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PHILADELPHIA — Every now and then, along comes an N.B.A. team that takes conventional wisdom and shoves it aside.
There were the Boston Celtics who in 2002 unexpectedly made it to the Eastern Conference finals by launching 3-pointers without a conscience, at a time when games were won by tall centers who roamed the paint. There were the 2014-15 Golden State Warriors, who let Stephen Curry — a slender wizard with the basketball — lead a small-ball revolution.
It’s not size that guarantees a championship, we’re now told — it’s speed and shooting.
But behold the Philadelphia 76ers, a team constructed with height as a priority and shooting skill as a secondary consideration. They want to win by outmuscling and, literally, outreaching other teams — jumpers and spacing be damned. For a contemporary N.B.A. team, this is what is considered a grand experiment. And so far it’s working: The Sixers started the season with four consecutive victories, the latest being a 117-95 pummeling of the Minnesota Timberwolves at home on Wednesday night.
They look like a top contender and start four players who are at least 6-foot-8. Their best player — the towering Joel Embiid — is a franchise cornerstone who makes his living by bullying opposing players under the basket. His sidekick, Ben Simmons (6-foot-10), rarely shoots when he’s not close to the basket, to the point that when he hit a 3-pointer during the preseason, it was the basketball equivalent of a Bigfoot sighting. Al Horford, a 6-foot-9 versatile power forward with a thick frame who as a Celtic used to torment Embiid, now helps him in the frontcourt. Tobias Harris, re-signed this off-season, plays small forward. Although he isn’t exactly small at 6-foot-8, he would probably start at power forward on most other N.B.A. teams.
As Sixers Coach Brett Brown noted before Wednesday’s game, the height has paid off on the defensive end, where Philadelphia has excelled. Going into Thursday night’s games, the Sixers were ranked second in defensive efficiency, behind only the Utah Jazz. Not surprisingly, they also led the league in rebound percentage — essentially a measure of the percentage of available rebounds corralled. Reach can do that.
“Defensively, I give it a high mark,” Brown said in an early assessment of the tall approach. “It’s where I see the world most clearly. It’s a reflection of how we wanted to grow this program. It mirrors the spirit of the city, without getting too dramatic. But I think this is a hard city.”
That identity is something those around the franchise often speak about. Mike Scott, a 6-foot-7 fan favorite who comes off the bench, spoke during an interview about a team that was bigger, stronger and more physical. He said the Sixers play “that bully ball — Philly,” as if the two were inextricably linked.
But the shooting, as anticipated, has been a struggle. The Sixers have ranked below the league average in offensive efficiency, although with only a handful of games as a sample size, and they are near the bottom of the league in 3-point percentage. Jimmy Butler and J.J. Redick, two of the team’s better shooters from last season, left over the summer.
“It’s going to take a while to catch our defense, for reasons that I expected,” Brown said. He added: “To say they’re canyons apart would be too harsh. They’re not close right now. So I give that a C.”
Against Minnesota, Philadelphia’s height could be felt on the first play of the game, when Simmons easily swatted away a layup attempt by Robert Covington. A few minutes later a microcosm of the Philadelphia offense appeared: Embiid had the ball against Towns in the post and easily backed him down (height!). He missed a bank shot, but Horford reached over a defender to pluck the offensive rebound (height!). Horford passed the ball out to Harris, who then missed a 3-pointer (spacing!).
In the second half, Embiid easily backed Towns down in the post, much to the delight of the Philadelphia crowd, and hit a hook shot. He followed that up with a taunting flex directed at Towns. But that was nothing compared with the tussle Embiid and Towns got into after the 76ers forced Towns into a turnover. There were competing headlocks, and Towns threw a punch before the pair went to the ground. Both were ejected, but Embiid seemed jubilant anyway, throwing fake punches in the air to rouse the crowd.
“That’s what I’m good at. I like to get in people’s minds,” Embiid said afterward. (On Thursday, the N.B.A. suspended Embiid and Towns for two games each.)
Towns has been a matchup nightmare for much of his career and may very well become a candidate for the Most Valuable Player Award. He is easily one of the best centers in the league. But against Philadelphia, he was notably frustrated.
He couldn’t defend Embiid, who scored 19 points on 14 shots in 20 minutes while taking only one 3-pointer. But on offensive, where Towns usually has his way, he couldn’t get by Embiid. Towns also had trouble receiving the ball because Philadelphia effectively cut off passing lanes to him. And Towns couldn’t find solace being guarded by anyone other than Embiid: Horford, Simmons and Harris all could stay with him for stretches because of their height. Facing other teams, Towns can overpower his opponents. Not so here.
The Sixers may have found something by turning back the clock and getting taller. But, as Scott said, that doesn’t mean slower. Despite playing Embiid, Horford and Harris — three players not known for their quick feet — at the same time, Philadelphia is ranked in the top 10 for pace. That’s partly because of Simmons, who relentlessly pushes the ball up the floor with explosions of speed. Scott called him “one of the fastest guys in the league.”
The grand experiment is still very much a work in progress. But so far, the Sixers have powered and reached their way to remaining one of the N.B.A.’s few undefeated teams. That makes theirs a unique approach in a finesse-heavy league, and one that has endeared them to a city like no other.
“I was built for this city,” Embiid said after Wednesday’s game. The rest of the Sixers might be, too.