Backups Bigs Step Up, 3-and-D Thybulle, more takeaways from Sixers’ win
The circumstances were less than ideal. With All-Stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons sitting because of the league’s health and safety protocols, the Sixers began the second half shorthanded.
What seemed to be a difficult road matchup turned into a laugher as the Sixers crushed the Bulls, 127-105, on Thursday night at United Center.
Tony Bradley and Dwight Howard stepped up in a big way, Matisse Thybulle had his finest two-way game of the season and more takeaways from the win.
Backup Bigs Beat Up Bulls
Back on Jan. 31, Doc Rivers made the decision to start Bradley and bring Howard off the bench with Embiid out. The thinking was that Howard had played well with the second unit and to keep that continuity. The result was a win, and Howard played a huge role in it.
On Thursday night in Chicago, both bigs were huge. Bradley dropped a season-high 14 points (7 of 7) with five rebounds and tying a career-high with three blocks. As the team’s third center Bradley’s playing time has fluctuated. A former first-round pick that just recently turned 23, it perhaps hasn’t been the easiest situation.
But Rivers and Howard were effusive in their praise for the young center. Rivers mentioned that Bradley has lost 25 pounds since the start of the season, a testament to how much work he’s put in to stay ready for when his number is called.
Everyone – including Embiid watching from home – was happy for Bradley.
“He works every single day on his body and on his skill,” Rivers said postgame. “Just because he doesn’t play doesn’t mean other guys don’t notice what he’s doing. I thought the entire bench, everyone, was so happy for him as he was playing. Those first two baskets, Dwight was running around the floor celebrating because they see the work.”
Bradley gave credit to scrimmages the team runs after practice with the low-minute players for him being able to stay sharp. He’s felt the effects physically of losing that weight and the work he’s put in.
“I feel a lot better moving-wise – laterally, sprinting,” Bradley said. “Just less pressure on my knees. Overall, I feel great.”
One player whose fitness will never be in question is Howard’s. The veteran center has had a few nights where he seemed to turn the clock back to his “Superman” days in Orlando. Thursday was one of those as the 35-year-old scored a season-high 18 points (8 of 12), pulled down 12 rebounds and recorded two blocks.
Beyond giving the Sixers serviceable minutes as a backup five, Howard has been a great leader for a young team. That’s why he spent a great deal of his availability postgame heaping praise on Bradley.
“I thought he did an amazing job tonight,” Howard said of Bradley. “His energy is the one thing I’ve been talking to him about all year. Just play with a lot of energy and the ball will find you, you’ll get to open spots. He does a good job of listening. Super proud of Tony. Just want him to keeping playing, continue to stay focused, stay hungry and humble, and the sky’s the limit.”
If you’ll recall, the Sixers acquired Bradley in a trade for Zhaire Smith. It was a bit of head-scratcher at the time, but the simple explanation seemed to be the team valued a decent third center over an athletic but unpolished guard.
That move looks like a savvy one.
Across a few matchups, Thybulle has made life difficult for All-Star and fellow Washington state product Zach LaVine. What Thybulle seems to do so well is not allow LaVine the opportunity to even get shots up. LaVine was just 1 of 3 against Thybulle, though the second-year guard defended him 53 percent of the time.
While we all know about Thybulle’s defense and disruptive nature (five steals), it was his performance on the other end that was most encouraging. Thybulle went 3 of 3 from three – and all three shots were confident and smooth. Overall, he was 5 of 5 for 13 points.
Thybulle is a defense-first player, but his ability to make open threes would be huge. When the Sixers promised to draft him in 2019, they looked at him as a 3-and-D player. In his first three seasons at Washington, Thybulle made 37.9 percent of his threes before a down shooting season as a senior (30.5 percent). Even in his rookie season, Thybulle hit 35.7 percent from beyond the arc.
There is potential there and the 24-year-old is trying to unlock it.
“He’s been putting in a lot of work and you see it’s paying off,” Howard said. “He came in tonight, hit some really big threes, got some big stops on defense, but his offense tonight was great. He hit some big shots, some timely shots. The effort and energy he’s been putting in toward his offensive game has been amazing to see. He’s one of the last few people in the gym, he’s been working on his threes and doing a great job.”
The more shots Thybulle makes, the more difficult it will be for Rivers to keep him off the floor.
Quietly Excellent Tobias
Before the game, Rivers joked that he’d like Tobias Harris to score 50 points to make up for Embiid and Simmons being out. Rivers went on to say he just wanted Tobias “to be Tobias,” and that it was up to everyone to step up.
After missing his first five shots from the floor, Harris made a concerted effort to get to the rim. That led to the Sixers’ second-leading scorer getting to the line eight times in the first half. From there, his shot also began to fall. Harris went on to make 8 of his next 10 shots after the 0-for-5 start.
Harris scored 11 points in the third quarter and seemed to take the game over offensively as the Sixers pulled away. It wasn’t 50, but Harris’ 24 points were game-high.
Harris’ play continues to be All-Star caliber. This past offseason, Harris was a popular target for Sixers fans because of a disappointing postseason and his near-max contract. This season, he’s been the Sixers’ most reliable player and is damn near indispensable.