In a lot of ways, things were back to normal in South Philadelphia on Sunday night.
Fans were in the building. They booed the refs and cheered for a free Frosty. Joel Embiid was injured, unavailable, and given the dreaded “will be evaluated in two weeks” status.
These are the familiar comforts of days pre-COVID.
And then, to top it off, the Sixers beat the absolute stuffing out of the San Antonio Spurs, shooting 57% from the floor in a 35-point win. It truly did feel like one of those Spring 2018 games, when Embiid was out with the broken face and the Sixers went on that crazy winning streak to end the regular season.
But first things first –
What should you expect if you go to a game?
Not much is different. There are some heightened health and safety checks as you enter the arena, and you have to keep your mask on, obviously.
Here’s a look at the main entrance on the west side of the building, with fans doing contact-less ticket scanning:
Sixers fans return to the Wells Fargo Center for the first time since March of 2020: pic.twitter.com/JRN5697uLX
— Kevin Kinkead (@Kevin_Kinkead) March 14, 2021
Inside the arena, fans are only sitting in every other row, with three or four seats between, so the Sixers arranged it the best way possible for social distancing. Media and broadcast staffers are up in a segment of club boxes that are not operational, but used instead for extended eating to “keep ’em separated,” like the Offspring once sang.
Here’s a look at how they spaced things out:
And then you see the plexiglass shields over there for Marc Zumoff, Alaa Abdelnaby, and the broadcast crew.
One nice change is that the speaker volume has been turned down to allow the crowd to be heard. Previously, it was so damn loud that you couldn’t even hear yourself think. It was like being at a Motorhead concert and you’re two feet away from Lemmy’s rig. Then you find yourself at the ear doctor the next day getting fitted for hearing aids.
Overall, it seemed like things went smoothly for fans, gave the team a boost, and added some much-needed life to the dead winter atmosphere we experienced.
Right, to the game itself –
The Sixers shot the hell out of the basketball. 57.1 percent from the floor and 52% from three. They pretty much did whatever they wanted to do minus their best player, against a Spurs team that was also missing their best player, so it ends up being a wash. Gregg Popovich, with his long hair, saw enough with three minutes left in the third quarter and emptied his bench.
Most importantly, this was the Sixers’ third-straight win of 20 or more points, and twice since the All-Star Break they’ve played without one of Embiid or Ben Simmons.
“It’s nice, because we’re going to have this,” Doc Rivers said after the game. “We talked about this after the last game, before the break, that the second half (of the season) is going to be tough. I anticipate that guys will be in and out. We have to be ready, but we can’t use those games as excuses not to play well, execute, and win. I think our guys have heard that and they’re coming to play.”
It’s certainly true when you look at the box score. Tobias Harris, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Matisse Thybulle, and Furkan Korkmaz all had double-digit points on 50% or better shooting. And in Embiid’s absence, the Sixers only got to the foul line 11 times, but replaced those points with space and pace basketball, firing up 29 three-pointers and hitting 15.
It sounds like a rather simple question that might not result in much of an answer, but is there a specific reason why the Sixers are currently shooting the lights out? Why is the offense clicking, all of a sudden?
“I think growth,” Rivers said. “We’ve been together now for half a season. We work on spacing and guys are passing the ball right now. It’s amazing why that stops at some point, and then you have to remind them to. Right now we’re doing a great job with what we call ‘flow passes,’ and our ‘flow passes’ have been unbelievable over this stretch. I bet they’ve heard that word one million times, but they’re doing it, accepting it, and it’s been very good.”
“Every game we go into, we’re expected to win,” Harris added. “That’s our mentality. We love to have the full team but we also understand that we’re not a better team without those guys (Embiid and/or Simmons). We’re a great team when we have everybody and this team needs everybody. Obviously circumstances are what they are. We’ve had to play this year with different guys out of the lineup. We’ve just been having to adapt, and I think it’s a learning experience but also a confidence booster for a lot of guys to play, get in a rhythm and have confidence in themselves and their game. With Joel out, that increases the role for a lot of other guys to step up. We understand that and that’s an important role for a lot of guys going into the second half of the season and the playoffs, to have that confidence in themselves. And to win, too, is important.”
A friend in Pop
One of the common themes with Ben Simmons is that fans seem entirely split on his game, but coaches and players love it. Coaches like Pop:
Gregg Popovich: “He's [Ben Simmons] so elite already, who gives a damn if he can't shoot."
I rest my case, your honor.
— Austin Krell (@NBAKrell) March 14, 2021
Works for me. If a future Hall of Famer and five-time champion likes Simmons, then those words carry weight.
Ben started a little slow in this game, shaking off some natural rust after not playing for a while. He finished with 14, 4, and 9, shot 6-9 from the floor, and after the game Rivers compared him to a baseball catcher who calls a good game, which I thought was a good comparison. J.T. Realmuto might not be the most important individual piece for the Phillies, but when Andrew Knapp is in there, everybody notices the difference.
From now on, Ben Simmons is a catcher.
Matisse Thybulle – lights out
Don’t look now, but Matisse Thybulle has hit 13 of his last 15 shots, going 5-5 from three. He’s 36% from three over his last 11, which is the league average. If he keeps shooting at that clip, and playing the high-level defense he’s already playing, then you have a legitimate NBA three and D wing just 1.5 years into his career.
Maybe the best improvement he’s made on the offensive end is that he just looks to be not even thinking at all. He’s just catching and firing, which is what Robert Covington started to do when his game began to click a few years ago:
— NBC Sports Philadelphia (@NBCSPhilly) March 12, 2021
A corner three from the left side, where the Sixers are well below the league average. That’s nice to see. He hit both of his threes from the corners Sunday night and is really looking like an excellent two-way player over these last few games.
Paul Pierce thought the Sixers lost the game, and said this:
Paul Pierce analysis pic.twitter.com/rgAB71LzFT
— pickuphoop (@pickuphoop) March 15, 2021
- Tony Bradley tweaked his ankle a bit but told Rivers he was ‘fine.’
- Bradley being a viable starting option not only helps in Embiid’s absence, but allows Dwight Howard to play with the second unit, where he’s been for the entirety of the season. You can stagger them about 20 minutes each when deploying them this way.
- Ukee Washington rang the bell. Nice to see him get a round of applause after dealing with the (alleged) racist horseshit of last month.
- You like those uniforms? I originally hated them but they started to grow on me as the game went on.
- Pop needs to keep growing the hair out. It looks great.
- Paul Reed is referred to as “BBaul Paul” over the loudspeaker. This is his Twitter handle. He is already a fan favorite and pseudo-urban legend.
- Another 100% three-point night for Korkmaz. Maybe our assertions that he’s not an NBA player were wrong. It seems like every time we write him off, or he goes through a horrible slump, he comes back to shoot something like 80% from three over a 3-4 game stretch.