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October 16, 2019

Practice notes: Sixers approaching final preseason game like it's the regular season

In a town dominated by football, the words "final preseason game" are enough to send chills running up the spine of the average Philadelphia fan. It invokes memories of practice squad quarterbacks, running backs with no burst, and players on both sides of the ball who may well be playing their last snap of professional football. A sad scene, frankly.

But the NBA preseason is a bit different, at least from the view of this Sixers team. This is a real opportunity to go out there and play basketball, gearing up their conditioning, tightening their rotation, and preparing for the regular season that begins next week.

"If health permits, I'd play it like I'd play Boston," Brett Brown said Wednesday. "I think incrementally, we had a plan, I think we've delivered on the plan, executed a plan...I would like to play like I'm playing the Boston Celtics, and then take a deep breath with a day off and get through the game healthy, and come back ready to dig in."

As we alluded to here on Wednesday morning, that puts increased scrutiny on all the moves Brown will make throughout their game against the Washington Wizards. Who will get the first crack at the backup point guard minutes, and how will Brown substitute his big men throughout the night? We'll get real answers on those questions sooner rather than later.

On a team with more familiarity or even lower expectations, this style of preseason may not have been necessary. But with the way the Sixers have come together, it's a perfect dress rehearsal for the games ahead, and it should allow them to hit the ground running (or at least jogging) to start the season.

That matters more than ever for these Sixers, whose vision line is as high as it could possibly be for an NBA team. They want to challenge the Milwaukee Bucks — a 60-win juggernaut in the regular season last year who returns the majority of their roster this season — for the top spot in the East. It doesn't allow for a lot of hiccups along the way, whether they come against Boston on opening night or on a cold night in Charlotte months from now.

There is no universal focus or reason Brown wants to get his guys out there and treat it like a real game this early. He named several concepts, including conditioning, familiarity, and situational basketball that the Sixers could stand to work on in the final preseason game, but concluded that ultimately it was a combination of all those ideas that has him in this mentality.

For anyone looking at the bigger picture, the head coach isn't even prepared to say he's looking at where the Sixers will be on opening night, much less where they'll be by the time mid-April hits and they begin what figures to be their biggest playoff run since at least 2001.

"I've said it and I'll say it loudly this time — talent doesn't trump time," Brown said. "As excited as we all are, we're new. And so to think I know what's going to happen on October 23rd, I don't think would be very smart."

The starting five is as set in stone as it could possibly be, which gives the Sixers an elite base to build from. But no one should be so arrogant to believe that will be enough to carry them early — six of their first eight games are on the road, and they have an early West Coast trip on the schedule that will take them to Portland, Denver, and Utah, three places with built-in advantages (the atmosphere, in Denver's case) that will present challenges for Philly early.

So for once, I can say this with a straight face — bring on that final preseason game. Health permitting, it'll be our first taste of real basketball in a while, and the first step in the journey of a potential juggernaut.

Other notes

Brett Brown's stance on Josh Richardson at point guard has evolved some since we first spoke to him to start training camp. What seemed like a down-the-road look has since become a prominent part of the preseason, brought on by circumstance and curiosity from the coach to see a new look.

What's driving the shift? Brown says it's not an indictment on anyone else, but rather a reflection on his own sensibilities and how he can put this team in position to win games in April, May, and June. 

"It was sort of me internally questioning why would I anticipate it could happen in the playoffs, and why wouldn't I just try it now? It didn't seem smart, and so I did and I liked what I saw," Brown said Wednesday. "All of us led by me would probably say, he's really done a lot to make you think, well shoot, should he be the backup point guard?"

Brown doesn't take that potential switch in position lightly, as it comes with other adjustments to the rotation, potential changes in defensive assignments, and a handful of other questions. As an individual example, the coach honed in on the assignment of guarding point guards, and how that might shift depending on how things shake out.

"Who's guarding point guards? Because if he's the two and he's the backup one, what's that really mean?" Brown said. "It's deeper than [just playing him at one], there are ripple effects. That's where I hope to grow Matisse [Thybulle], that's where I think Ben Simmons is gonna like maybe have to do it more than maybe I originally thought."

This is probably the most transparent Ben Simmons has ever been when discussing his jumper:

You can dissect that as you will, but for the time being, I feel I've said everything I possibly can on his jumper, and I mostly just think it's good that he was willing to discuss it in this way. It's not any more fun for him than it is for reporters to talk about it if it's a hostile subject all of the time. This is more productive for everyone. So on that note, I wanted to focus on another thing Ben Simmons did on Wednesday. 

Prior to practice, Simmons stopped by Henry C. Lea Elementary School in West Philly to donate 600 winter coats to the children who attend the school. I think it's easy to be cynical (and I often am myself) when wealthy people are charitable, but giving back to others is ultimately a lot more important than anything these guys will ever do on the basketball court.

For Simmons, as it usually is when he's talking about something that's not himself, it was easy to discuss why he loves doing things like this for the community.

"I just try to do everything I can to help people," Simmons said. "If it's coats, it's coats, if it's food, whatever it is, anyway I can help kids out during the winter or their school and things like that, I love to do that. I'm in a great position to be able to help other people."

This is why, as much as some people want athletes to "stick to sports," that it's important for these guys to use their platforms and their good fortune for something more than selling shoes. The political messages are not always going to be well-received, depending on the audience, but they can make a difference with something as insignificant as a coat.

Simmons also delivered his summary of the team's level of seriousness during the preseason, which he believes stems from everyone in camp, not just one or two big additions.

"Everybody is motivated," Simmons said. "Al coming from Boston, Josh coming in from Miami, the rooks coming in, Matisse has been killing, guys just have a chip on their shoulder. I feel like guys want to be better and win a championship. That's the level where we're at, I think we have a great team."

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