76ers stars are giving glowing glimpse of potential
NEW YORK >> Joel Embiid, his sore left ankle no longer throbbing, made a game-time decision to play.
Jimmy Butler, his sore ribs having healed, made a game-time decision to play.
J.J. Redick, who’d been sidelined last week with a back issue, came across the bridge from his Brooklyn home. And played.
Ben Simmons, his message that the Sixers had been playing “soft” having been lifted from his chest, played.
They all played Sunday in Madison Square Garden, all of the marquee (NonThoracic Outlet Syndrome Division) 76ers. And with the early willingness of the Knicks to provide appropriate comic foil, Brett Brown’s newer-look team showed what it can be when at its best, leading from start to finish in a 108-105 victory.
“We are still learning how to play with each other,” Embiid said. “But you can see the potential. You see how good we can be. I thought that was a good sign to see.”
Embiid missed the previous game, a home loss to Atlanta. Redick was unavailable two nights earlier, when the Sixers lost in Washington. A recent respiratory ailment sidelined Butler for two games, and he nearly didn’t play Sunday.
But with all his veterans in the starting lineup, Brown watched the Sixers roll to a 26-8 lead, good enough to set the tone, even if the Knicks did offer a second-half response. Simmons went for 20 points and 22 rebounds. Embiid scored 26. Redick, who sputtered against Atlanta, bagged 22. Butler had 16. Even veteran Wilson Chandler produced, contributing seven points and some veteran-know-how plays.
For most of the game, it was almost how the Sixers had it envisioned when they transitioned from a development process to a relentless hunt for stars.
“To regroup, to get our group back, to get our spirit pointed in the right direction, to co-exist, to continue to find ways to play the ‘team,’ that’s all that I care about,” Brown said. “I am appreciating the talent, appreciating these guys and helping them to move forward. It’s all about where you are going to end up. So there will be some pain that we will go through now. I believe it is heading in the right direction. And to have those guys available was fantastic.”
The trick of fitting Butler into the plan has been public and difficult. Long a known coach-challenger, Butler reportedly has questioned his use at the offensive end, particularly in pick-and-roll situations.
“He inherited us, we inherited him, and he has come into a system that won a lot of games,” Brown said. “As of Dec. 25, 2017, the Philadelphia 76ers had the best record in the NBA. So we were doing OK. And he inherited that. He inherited that system, and we inherited him.
“But like anything, coach, player, whatever, you try to cater it to the player’s strengths, to help him. And some of that system wasn’t always great for him, where the game could run around him. It runs around Joel sometimes. And so when you talk about, ‘Does he know everything now?’ The answer is, ‘Things are changing.’ I’m trying to do my part as a head coach to put him in places where he can do well. And so the system as it existed isn’t always the system now.”
The Sixers’ system, for years, had been to try to cope with young players. Too recently, Brown has been made to work Furkan Korkmaz, Jonah Bolden and Shake Milton into regular spots, along with Landry Shamet, who has played at a higher-than-rookie level.