3 observations after Sixers dominate Spurs in front of home fans

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Sunday night’s game between the Sixers and Spurs at Wells Fargo Center wasn’t normal in every way, but it featured familiar Philadelphia sports sights and sounds.

No fake crowd noise was required for the first time at a Sixers home game since last March 11, the day that the 2019-20 NBA season was suspended after Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19. Approximately 3,100 fans were allowed to attend, and they made substantial noise in supporting the Sixers and doing the polar opposite for the Spurs. 

They had a lot to cheer about as the Sixers improved to 17-3 at home and 27-12 overall with a 134-99 victory. The outcome was decided well before the fourth quarter began.

Tobias Harris had a game-high 23 points, nine rebounds and seven assists. Seth Curry recorded 21 points and four assists, while Ben Simmons had 14 points and nine assists.

“We’ve played in a couple of arenas with fans but it felt like a packed crowd tonight, just how loud they were and the energy and the atmosphere," Harris said. “For us, that was an added boost. It was just awesome for us to go out there and perform like that, but to also do it in front of our fans the first time they could be in the building in a long time. It was just exciting. We embrace it and we loved every moment of it tonight.”

Joel Embiid (left knee bone bruise), DeMar DeRozan (personal reasons) and LaMarcus Aldridge (not with team) did not play. Paul Reed, Rayjon Tucker and Isaiah Joe joined the Sixers after their time in the G League “bubble” in Orlando, Florida, with Joe and Reed appearing in the fourth period. 

The Sixers’ next game is Tuesday night at home against the Knicks. Here are three observations on their blowout win over San Antonio: 

Another start for Bradley 

Tony Bradley started and, unlike Friday night in Chicago when he was flawless on his seven field-goal attempts, missed a shot. He recorded four points on 2-for-3 shooting, eight rebounds and four assists in 21 minutes.

Bradley did his best to contest shots at the rim, maintaining verticality well and bothering Spurs layups, but Embiid is irreplaceable in that department. When Sixers perimeter players were caught on screens, Bradley sometimes struggled to corral the ball handler. Both Bradley and Dwight Howard unsurprisingly played deep drop pick-and-roll coverage on most possessions. 

One quality of Bradley's that should benefit the Sixers in Embiid’s absence is his rebounding. He grabbed 16.1 percent of offensive rebounds and 21.2 percent of defensive rebounds last season, per Cleaning the Glass, well above league average in both categories. 

Head coach Doc Rivers noted pregame that making up for Embiid’s rebounding (11.5 per game) is an area of focus. So far, so good, as his team outrebounded San Antonio 54-32.

Moving forward, it will be interesting to see if Rivers sticks with Bradley as a starter. As long as Bradley is holding his own and the Sixers are playing good basketball, we imagine he will, especially since he likes how Howard looks with the Sixers’ bench players. Simmons and Mike Scott are other center options for Rivers to consider in certain situations.  

According to Rivers, Bradley tweaked his ankle in the second half but should be available to play Tuesday.

Speedy Simmons starts rolling, Harris does it all 

Simmons returned to the floor after a two-game absence because he was exposed to an individual who tested positive for COVID-19. In terms of scoring, it took him a while to get going. His first basket was a righty jump hook with 7:42 left in the first half. 

He still was fast, creative and dangerous in transition. Simmons’ pace and passing facilitated Danny Green’s strong start as the former Spur scored 11 of the Sixers’ first 15 points. 

Late in the second quarter, Simmons ramped up his physicality, demanding the ball on consecutive post possessions and producing three points. He started and finished a fast break soon after, indicating that he’d fully shaken off any rust.

Though Simmons didn’t have a huge scoring game without Embiid like when he posted a career-high 42 points last month, the efficient offense provided by Curry, Harris and Green was key. That trio combined for 60 points on 43 field-goal attempts, a recipe for success with an All-Star center averaging 29.9 points per game sidelined.   

Harris was particularly aggressive, perhaps determined to show he was worthy of All-Star selection. While his scoring numbers will be an obvious item of interest during the time Embiid is out, the Sixers should be thrilled if he rebounds and passes as he did against he Spurs. 

“For me, it’s just been seeing how the defense is playing. ... Playing with Tony and Dwight out there, just being able to get that pocket pass," Harris said. “We talked about it in the beginning of the season, just the evolution of being a good pick-and-roll player is ... to knock down the mid-range, finish in the lane and then make plays out of it.

“... It’s my job and duty to make those plays out there, as well. It’s night by night, figuring it out, watching film on different passes I can make. The ball will find you — it comes back to you — but it opens up the floor for other guys, too.”

Sixers’ bench stays hot 

For about two minutes in the first period, the Sixers played a lineup of Shake Milton, Matisse Thybulle, Furkan Korkmaz, Harris and Howard. Harris’ playmaking was useful with that group as he found Howard on a fast-break lob and converted a floater off of a pick-and-roll with the veteran center. Howard had a big smile after his first slam in front of Sixers fans (for the home team).  

Rivers then turned to an all-bench lineup as Scott replaced Howard with two minutes left in the first. The second unit sustained the Sixers’ early momentum, with everyone on the floor seeming to chip in something positive. Howard threw down a put-back slam and hit Scott on a backdoor cut for a dunk. Thybulle rejected a Patty Mills jump shot from behind. Korkmaz made two jumpers, one from beyond the arc and one from inside of it.

It’s been difficult to identify many faults during the Sixers’ first three games after the All-Star break, all comfortable wins. Despite the team’s unfortunate injuries and absences, the players available have executed their roles and gelled with each other. 

That’s not to say the Sixers are perfect or can’t be improved, but president of basketball operations Daryl Morey and the front office are taking notes on it all ahead of the March 25 trade deadline. As things stand, the Sixers have won five straight games and are first in the East, leading the Nets by a game.

“When we stay inside our roles and play that way, we’re really good," Rivers said. “When we try to do too much, we turn the ball over, we get ourselves in trouble, we break plays. I thought we played very disciplined. And let’s be honest, we made everything tonight, as well."

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