“It was a tough season for me.. I was the first player to ask to get traded and then 6 or 7 players were traded but I’m still here.”
The 76ers (26-16) hosted the Chicago Bulls (15-27) on Friday evening to kick off their back-to-back this weekend. The Sixers were looking to build off of a much-needed win on Wednesday against the visiting Nets. Knowing their history over the past three seasons, a win against a bad team was far from guaranteed. By the looks of the first quarter, it would be a battle throughout the contest.
The defensive energy was sorely lacking in the first period. The Bulls were able to get to the rim to score ten of their first fourteen points in the paint. The Sixers were slow, disengaging, and lethargic, leaving the middle of the floor open for emphatic dunks courtesy of Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen. Ben Simmons, who registered eight points and five rebounds in the first period, kept the Sixers afloat with his intensity early on. The disparity in talent kept the Sixers within three despite an uninspiring defensive quarter and an 8 of 22 shooting performance in the opening frame. Careless transition defense afforded the Bulls ten fast break points, which largely kept them in control of the quarter.
The Sixers tightened both ends of the floor in the latter side of the first half. They connected on half of their twenty field goal attempts in the period. They held Chicago to just above 42% on their nineteen attempts. While the shots began to drop, the defense remained subpar. The Bulls continued to take advantage of the Sixers’ unwillingness to get back on defense to rip off eighteen fast break points in the second period. Ben Simmons continued to lead the Sixers, scoring four of his twelve first-half points and revitalizing a sleepy defense in the second twelve minutes.
Simmons finished the half with twelve points (6 of 11) and seven rebounds. The rest of the starters combined for 7 of 29 shooting. LaVine and Markkanen combined for twenty-three points on 9 of 16 shooting in the half. They afforded the Bulls a one-point lead going into halftime.
It looked as though the Sixers would be playing down to competition, yet again.
Al Horford opened up the second half with the Sixers’ first nine points. For the first time in months, Horford appeared to have his legs under him. He connected on two mid-range jumpers, a triple, and a tough layup in the first three minutes of the half. His eighth and ninth points came on a fourteen-foot jumper that put the Sixers up by two.
The Sixers would briefly trade buckets with the Bulls, and then Jim Boylan called a timeout. Thybulle had been beaten by Zach LaVine one possession prior, and Brett Brown decided to make a significant in-game adjustment. Aware that LaVine had beaten the rookie on off-ball cuts numerous times in the game, Brown moved Thybulle off of LaVine. LaVine scored just two points over the remaining six minutes of the quarter. It wasn’t that the other Sixers were stopping him from making shots. Rather, LaVine just couldn’t get positioning to create a look for himself. The ball began to move through other avenues, and LaVine was never able to get himself into rhythm.
That in-game adjustment wasn’t the story of the game, though.
"It was a tough season for me.. I was the first player to ask to get traded and then 6 or 7 players were traded but I'm still here" Furkan Korkmaz on his season.— J Blevins? (@JBlevinsNBA) May 13, 2019
Furkan Korkmaz was ready to leave the NBA when the Sixers offered him a two-year, $3.4 million deal to remain with the team. Despite only roughly half of the money being guaranteed, Korkmaz accepted. Unbeknownst to just about everyone, he was ready to disprove everyone who had doubted his ability to stick on an NBA roster.
In what has been a very encouraging season for the twenty-two-year-old, this was the moment for which Korkmaz bet on himself.
Korkmaz connected on a pair of triples in the first half, which has become characteristic over the course of this season. His third quarter came out of a feel-good movie. Over the final four minutes of the third, Korkmaz connected on four consecutive three-pointers in as many possessions. His “bombing” stretched Philadelphia’s lead from five points to fourteen. Even with it only being a fourteen-point difference, the Sixers were inspired and in control for the remainder of the game. Furkan’s third quarter inferno essentially won the game for the Sixers.
Shades of J.J. Redick
For the first time this season, the Sixers were pleasantly surprised with some déjà vu from J.J. Redick’s tenure with the team. Brett Brown offered such praise of the young shooter following the win: “For us to see, and he’s young–you can’t forget his birth certificate, for us to see him come in and do JJ [Redick] like stuff, and be that type of a bomber, that was different to what we have as it relates to our current skillset. We put him in a bunch of stuff, and we ran probably five plays in a row going to him. I had flashbacks of JJ, like we jumped into JJ’s package for him [Furkan]. He changed the game. He gave us a spark.”
Self-Awareness and Fearlessness
Perhaps most impressive of all is Korkmaz’s response to playing under the pressure of being counted on as the team’s only sniper. He spoke of his shooter’s mentality: “I know the expectation from the coaching staff and my teammates when I go on the court. I know that it doesn’t matter if I miss it or if I make it, I just need to take the open shots. As a team, I think that’s what we need. Somedays, as a team, we are feeling really good shooting. Sometimes, especially on the road, our percentage goes down. Our team needs to carry this game to the roads, my personal performance, too.”
Korkmaz has been asked to grow up quickly since going from an understudy to a key piece, and he has responded to the pressure of his role without fear.
No One-Trick Pony
Korkmaz’s defensive improvement cannot be ignored, either. While he is still slow, occasionally feeble, and often targeted by opposing offenses, Korkmaz has carved out a niche for himself as an off-ball interceptor and deflector, and as a swipe-strip defender when the opposition attempts to elevate for layups.
Korkmaz has focused on baby-step improvements to his defense. It has culminated in a wing player who is not constantly played off the court on the defensive side. Ben Simmons pointed to Korkmaz’s defense in the wake of his hot night: “He stayed locked in. He hasn’t gone off track if he’s not playing as many minutes. When he gets the opportunity he’s ready. And defense, he stepped up a lot. He’s had a lot of guys go at him and he’s taken those challenges upon himself to get better and be a better defensive player.”
The final twelve was merely a formality. The Bulls were out of rhythm and unable to get anything going, shooting 7 of 23 (0 of 11 on three-point attempts) in the final frame 0 of 11. The Sixers kept Chicago at arm’s length, and Matisse Thybulle’s triple with 3:38 remaining put Philly up thirteen and sealed the victory.
The Sixers improved to 27-16, and a sensational 20-2 at home. The Bulls drop to 15-28. The Sixers visit the Knicks tomorrow night.
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