The Philadelphia 76ers picked up their 12th win of the season Friday night, this one a 102-93 victory over visiting Charlotte Hornets in front of an increasingly rabid 18,215 fans in South Philadelphia.
It is the fifth victory Brett Brown’s team has picked up in their last six games. The Sixers never trailed in this one.
The Sixers were led, once again, by Joel Embiid, who dominated both ends of the court on his way to 24 points, 8 rebounds, 3 blocks, and 2 steals, with the Sixers outscoring the Hornets by 23 points while he was on the court.
The sheer diversity of skill sets Embiid showed off was staggering to watch. He rejected Cody Zeller, emphatically, at the rim, he switched onto guard Marco Belinelli and forced a miss, then sprinted out in transition like 7-foot-2 big men aren’t supposed to.
It’s an increasingly common glimpse into the special kind of talent Embiid could develop into.
There were other contributors for the Sixers, of course. Dario Saric, Embiid’s fellow rookie from the 2014 draft, came off the bench to chip in 15 points on 5-10 shooting from the field, including 4-6 from three-point range. Robert Covington found his perimeter shot, connecting on 3 of his 6 attempts from three-point range to get his 11 points. And T.J. McConnell quarterbacked the team once again, dishing out 8 assists and playing strong defense on star guard Kemba Walker, who finished the night shooting just 7-23 from the field.
But this was Embiid’s show, from the moment he walked onto the court doing his Triple H impression, to his multiple SportsCenter highlights, to the way he dominated the game on both ends of the court during the Sixers’ decisive 17-4 third quarter run, to his ability to get to the free-throw line down the stretch and help put the game away.
That all leaves the Sixers in a place they haven’t been in quite some time, with games of separation between them and the worst record in the league and riding an actual, real life winning streak. The win gave the Sixers a three game winning streak, something they haven’t accomplished since January 2014, and gives them their 5th victory in the last 6 games.
The change in atmosphere is something to behold. From despair to elation, from hope to belief. Sure, some more contributors have been brought in. With Ersan Ilyasova and Gerald Henderson on the court head coach Brett Brown has more NBA players on his roster than he had in any of his previous years, and the fact that they, especially Illyasova, fit so well with Embiid certainly helps.
But it’s about Embiid. It’s all about Embiid. Saying otherwise would be disingenuous. The supporting pieces are immaterial if the centerpiece isn’t in place, the success merely entertaining rather than inspiring if it’s not on the back of an elite talent. It’s the difference between a fools gold season and the belief that something special is around the corner.
Any long-term excitement exists because Embiid is here to lead the way. His right foot is the reason this season feels different. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.
The Sixers went into halftime last night holding a 7 point lead on the Hornets. It’s a situation they’ve found themselves in many times over the past few years. Scrappy, under-talented team frustrates playoff team before the opponent runs them out of the gym in the second half of play. It happened in Charlotte earlier this season, when the Sixers held a 7-point halftime lead before giving up 39 to the Hornets in the decisive third quarter.
It seemed destined to happen last night as well. The Sixers came out of halftime and couldn’t get out of their own way, with four turnovers (2 from Embiid, one from Ilyasova, one from Stauskas) leading the way to a 7-0 Charlotte run to tie the game. Cue Bill Murray gifs.
Instead the Sixers responded, and responded in commanding fashion. But it wasn’t a Brett Brown timeout that turned the game around, or a substitution to give the team a spark. Instead the turnaround happened organically, with a great player making a great play to reinvigorate a seemingly lifeless team.
With 9:30 left in the third quarter in a tied 52-52 game, Joel Embiid showed a little too aggressively defending a Nicolas Batum pick and roll. His own man, Cody Zeller, rolled hard to the rim, with Nik Stauskas sliding over from the baseline to slow Zeller down *just enough* for Embiid to make one of the more impressive defensive plays you’ll see.
With Zeller winding up for the kind of emphatic, demoralizing dunk that would have extended the Hornets run out to 9-0 and give them their first lead of the game, the momentum instead swung the other way, with Embiid chasing Zeller down to meet him at the rim, matching Zeller’s ferociousness with his own, sending both big men to the floor and giving the Sixers possession of the ball.
What could have, should have, been a demoralizing moment for the Sixers instead led to the Sixers regaining control of the game.
Within the blink of an eye a 52-52 game turned into a 69-56 lead, the block igniting a 17-4 reaction by the home team. It’s the kind of response — matching an opponent run with an equally, if not more, impressive run of their own — this team typically doesn’t have in them. You hate to read too much into one game, but, especially considering the team has now won five of six, it’s impossible not to think they’ve turned the corner.
“That is a playoff-hardened team. That’s a really good team. They’re well-coached, they have experience, and they jumped us at the start of the 3rd,” Brown said about his opponent. “I think that we learned how to not play static basketball and close out a win, and navigate stuff at the end of a game. Our guys did a good job of doing what we talk about at the end of a game. They’re just getting more comfortable learning how to win.”
And that corner is being turned on the backs of the Sixers defense, anchored not only by Joel Embiid’s dominating presence in the paint, but also Nerlens Noel off the bench. Since the Sixers made the switch, essentially benching Jahlil Okafor (DNP-CD’s in 5 of the last 6 games) in favor of trying Nerlens Noel out as the backup center, the Sixers have allowed just 99.9 points per 100 possessions to their opponent.
“We haven’t wavered once on what our goal is to build this, and I think slowly you can point to some subtle examples, albeit only over a handful of games, but it’s pointing in the direction that we want to take this program,” Brown said about the defense. “There’s a good feeling amongst the guys. We understand that we’re not going to do anything that we want to do unless we play defense.”
That’s the 4th best defense in the league over that span. In the entire NBA. Just behind the Utah Jazz 99.4 ranking anchored by all-world defender Rudy Gobert.
The identity the Sixers have built is true, and it’s real. The Sixers defense has consistently performed well, to the tune of a 99.7 defensive rating with Joel Embiid on the court this year, a rating which would be better than any team has operated at this season. And we’re now at a sample of 681 minutes where you take that number seriously.
Yet Embiid has also been the team’s leading scorer, their focal point on offense, carrying a 57.5 percent true shooting percentage despite a 36.1 usage rate, with the Sixers relying on him for offense as much as virtually anybody in the league. Embiid has scored at least 20 points in 8 consecutive games, averaging 23.5 points on just 15.4 field goal attempts per game over that span.
To consistently be a dominant defender while also carrying an offense, is the rarest of the rare.
That’s what makes Embiid special. He’s that big man without compromises, the kind of dominating freak that imposes his will upon a game, a franchise, and a city. The Sixers are relevant, they’re on an exciting upward trajectory, and don’t let anybody fool you as to the reason why.
Brett Brown tightening his rotation
The Sixers continue to start T.J. McConnell and Nik Stauskas in the backcourt, something which head coach Brett Brown doesn’t expect to change anytime soon, and having that kind of flexibility is something Brown gives credit to Sergio Rodriguez and Gerald Henderson for.
“I believe so,” Brown said when asked if he’d stick with the starting unit, for now. “These two things that you just mentioned were born out of injury. And then people took an opportunity and held on to it.
“The group co-exists just fine. This would be probably the closest group, from a chemistry and togetherness standpoint, I think that we’ve had,” Brown continued. “They accept roles. Sergio’s fine, Gerald’s fine. It’s a good group.”
The lineup gives Brown a symmetry he enjoys, and something he says makes it easier for him to coach.
“The symmetry of how you play doesn’t change. You can go Jo (Embiid) and Nerlens (Noel), well you have a rim protector. You go Ersan (Ilyasova) and Dario (Saric) you have a stretch four,” Embiid said. “There’s a symmetry to our purpose and our structure. I think that tight rotation, it certainly is easier to coach, and play.”
Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.