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January 16, 2018

Young Sixers show Philly toughness in MLK Day win over Toronto Raptors

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In the modern NBA — particularly in the regular season — most guys don't go too overboard with the trash talking and physical play. Outside of a few of the league's biggest rivalries, like the years-long cold war between the Cavs and the Warriors, there just isn't a ton of animosity on most nights. These guys all run together at the same pickup games in the summer, and the meanest it usually gets is in the Instagram comments.

The Sixers might be on the verge of shifting that paradigm. Led by a pair of ultra-talented young stars, the Sixers are still a long way from achieving their major team goals. But Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons want their respect right now, and they will take it by force if it's necessary.

Less than a week after a brouhaha with Boston's Marcus Morris, Simmons got into another late-game scuffle with Raptors guard Kyle Lowry in Monday's win against Toronto. Philly's top rookie and one of Philly's native sons jawed big time at mid-court, with tensions boiling over following a pair of small bumps at either end of the floor.

When the pair got ejected after the game, nobody knows what happened next. Rumors flew around the Wells Fargo Center suggesting Lowry and Simmons got into an additional altercation in the locker room area, and fuel was poured on that fire when the Sixers announced there would be no locker room availability postgame. They explained the change was due to a "leak in the locker room," but it made for good conspiracy fodder all the same.

Simmons tried to shrug off the whole thing when he finally stepped to the podium about a half hour later, but after being pressed on the matter by reporters, he finally said what was on his mind.

"Maybe they're just trying to test me, I don't know if they're trying to test me or see how I am on the court, but I don't play around," said Simmons. "I'm not going to take sh*t from anybody ... I'm not going to let you push me around, or push me and say whatever you want. I'm not that type of player."

From a kid who is much more action than tough talk, the statement was loud from Simmons. And it is another step in a broader pattern of the Sixers tussling with anyone and everyone, only caring if they get a win at the end of the game.

Despite foul trouble that limited his impact throughout the game, Simmons made sure his impact was felt when the game was on the line in the fourth quarter. After watching most of a 20+ point lead slip away from the bench, Simmons was Philadelphia's hub in the game's most critical stretch. He drove for a bucket, sunk a pair of free throws after being hacked and hit Delon Wright with a deadly spin move, finding Dario Saric for a three after making his defender look silly.

Simmons has been playing with a different mentality since the end of December, attacking the basket relentlessly and daring teams to stop him. The final flourish was noteworthy, but the way he started the game was perhaps even better. He and Embiid took turns dusting their defenders in the first quarter, accounting for Philadelphia's first 20 points of the game. 

The Sixers were able to get out to a lead against a top Eastern Conference team for a simple reason: they played like they believe they have two of the top guys in the conference, in a game featuring two perennial All-Stars on the other side of the ball. 

But this game was about much more than those two headliners, even from the perspective of mixing it up.

TJ McConnell came up large

About halfway through the second quarter, DeMar DeRozan was frustrated about what he felt was a non-call that cost him a turnover. He immediately looked for an outlet for his frustrations, and perhaps chose the wrong target to blow off steam at.

DeRozan doesn't exactly have a rep as a tough guy in the league, but his name carries plenty of weight if you ask the right people. The Compton native's name came up during an NBA Tough Guys segment with Long Beach rapper Vince Staples, and he refused to even discuss DeRozan's past on camera. You can do the research yourself on that one.

That's a long way of saying McConnell has some cojones to step to him. Energized by the scuffle, McConnell had one of the best games of his career, collecting 18 points, six rebounds, eight assists and three steals in a big 32 minutes. He shrugged off the scuffle in typical McConnell fashion after the game, insisting his focus is only ever on doing whatever it takes to help the Sixers win.

"It's basketball, that kind of stuff happens," said McConnell. "I know he had no intent behind it, he's a good guy so it's just heat of the moment stuff."

But McConnell didn't focus on the scrap or his big night very long, and he chose instead to harp on an area of his game that sticks out in all the wrong ways. Part of Toronto's push back into the game in the fourth quarter can be chalked up to some passive play on McConnell's part, and a trend of overpassing the team needs to cut down a bit.

Embiid gets hit with lots of double teams, and his success getting out of them is a mixed bag. So when he's able to find a crack in the defense, the Sixers' perimeter players need to reward him for making the correct read, instead of recycling the offense and running down the shot clock.

For McConnell specifically, he has to be much quicker and more willing to let it fly. He is every bit the "true point guard" people think about when they think of the position, but you can't pass up shot opportunities like these with the shot clock winding down. They will come back to haunt your offense more often than not.

I only harp on these plays on a good McConnel day because he highlighted them himself, calling them "selfish" after the game and vowing they would never happen again. You want to believe him when he says it, and he certainly puts in the work to do better than that. When Sixers practices are wrapping up, you can often find him lurking on the far court and putting shots up, pounding the ball in disgust whenever they don't drop.

Embiid's impact on the gameplan

It's apparent to everyone that Embiid is the straw that stirs the drink for Philadelphia. He gets a lot of power as a result, and the team has even made it clear that he has a lot of agency in deciding whether he'll play or not.

But when he was speaking to reporters following Monday's game, he let loose an interesting tidbit: he may have a pretty sizable impact on how the team draws up their scheme from game-to-game, at least if you take his words at face value.

"I think it was more about the way the offense was set up," Embiid said of his 34-point, 11 rebound performance on Monday. "After the Boston game, I felt like I was floating around the perimeter too much. So I kind of talked to coach about it and then we changed the gameplan, and I felt like I was more of an inside presence."

This sheds light on a couple things. No. 1, Joel Embiid has the power to go into the coach's office and push forward changes in their approach. No. 2, the relationship between coach and player is strong enough that they can have that honest dialogue after a tough game, making sure they get it right the next time out.

I'm not sure that actually made too much of a difference in practice. Embiid still shot five three-pointers against the Raptors, and the majority of his damage on the offensive end was done in the mid-range. He was more successful against Toronto than in the London game, certainly, but it was the usual variety of offense we've come to expect from Embiid. Making shots from mid-range made the biggest difference of all.

Even still, I think it's important he feels that agency in how the team operates and that he has such a healthy dialogue with Brown. The health and happiness of Embiid should be at the top of the franchise's priority list, and — knock on wood — they're doing just fine on those fronts at the moment.