Among the many tattoos adorning the 6-foot-7 frame of Sixers forward Kelly Oubre Jr. is one on his lower right leg of Bruce Lee, the late, legendary martial artist. Oubre declared himself “a very big fan” of Lee’s late Tuesday night, after the Sixers had dispatched the Chicago Bulls, and said he had practiced taekwondo as a boy, before redirecting himself toward hoops. His interest in the discipline (and Lee) was rooted as much in the psychological as the physical.
“I’m a very big fan of martial arts,” he said, “and I’m a big fan of being like water — just going with the flow, being formless, shapeless, and just taking whatever life comes at you.”
Coach Nick Nurse poured Oubre back into the starting lineup seven games ago, after he had missed 11 with a rib fracture and come off the bench for six. And against the Bulls Nurse made another tweak, reintroducing Nicolas Batum with the opening group after he sat out five games with a sore hamstring and served as a reserve for one.
The result was a Sixers tsunami — appropriate, perhaps, since Oubre is known as “Tsunami Papi” or “T$unami Papi,” for “the energy (he puts) out into the world.” Philadelphia stormed to a 73-42 halftime lead and cruised home, 110-97.
Granted, the Bulls are banged up. Star guard Zach LaVine is out with a bad foot and veteran center Nikola Vucevic, the long-ago Sixer, has a groin strain. (Also, Lonzo Ball — remember him? — hasn’t played in forever with a gimpy knee.) Still, the Bulls had beaten the Sixers twice while winning 10 of their previous 15.
But on Tuesday Oubre notched 13 of his 16 points in the opening quarter, staking the Sixers to a 43-18 lead. Joel Embiid (back after missing four games with an ankle injury) finished the night with a triple double — 31 points, 15 rebounds, 10 assists — while Tyrese Maxey scored 21 and Tobias Harris 20. Batum, one of those guys who grows on you, the more you watch him, finished with just six points in a little over 22 minutes of work, but again did all those little things that spell the difference between victory and defeat.
So yeah, the debut of the new lineup — with three 6-7ish guys (Oubre, Batum, Harris) around an elite big in Embiid and a jet like Maxey — was a rousing success.
“I thought we looked really fast tonight,” Nurse said.
Even “extra fast on offense,” he added.
“I don’t know if that was part of the reason,” he said of the reconfigured starting five.
Can’t hurt. The new opening group gives the Sixers size and shooting, switchability and versatility. Nurse said he had been toying with the idea of this grouping for a while, but had been hesitant to make a change, with this team going so well. (They are now 23-10 and third in the East, behind Boston and Milwaukee.) But a back injury to starting guard De’Anthony Melton afforded him the opportunity to tinker.
“That’s an interesting lineup,” Batum allowed. “We’ve got a great point guard and a great big man, and three dudes who are 6-8 and totally different players as well.”
“I’ve been actually wanting to really play with Nico,” Oubre said. “His IQ and the things that he brings to the game are second to none. He’s a veteran player, and a lot of times I look at him and I calm down.”
And indeed, Batum, a 35-year-old Frenchman 16 years into his career, is one of those guys who moves placidly amid the noise and haste.
“He never seems rattled,” Oubre said.
The 28-year-old Oubre, by contrast, called himself “very energetic” and “about wearing my sleeve on my shoulder.”
Or something like that.
“Knowing that there’s a guy that I can lean on and kind of calm myself down, I think that’s (Batum),” Oubre said, “because I can’t go to Pat (Beverley), because we’re both going to be yelling at everybody, just raging out.”
Oubre said he was only kidding, but we have all seen the body of work of Beverley, the fiery reserve guard. He backs down from no one, another reason to be fascinated by this edition of the Sixers.
“I don’t know the future about the lineups,” Oubre said. “That’s above my pay grade, but we’re going to just continue to do what we do. … But it worked, so hopefully we stick with it a little bit.”
If you want to extrapolate four months and examine potential playoff matchups, you can see how a lineup like this might be the best possible antidote for a Celtics team featuring two elite wings in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, not to mention the criminally underrated Derrick White and old friend Jrue Holiday. Neither Nurse nor Batum were all that eager to look that far ahead.
“It’s January,” Batum said. “We have a lot of basketball to play before that happens – if that happens. So we can’t really focus on that yet.”
Oubre was another matter.
“Let’s go,” he said, when I first mentioned the possibility of a postseason matchup with the C’s.
Then he backtracked a bit, saying that he just tries “to go out there and not think, and play basketball,” and how it is left to Nurse to decide who plays and when.
“Coach knows what he’s doing when it comes to lineups and in-game situations,” Oubre said, “so we’ve just got to continue to play well, jell together and build that camaraderie so that we’re confident going against a team like Boston, because they’re very confident, obviously, and they’re very good. But we’re also very good, so we have to continue to just grow and build — build up to that April, May, June.”
Just a matter of going with the flow, in other words — like water — and seeing how far they can ride the wave. Too often, certainly, the Sixers of recent vintage have run aground. But now there are new possibilities, new hopes. It’s early, yes, but not too early to think about what could be, and whether this is a team that might be able to complete a very perilous voyage.