The Sixers closed off 2016 with a dramatic 124-122 victory over the Denver Nuggets, heading into the new year with a record of 8-24.
The Sixers were 3-31 at this time last year.
The Sixers were led by Joel Embiid, who finished with 23 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 blocked shots, and 2 steals on the evening. Embiid got to the free-throw line 14 times on the night, making 12 of them, none more important than the three free-throws he sank in the final 8 seconds to secure the victory.
“I’ve always thought that I’m clutch, so I just stepped to the line and made my free throws, and we won the game,” Embiid told CSN Philly after the game.
Embiid had help, especially from the rest of Brett Brown‘s starting lineup. Ersan Ilyasova (23 points), Robert Covington (19 points), T.J. McConnell (17 points), and Nik Stauskas all reached double figures in scoring.
Covington’s night was perhaps the most unexpected, especially considering the way it started. Covington, who scored just 6 points on 2-17 shooting over his preview two games, began Friday night’s contest scoreless in the first half on 0-3 shooting from the field. He rebounded with 15 third-quarter points, making three of his four three-point shots in the frame. Covington scored all 19 of his points in the final 24 minutes of play.
The second half was a strong one for the Sixers as a whole, at least offensively, as they scored 64 points and made 9 three-pointers during that span. They also committed just 2 second-half turnovers, which feels like a minor miracle for a team that’s last in the league in taking care of the basketball.
Still, the Sixers struggled to keep the Denver Nugget’s offense in check, allowing 35 fourth-quarter points to keep the game close. The Nuggets were led by 25 points from second-year center Nikola Jokic, while also receiving 22 points from Emmanuel Mudiay. Mudiay, who entered the game shooting just 31.9 percent from three-point range, connected on three of his five three-point attempts on the evening.
The Nuggets have turned their season around in recent weeks, averaging 115.3 points per 100 possessions over their last 10 games, which is good for the third-best offensive output over that span.
The Sixers entered the 4th quarter clinging to a 91-87 lead, which means the Sixers held a lead entering the final quarter of play in every game during this 4 game road trip. Despite Denver’s ability to keep the game close the Sixers never trailed in the 4th quarter, a nice change for a team that blew 4th quarter leads in their previous three games.
“For us to end this road trip, going into the new year, it certainly is a feel-good win for the team,” Brown told reporters after the game.
Still, the 4th quarter wasn’t without drama. After Embiid made a pair of free-throws with 4 seconds remaining Jokic was the beneficiary of a phantom foul on a desperate three-point attempt. Jokic sank the first two free-throws before intentionally missing the third, and Denver got the offensive rebound with a chance to tie the game. Gary Harris missed a short jump shot before Kenneth Faried and Wilson Chandler both missed tip-in attempts to tie the game. Nerlens Noel eventually corralled the rebound for the Sixers, securing the win.
With starting point guard Sergio Rodriguez unavailable as a result of a sprained ankle, T.J. McConnell stepped into the starting lineup for the second time this season. McConnell, who nearly recorded a triple double (12 points, 10 rebounds, 9 assists) in his previous start, provided the Sixers with an unexpected offensive boost, finishing the night with 17 points and 8 assists while committing just 2 turnovers.
The 17 points tied a career-high for McConnell, as did his three made three-point attempts, all of which came in the second half. McConnell entered the game shooting just 3-15 from three-point range on the season.
While McConnell and Covington provided the second-half sparks to keep the Sixers ahead, Ersan Ilyasova was a big reason the Sixers had a lead to hold. Ilyasova record 16 first-half points and finished the night shooting 5-6 from three-point range. Ilyasova’s now averaging 14.8 points on 47 percent shooting from the field, including 40.1 percent shooting from three-point range, for the Sixers. His 14.8 points per game average would be the best of his career.
The Sixers also received strong bench performances from Dario Saric (13 points, 11 rebounds, 5 assists) and Nerlens Noel (9 points, 2 rebounds, 1 block), who received 19 minutes of playing time because of the absence of Jahlil Okafor, who missed the game because of soreness in his left hamstring. Okafor did dress and was available to play if head coach Brett Brown needed him, but their intention was to give him the night off for rest.
Despite the strong play from a number of his supporting cast, the star of the night was still Joel Embiid. From his ability to stuff the stat sheet, control the game defensively, get to the line seemingly at-will, or calmly sink free-throws with the game on the line, everything the Sixers did revolved around their rookie center.
As his playing time has increased over the past few weeks, Embiid appears to be getting into a rhythm. The Cameroonian center is averaging 23.8 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 2.2 blocked shots per game over his last 5 games, shooting 50 percent from the field and getting to the free-throw line 9.4 times per game over that span. Zooming out, Embiid’s averaging 20.0 points, 7.1 rebounds, 2.5 blocks, and 2.3 assists per game in 26.3 minutes of play since November 19th, a span that includes 14 games played for Embiid.
The Sixers resume play Tuesday night at the Wells Fargo Center, where they’ll take on Karl-Anthony Towns and the disappointing Minnesota Timberwolves (11-22). Despite the Wolves’ struggles on the season, they handed the Sixers a humiliating 110-86 loss on November 17th on national television. Andrew Wiggins led the Wolves with 35 points in that previous matchup.
Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.