off a plane for ostensibly that very reason, Okafor was a team-worst -9 plus/minus, and had more turnovers (3) and personal fouls (4) than rebounds (2) in 22 minutes. He stood around aimlessly so much that it looked like he was still sitting at home expecting to be traded. Colangelo might have felt the return was too low to pull the trigger on an Okafor deal, but with every minute he plays, that price is going to drop even lower.

The Sixers are right back in action tonight against the Knicks, one of the few teams with a front office situation more dysfunctional than their own.

Sixers Trade Ersan Ilyasova to Atlanta

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

With the 3:00pm Thursday trade deadline fast approaching, Sixers fans have been on the edge of their seats waiting to see what moves general manager Bryan Colangelo has in mind to move the franchise forward. While Jahlil Okafor to Chicago rumors are heating up, the first Woj bomb struck Wednesday involving another member of the crowded frontcourt.

In the end, the Sixers will be sending Ersan Ilyasova to the Hawks in exchange for Tiago Splitter, Miami’s 2017 2nd-round pick, and the right to swap Atlanta’s 2nd-round pick for Golden State’s 2nd-round pick. Presently, the Heat selected would be 43rd overall, while the Sixers would be moving up from 60th to 50th as a result of the swap.

Ilyasova and Splitter are both expiring contracts separated by about $150k, so there are no major salary cap implications. However, given that Splitter has missed the entire season with hip and calf injuries, his contract is insured; Philadelphia will therefore save some money on a prorated basis over the rest of the season.

Ilyasova was certainly a positive contributor during his brief time with the Sixers. He fit nicely alongside Joel Embiid, shooting 35.9% from three, and his -3.0 net rating was second-best on the team behind Embiid himself. You also can’t say he didn’t try on the defensive end of the floor, as evidenced by his league-leading 25 charges taken.

Still, I won’t miss Ilyasova regularly leading the team in field goals attempted or spacing out in critical moments and leaving a man wide open. Brett Brown will never say on the record, but I would love to know why he repeatedly left Ilyasova in the game for key defensive possessions out of timeouts.

Bryan Colangelo did well here for a few reasons. First, turning 30 years old in May, Ersan will be seeking a long-term deal and the Sixers weren’t in a position to offer that to someone who doesn’t fit the career arc of the rest of their roster. Getting a couple assets for a guy who will be gone in a few months is good business.

Also, Ilyasova’s departure means we’ll be seeing even more Dario Saric down the stretch. Saric has found his footing lately, scoring 18 points in each of his late 5 games and recording double-doubles in the last two. The added playing time could be an additional boost for his Rookie of the Year hopes, if Embiid doesn’t make a quick return to the court.

Finally, although the Sixers have the Sacramento swap rights to offset the typical “wins hurt the team” narrative from the past couple years, they still will need every lottery ball they can accumulate. Keeping Ilyasova around might have won the Sixers an extra game or two, and we’ve seen how one or two extra wins can make a huge difference come lottery time.

In effect, Bryan Colangelo turned Jerami Grant and the last pick in the draft into a late 1st-round pick and two mid 2nd-round picks. I may not believe a word that comes out of the man’s mouth, but I can’t deny he’s doing a fine job on the trade market. We’ll see what other moves he has in store by Thursday afternoon. Until then, enjoy Atlanta and have fun in the playoffs, Ersan.

Sixers Future Just Got a Whole Lot Brighter

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

 DeMarcus Cousins also seems perplexed that he did not fetch a better trade package.

While the NBA’s best players were literally laying down for each other rather than even pretend to play defense in Sunday’s All-Star game, the details of possibly the biggest deal of the NBA season were being finalized down in New Orleans. As a result, the future looks a whole lot brighter for the Philadelphia 76ers.

No, Bryan Colangelo didn’t end up with a windfall in return for Jahlil Okafor. We are still stuck waiting for something to happen on that front leading up to the February 23rd trade deadline.

We do know that Okafor will not be suiting up for the Pelicans any time in the near future. That’s because New Orleans sent Buddy Hield, Tyreke Evans, Langston Galloway, a 2017 1st-round pick, and a 2017 2nd-round pick, to Sacramento for Kings franchise superstar DeMarcus Cousins and Omri Casspi.

In another laughably poor decision by the Vivek Ranadive-Vlade Divac brain trust in Sacramento, the Kings are essentially trading a top-15 player for what will likely be a late lottery pick and Buddy Hield. Hield is only a rookie, so he may someday be a good player. But he’s already 23 years old, never projected to be much more than a one-dimensional shooter, and is shooting 39.2% from the field in his short professional career. The chances that he ever even approaching Cousins’ standing in the league are microscopic.

Meanwhile, the Pelicans are now pairing arguably the two most talented big men in the league for years to come in Cousins and Anthony Davis. I’m sure they are ecstatic that Bryan Colangelo was so concerned about pick protections last week, scuttling the Jahlil Okafor trade talks and opening the door for this far, far superior deal.

Sixers fans should be very happy as well, though, as this deal greatly improves Philadelphia’s long-term prospects. First, thanks to Sam Hinkie, the team has swap rights for the Kings upcoming 2017 1st-round pick. Currently, Sacramento has the 11th-worst record in the league with a corresponding 2.9% chance of jumping into a top-3 position.

However, the Kings are only 2.5 games ahead of the Sixers, who at the moment have the 5th worst record in the NBA. Without Cousins, you have to expect the Kings will plummet down the standings, so it’s not only entirely likely that Sacramento actually finishes below the Sixers, but more and more lottery ball combinations will be coming Philadelphia’s way to try to bring home another top-3 pick.

But wait, there’s more! Hinkie’s fruitful bounty also yields Sacramento’s unprotected 2019 1st-round pick. The Kings have famously missed the playoffs for quite some time, and with Cousins gone and continued incompetence evident at the managerial level, there’s every reason to think Sacramento will be toward the bottom of the standings in 2019. That pick could end up bringing a blue-chip prospect to Philadelphia at a time when the team might be already making its upward ascent. You couldn’t ask for things to break any better from a Sixers perspective.

As it turns out, Bryan Colangelo not living up to his Man of Action moniker actually ended up helping the Sixers. But let’s not forget who supplied all these juicy trade assets in the first place. Even while sipping a Starbucks coffee in Palo Alto, Sam Hinkie is still providing a brighter future for Philadelphia. See you in the 2020 NBA Finals, New Orleans.

La Salle Gets Revenge over Big 5 Rival St. Joe’s

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

La Salle 83, St. Joseph’s 68 – Box Score

They say revenge is a dish best served cold, but on an unseasonably warm Saturday afternoon in the Philadelphia area, I think the La Salle Explorers would agree it tastes just fine at any temperature.

In the final Big 5 game of the season, the Explorers wanted to avenge a meeting from a few weeks ago when St. Joseph’s won a 73-72 thriller in the closing seconds. This time around, La Salle ensured the outcome would be decided well before the final whistle.

Right from the get-go, the Explorers unleashed a deluge of long range bombs on the undermanned Hawks. Senior Jordan Price (18 points) connected on one of his 5 three-pointers during the game’s opening possession to set the tone immediately. La Salle would knock down their first triples to quickly build a double-digit lead just 3 minutes into the game. By the time the fans were filing out of the arena, the Explorers had hit 12-29 from behind the arc.

Amar Stukes was the poster boy for the Explorers’ hot shooting on the day. Open threes, acrobatic finishes through contact at the rim, the junior guard could do no wrong. Stukes started 5-5 from the field, going 2-2 from three, and 3-3 from the line, scoring all 15 of his points on the game before finally missing a shot right before halftime.

Meanwhile, Phil Martelli’s squad found itself at the opposite end of the spectrum. Playing without their top two leading scorers, Shavar Newkirk and Lamarr Kimble, both out for the season due to injury, the Hawks couldn’t get anything going on the offensive end. It’s a tough task for any team when over 35 ppg is cheering from the end of the bench in street clothes. However, Coach Martelli was not ready to make excuses for his team:

“You keep going, we’re not collecting uniforms yet…We had to walk in here like big boys and we gotta walk out like big boys. It’s the cards that we have and we have to play the hand.”

That hand for St. Joseph’s involved them going 0-6 from three in the first half, finishing just 2-11 on the game. Freshman Charlie Brown particularly struggled early on, missing his first 10 shots from the field, before rebounding in the second half to finish with 13 points on 5-18 shooting. Coach Martelli discussed how his entire team has to become more emotionally mature:

“Charlie Brown is having a wonderful year. But when he misses a shot, any shot, I don’t know if he owns a dog. But if he does own a dog, that dog died 10 times in the first half. Every shot, drops his head, misses his assignment at the other end. You gotta grow up.”

The lone bright spot for the Hawks came after the Explorers led by 27 in the second half, their largest margin of the game. Powered by James Demery (18 points), St. Joseph’s went on a 18-2 run to briefly make it a game. A Chris Clover dunk with under 5 minutes remaining cut the La Salle lead to 71-60, getting the entire Hawks bench, even the injured players, off its feet. Could we see a miracle comeback? Well, no, proving the age-old maxim that if you want to win a basketball game, don’t fall behind by 27 points.

Unfortunately for the Hawks, that win over La Salle a few weeks back was their last win, having lost 6 straight. Judging by today’s performance, things don’t portend to be getting better any time soon.

As for La Salle, the Explorers now find themselves one game back of the crucial 4th position in the A-10 standings. Head Coach John Giannini discussed the team’s postseason aspirations and just how important that positioning is for his team:

“We’re very concerned about our seeding. You look at the standings and what you have to do in the next game. Then, after that, you do the process over. [Top 4] is a big deal.”

Every game counts in a crowded middle of the conference pack, but avenging a recent loss to a Big 5 rival? Maybe that one counts a little more.

Sixers Enter All-Star Break After Loss in Boston

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

Boston 116, Philadelphia 108 – Box Score

Despite riding a 3-game winning streak, there were a lot of negative vibes surrounding the Philadelphia 76ers organization entering play Wednesday night. There was the Jahlil Okafor saga, with sources saying Bryan Colangelo (we’ll be polite and say) misread the market, thinking having Okafor stay at home would cause a deluge of offers. Those offers did not, because other GMs have access to game film, and Okafor was back with the team and on the court against the Celtics.

Then, we still are experiencing the blowback from Colangelo lying about the status of Joel Embiid’s injury situation. The news became official earlier Wednesday that he would be in attendance in New Orleans for All-Star weekend, but not participating in the Rising Stars game or Skills Challenge as originally slated.

Finally, Ben Simmons was recently announced to not be ready to play 5-on-5 in practice, ruling out a February 24th return that many fans had circled on their calendars. Brett Brown said the team fully expects Simmons on the court sometime this season, but considering the usual timeline for his injury would have had the first overall pick back a month ago, who knows what’s happening at this point.

All of which is to say that a win over the rival Celtics would have been really nice. Unfortunately, the King of the Fourth had other ideas.

Isaiah Thomas bobbed and weaved his way to 13 of his game-high 33 points in the 4th quarter, keeping the Sixers at bay in a contest that was close the entire game and Philadelphia led with as little as 8 minutes remaining. As you might expect, Thomas scored a quick 5 points when the dynamic defensive duo of Sergio Rodriguez and Jahlil Okafor were out there laying out the red carpet.

Brett Brown quickly adjusted and got the starters back in, but the play that stood out was Thomas splitting Robert Covington and Nerlens Noel out of the pick-and-roll and finishing a high lofting lay-in off the glass over Noel. Those are the Sixers two best defenders, and Thomas still found a crack to slip through and finish an incredibly difficult shot. He’s a worthy All-Star this season and he earned his team the victory Wednesday night.

The Sixers mainly hung around thanks to another strong performance from Rookie of the Year dark horse, Dario Saric. Saric recorded his 2nd straight double-double with 20 points and 11 rebounds. Over his last 5 games, he’s shooting 52.6% from the field, 36.7% from three, and 90.1% from the foul line. If he has his shot falling, with all the other intangibles he provides on the court, the rookie goes from helpful role player, to borderline star-caliber. Given how tough the adjustment can be for foreign players to the NBA initially, this is all very encouraging.

Robert Covington played his usual terrific defense and hit 4 of 6 threes for 18 points. Slowly but surely, his three-point percentage on the season is creeping back up toward career norms, now at 32.7%. He did take a nasty spill into the bench area late in the game, laying on the floor for quite some time before leaving with what the team termed a head contusion. Hopefully, it doesn’t turn into a lingering concussion situation. The All-Star Break is coming at a good time for Rock.

One guy who doesn’t need the break is TJ McConnell, who had a career-high 5 steals and was a consistent source of offense yet again with 8 assists and 12 points, his 3rd-straight game scoring in double figures. TJ has filed a patent on the mid-range, fall-away jumper off a spin move, getting Al Horford on it for 2 points last night.

Meanwhile, the guy who may not be with the team when it next takes the floor is Jahlil Okafor. He had his usual defensive breakdowns, but also showed very good hustle and awareness on a handful of rotations, also recording 3 blocks in the process. There was one play where he correctly hedged the pick-and-roll, recovered out to his man at the three-point line, and then showed good help-side awareness to come over and block Terry Rozier at the rim. It showed that somewhere in there, Okafor can do it. I hope some other team agrees and gives up enough of a package for Colangelo to pull the trigger.

In closing, I’m fully on the Marcus Smart is a punk bandwagon. Smart had 8 steals, many of which come because, for some reason, referees believe he’s the only player on the floor allowed to club people without a whistle being blown. But the final straw for me was in the final minute of the game when Smart twice pushed himself into Gerald Henderson, and then stumbled backward in a pseudo-flop as if Henderson had initiated the contact. The ref somehow called the foul on Henderson who was so incensed that he quickly earned a double-technical and was ejected from the game.

It kind of feels right to have a Boston villain to root against. I can’t wait for the next time these rivals clash. Enjoy the All-Star break, everyone.

Sixers Offer No Money Back on Batum Guarantee

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

Philadelphia 105, Charlotte 99 – Box Score

Speaking to the media after the Hornets’ most recent game, Nic Batum guaranteed that Charlotte would come out and win Monday night against the Sixers. But as TJ McConnell told Molly Sullivan after the game, “If you guarantee stuff, you better back it up.” While Batum and his Hornets teammates certainly didn’t fulfill his prophecy, the Sixers might be heading back up the standings and on the cusp of the playoff picture having won their 3rd straight game.

The Sixers led for the majority of the game, but really took control during the third quarter, when a 10-0 Philadelphia run turned a 4-point deficit into a 6-point advantage; Charlotte would never lead again. The catalyst during that stretch and the star of the night was Dario Saric. The Homie was all over the place: playing active defense, attacking the glass, and bringing his point forward skills to the forefront. This sequence where Saric shows good help defense awareness to come across and make the block, then leads the break himself and finds a trailing Robert Covington for three, is outstanding.

On another fast break, Dario had a very slick feed to Richaun Holmes to earn Holmes a trip to the charity stripe. Saric’s final line was 18 points, 11 rebounds, 3 assists, and that 1 block. He is now tied for 2nd among rookies with 5 double-doubles, trailing only Joel Embiid. If Embiid continues to miss a significant amount of time with his knee injury, we could be looking at a different Sixer taking home the Rookie of the Year hardware.

Kemba Walker (29 points) did his best to drag the Hornets back into the game with a flurry of scoring late in the fourth quarter. However, the Sixers have the closer, Mr. Clutch TJ McConnell on their side. McConnell ended a long Sixers field goal drought with under 2 minutes, converting on one of his patented spin move and fadeaway 10-footers. TJ was solid as usual with 14 points and 7 assists on the evening.

The other standout performance for the Sixers came from Nerlens Noel, starting with Embiid injured and Jahlil Okafor was left at home to allow Bryan Colangelo to sift through trade offers. Noel showed off the best version of himself against Charlotte, accumulating 12 points on 5-6 shooting, 7 rebounds, 3 steals, and 2 blocks.

Noel was decisive and didn’t try to do too much offensively, and then defensively, he was all over the court. There was one play where he challenged a shooter out at the three-point line and after his man gave it up, Noel flashed back to the rim in an instant to deter a shot from going up there. The possession ended up with a Charlotte turnover.

The Sixers are now 11-7 on the season in games Jahlil Okafor does not play. Even with Embiid sidelined, Okafor’s absence allows them to forge a defensive identity that will keep them competitive most nights. When Embiid and Ben Simmons (eventually, although not right after the All-Star break as we hoped) return, things will get really fun. I guarantee it.

Sixers Win on Bryan Colangelo is a Lying Snake Night

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

Philadelphia 117, Miami 109 – Box Score

Prior to Saturday night’s home game against Miami, Derek Bodner broke the story that Joel Embiid has a low-grade tear in the meniscus of his left knee. Apparently, the Sixers discovered the tear during a MRI after the Portland game, but the team allowed Embiid to talk them into playing in the nationally-televised Houston game. Embiid’s knee swelled up after that game and he has been out every game since, perpetually day-to-day with what the team called only a bone bruise.

Sam Hinkie was phased out in part due to his reluctance to open up and discuss things with the media and public-at-large. Necessary or not, Bryan Colangelo was supposed to usher in a new era of transparency. Now, we discover that for weeks, Colangelo has been lying to the public about the extent of Embiid’s injury, even conducting a radio interview the day before this news broke and making no mention of the meniscus tear.

My working theory (purely speculation) is that management felt pressure to play Embiid against the Rockets and make up for some previous poor showings on the national stage. After his participation caused swelling, they wanted to avoid any backlash for letting him play, and hoped he could return to the court without ever having to disclose the information regarding the tear. Of course, when your position as general manager is sold on the foundation of a better working relationship with the public, don’t lie to them for weeks. It really shouldn’t be this hard.

Meanwhile, the Sixers tried to take fans minds off things by going out and breaking Miami’s 13-game winning streak. It was a strong team effort from up and down the roster. Nerlens Noel, traded for by Hinkie as part of a draft night with New Orleans, started at center and went off for 19 points and 4 steals. He also held Hassan Whiteside to just 12 points after the Heat big man had gone off for 30 against the Sixers last week. Noel looked more energetic than the opposing center throughout the evening.

Also dropping 19 points was Robert Covington, signed out of the D-league by Sam Hinkie and still on an absolute bargain of a contract. Rock hit his first 4 threes (finishing 5-6) and added a team-high 7 rebounds, 4 steals, and 2 blocks. This sequence where he both blocked and stole the ball on the possession really highlighted how disruptive Covington is on the defensive end.

The third and final member of the 19 points club was Dario Saric, who Sam Hinkie swindled the Orlando Magic for on draft night (in addition to getting the Sixers own 1st-rounder back) in exchange for Elfrid Payton and his broken jump shot. Saric played a terrific all-around game with 6 boards, 4 assists, 2 steals, and a block, flashing his skills as a secondary playmaker and combining with Sergio Rodriguez on this display of sweet international passing.

Finally, with the Heat making a late charge to cut the Sixers lead to 5 with under a minute left, it was the closer, TJ McConnell (11 points, 10 assists, brought into training camp by Sam Hinkie as an undrafted free agent), who sealed the victory with this slick lob pass to Noel.

As if seeing hundreds of cats raised into the air wasn’t enough to let you salvage an enjoyable night, we also received word that the reason Jahlil Okafor did not play was because trade talks were heating up.

Bryan Colangelo, master of deflection. Hopefully, the lying is something we have to put up with in exchange for a lightly-protected first round pick.

TJ and Dario Carry Sixers to a Thrilling Win

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

Philadelphia 112, Orlando 111 – Box Score

I understand there’s no Joel Embiid available, but somebody needs to find out why late in games, Brett Brown continues to draw up sets for 29-year-old, soon-to-be free agent Ersan Ilyasova. Always ready and willing to put up shots in a contract year, Ilyasova took a fadeaway baseline 21-footer with the Sixers down 1, still 14 seconds left, and Nik Vucevic draped all over him. He was blocked so badly that the refs had to call a jump ball on the ensuing out-of-bounds, presumably not knowing where Voose’s hand ended and Ersan’s face began.’

Luckily for the Sixers, a plucky young guard out of Western Pennsylvania is around for exactly these sorts of situations. Ersan, to his credit, won the jump ball over to TJ McConnell, who went to work against CJ Watson. Pulling up in for a midrange jumper in the “TJ zone”, McConnell once again came through for the Sixers with a game-winning bucket.

For more on where Timothy John McConnell ranks among the greatest closers throughout history, let’s go to our lead analyst, Joel Embiid:

Ersan was probably feeling big for his britches because with the Sixers down 6 with 2 minutes left, he was fouled on 3 straight possessions, knocking down 5 of 6 from the foul line. A gorgeous feed from McConnell to a cutting Dario Saric completed a 7-0 run to give the Sixers the lead. Vucevic (21 points, 11 rebounds) then scored to put the Magic back in front, setting the stage for TJ’s heroics.

While McConnell had 8 points, 8 assists, and 3 steals, the only reason Philadelphia was even within striking distance late was the outstanding play throughout the evening from Saric. The Homie Dario finished with a career-high 24 points, going 8-15 from the field and 3-5 from three, adding 8 rebounds and 3 steals. Good for Saric for having such a big game against the team that traded him on draft night.

Nights like this when Saric has his shot falling make him so dangerous. He’s always going to bring the scrappy, hustle plays working on the offensive boards and so on, but teams having to respect his outside shot opens up his driving game and forces his defender to overplay. It’s why he was able to beat his man on the cut for the late, go-ahead bucket. Dario will be a useful player no matter what becomes of all the little, less stat-oriented things he does on the court, but the shooting will ultimately be the swing skill that determines his ceiling.

Right before that 7-0 run, Nerlens Noel and Serge Ibaka got tangled up fighting for a rebound, prompting Ibaka to throw a punch as Noel was backing away from the action post-whistle. Noel mostly did a good job keeping his head about him, but the refs for some reason still deemed a double technical necessary. Asked about the punch after the game, Noel said simply, “I don’t play that.”

With the 5-game losing streak now a thing of the past, the Sixers can hopefully build some momentum heading into the All-Star break. They’ll next have the red-hot Miami Heat at home Saturday night. There’s a chance Joel Embiid will be back for that contest. Fingers crossed.

Sixers Still Can’t Solve San Antonio

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

San Antonio 111, Philadelphia 103 – Box Score

Philadelphia 76ers head coach Brett Brown’s relationship with his former club in San Antonio is truly that of a mutual admiration society. Whether it’s bearlike embraces from former players like Manu Ginobili and Patty Mills, or glowing remarks from Gregg Popovich, it’s clear there’s a lot of love from both sides. Which is good, because one thing Coach Brown can’t love is actually having to face the Spurs on the basketball court, after San Antonio prevailed for its 12th straight win over the Sixers Wednesday night.

Playing without Joel Embiid for the 6th straight game, the Sixers gamely hung around for the entire contest. Philadelphia did an uncharacteristically good job taking care of the basketball, only turning it over 8 times as a team and enjoying a 20-5 advantage in points off turnovers. That faithful stewardship of the rock kept them in the game while San Antonio shot an outstanding 52.7% from the field and 50.0% from three. As usual, Kawhi Leonard was the catalyst in that robotically efficient attack, scoring 32 points by hitting a perfect 11-11 from the line, to go along with 6 rebounds and 5 assists.

With the eyes of New Orleans, Chicago, and who knows who else watching, Jahlil Okafor had what was probably his best game of the season. Okafor came oh-so-close to the proverbial roll out of bed and drop 20 & 10 game, tallying 20 points and 8 rebounds. It was a more efficient scoring outing than usual for Jah, who made a career-high 10 free throws on 11 attempts. He even put forth some defensive effort a time or two.

Of course, Okafor still finished with a team-worst -12. While plus/minus is far from a perfect stat, the fact that Jah consistently ranks among the worst on the team in that category speaks volumes about the sort of non-box score attributes that he fails to bring to the table. This on a night where Okafor actually played pretty well.

Getting demoted to the bench after more than 20 straight starts, Nik Stauskas took a liking to being back on the Night Shift. Sauce had a great all-around game with 16 points on 4-7 shooting from three, 7 rebounds, and a career-high 7 assists without a single turnover. It’s kind of a chicken or the egg type of question, but with Stauskas seeing his shot falling, it looked like he was more aggressive attacking the basket and operating as a playmaker. Then again, maybe some successful drives got him in the rhythm to knock down those perimeter shots. Either way, good to see Nik break out of his slump.

Speaking of shaking off slumps, Dario Saric had his best shooting outing in quite some time, hitting 4 of 5 threes (and 8 of 11 field goals overall) for 20 points. I’m hoping Bryan Colangelo finds it in his veteran-loving heart to parlay the expiring contract of Ersan Ilyasova into a decent return at the trade deadline and free up even more time for Dario down the stretch.

The Sixers have now lost 5 straight games and have announced Embiid will be out again against Orlando Thursday, making a 6th straight loss a distinct possibility. Instead of playoffs, Sixers fans are right back to looking at how the lottery odds are shaking out. At least we have plenty of practice in that regard.