Sixers Defense Leads The Way to 93-92 Win Over Blazers

Despite Joel Embiid missing the end of the game with a hyperextended left knee, the Sixers clawed their way back for a 93-92 victory over Portland.

Sixers center Joel Embiid congratulates Robert Covington, mid-interview, for his game winning basket | John Geliebter-USA TODAY Sports

Sixers center Joel Embiid congratulates Robert Covington, mid-interview, for his game winning basket | John Geliebter-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps the most jarring aspect of the Sixers recent winning ways — which was extended to an 8-2 stretch of play after last night’s 93-92 victory over the visiting Portland Trailblazers — is the confidence the team has inspired from fans late in close games.

Defined over the last few years by their complete inability to execute down the stretch, the Sixers have flipped that script entirely over the last few weeks. As Kevin Pelton of ESPN pointed out last night, the Sixers went 4-22 in games decided by five or fewer points from October 2015 to December 29th, 2016. They’ve won five of their past six such contests since.

“Our guys, to their credit, they’re feeling good about themselves. They’re winning here at home, and we found a way to, again, win ugly,” head coach Brett Brown said after the game. “I think you have to give our guys, without Joel (Embiid), a lot of credit, a lot of credit, to be able to find a way to win at home under the circumstances we were in.”

This one was, perhaps, their most improbable victory yet. Brett Brown’s team was down five with 3:05 remaining, and perhaps most importantly, with one Joel Hans Embiid to help close out the game (more on that below) and facing an elite offensive player in Damian Lillard (30 points, 12-25 shooting) who they had struggled to slow down for most of the night.

But yet here the Sixers are, almost inexplicably, winners of 8 of their last 10, thanks to a 10-4 sprint to close out the game and pull out yet another last second victory in front of a raucous South Philadelphia crowd.

The game winning shot came from Robert Covington, nailing a 28-foot contested three-point shot over Evan Turner, giving the Sixers a one point lead with 4.5 seconds remaining. Nerlens Noel forced Mason Plumlee into a miss at the rim to seal the game for the Sixers.

Covington’s game winner came after Lillard went 1-of-2 from the free-throw line with 14 seconds remaining. Declining to call a timeout Brown allowed point guard T.J. McConnell (8 points, 5 assists, 4 rebounds) to push the ball against a Blazers defense they didn’t want to give an opportunity to get set, an increasingly common tactic for Brown and his squad. After McConnell and Ilyasova ran some quick pick and roll action McConnell found Covington for the long game winner.

Covington finished with 22 points on 8-17 shooting, including 5-12 from three-point range, on the night. He also chipped in 6 rebounds, a steal, a block, and his characteristically stellar defense throughout the night.

Ersan Ilyasova also gave the Sixers a huge boost, scoring a team-high 24 points on 9-14 shooting, which included makes on 5 of his 6 three-point attempts. The Sixers also got 18 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists, and 4 blocked shots (in 22 minutes) from Joel Embiid, who had his streak of consecutive 20+ point games broken at 10 because of a combination of poor free-throw shooting (4-9) and limited minutes (22, hyperextended left knee).

The Sixers have now won 8 of their last 10 contests, pulling themselves to within 4.5 games of the 8th seed in the Eastern Conference playoff race. That surge has been led almost entirely by their defense, the best ranked unit in the NBA over the last 10 games, and now the 9th best defensive squad on the season.

The Sixers have now held their opponent to fewer points per possession than their season average in the last six games Joel Embiid has played.

That stretch of superb defensive play looked to be in doubt last night against a Portland Trailblazers team that, with the dynamic combination of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum on the perimeter, seemed tailor-made to give the Sixers fits.

Those concerns looked to be true in the 1st quarter, where the Blazers, led by 16 points on 7-8 shooting from Lillard, sprinted out to a 33-22 lead, connecting on 54.2 percent of their field goals in the quarter.

The Sixers ramped up their defensive execution after that, holding the Blazers to just 59 points on 30.8 percent shooting in the final 36 minutes of play, including 28.6 percent from the field in a stifling final quarter of play. Lillard and McCollum combined for just 21 points on 7-27 shooting in the final three quarters.

In last night’s game the Sixers were able to keep up their defensive pressure even when Joel Embiid was out of the game, something they have struggled to do on the season, even in this recent stretch of good play. The Sixers held the Blazers to an offensive rating of just 91.8 in the 26 minutes Embiid was on the bench, with the Blazers shooting just 37 percent from the field in that time.

On the season the Sixers have given up an average of 107.9 points per 100 possessions when Embiid’s been off the floor, compared to just 98.5 per 100 with Embiid in the game.

The Blazers shot just 38.2 percent inside of the three-point line on the night, including just 43.5 percent on shots within 15 feet of the basket. The Blazers shoot 50.2 percent from two-point range and 52.4 percent on shots within 15 feet for the year. The Blazers shot just 1-9 at the rim when either Embiid or Noel were in the vicinity to challenge the shot.

(Note: Embiid and Noel rank 1st and 2nd in the NBA, respectively, with the lowest opponent field goal percentage at the rim when they’re in the vicinity to defend the shot. That’s ridiculous). 

The Sixers schedule gets tough, really tough, here in the next few weeks, starting off tonight in Atlanta without Joel Embiid, then returning home to face the Clippers on Tuesday night. Their winning ways, you would imagine, would have to be curtailed, at least a little bit, considering the upcoming schedule. Still, Brett Brown’s team continues to defy all odds, so who am I to define what they can and cannot realistically do?

Joel Embiid injury scare
During the third quarter star rookie Joel Embiid drove down the lane, scoring an emphatic dunk over Mason Plumlee to pull the Sixers to within 5 with 7:01 remaining in the third quarter. Embiid’s left leg appeared to buckle on the landing, bending in, well, the wrong direction and causing Embiid to roll around on the ground in pain.

After that initial scare Embiid seemed to improve, eventually moving around in an effort to jog the injury off. Still, Embiid headed back to the locker room to get the leg looked at, and later on in the period it was announced that Embiid had suffered a left knee contusion and was available to return.

Embiid returned to the game at the start of the 4th quarter and immediately scored an and-1 on his first offensive touch, but appeared to aggravate the injury later in the quarter after landing awkwardly on yet another driving layup. Brown immediately sent Noel to the scorers table to replace Embiid, with Brown eventually calling a timeout 46 seconds later to force a stoppage of play and get his star player out of the game.

After a few trips back to the locker room, with an animated Embiid trying to make his case to Brown to return to the game, Embiid’s argument was unsuccessful and the team ruled him out for the rest of the game, for precautionary reasons, with a left knee contusion.

After the game the team updated the diagnosis to a hyperextended left knee. Embiid received an MRI, according to Embiid, and everything is fine. “The knee’s fine. They did an MRI. I feel great,” Embiid said. “I knew it was okay. I just landed the wrong way.

“I wanted to play, (but) those guys they care about me. They put (my health) first, and they made the right decision,” Embiid concluded.

“It’s clear to all of us that he plays with such reckless abandon, I think that we’re all going to be seeing this regularly,” head coach Brett Brown said about injury scares to Embiid. “From flying into stands to stopping somebody in the open court to block his shot, to the collision that he is often in (when) trying to draw fouls, that’s just who he is.

“Right now he’s a young guy just playing that doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, and has a fearless approach underneath all that attitude,” Brown concluded.

Embiid will not travel with the team for tonight’s game in Atlanta. The game is a previously scheduled rest day for Embiid, who does not play in both games of a back-to-back.

Struggling Bench
The Sixers won despite a bench which struggled mightily offensviely, shooting just 7-36 from the floor for their 19 points, including just 1-12 shooting from rookie Dario Saric.

The Sixers were able to keep the game in check thanks in large part to their defensive effort, spearheaded by Noel’s 9 rebound, 2 assist, 2 steal performance in 21 minutes off the bench.

“You have to run,” Brown said about how he can generate offense out of that bench group. “What’s become clear to us is you have to capture open court. You better run. You better get stops and you better take off.”

Jahlil Okafor will get another shot
With Embiid missing the final 8:50 of the game and Noel needing a rest, Brown went to a Dario Saric / Ersan Ilyasova frontcourt rather than bring second year center Jahlil Okafor off the bench.

(Note: the Sixers outscored the Blazers 10-6 during a 5 minute run with Ilyasova and Saric in the game as the power forward/center combination). 

Okafor his been a Did Not Play, Coaches Decision in 7 of the last 9 games Joel Embiid has appeared in, and did not play in the first 40 minutes of last night’s contest before Embiid was taken out of the game.

After the game Brown said he didn’t feel it was fair to bring Okafor into the game, cold, after sitting for the majority of the game.

“We look forward to having Jahlil just go to work tomorrow,” Brown said. “There is a point where you just sit there and sit there and sit there…I think to put Jahlil in that situation is not fair on him for me to do that.”

Covington with yet another big shot
Sixers small forward Robert Covington hit yet another big shot, his second game winner in this current 8-2 stretch of play.

It’s been a boost for Covington, who continues to play excellent defense despite shooting just 37 percent from the field and 30.4 percent from three-point range on the season.

“It’s not like his (Covington) elbow is out. It’s not like his balance is off,” Brown said about Covington’s shooting form. “At times there are challenged shots that you wished he didn’t shoot, but shooters shoot.

“You remind him of what he is. Where he can impact the game offensively the most isn’t even close. Make three’s. Catch, shoot, and make some three’s. And have the confidence to miss,” Brown continued. “Think about his life here in Philadelphia, recently, with him getting hounded. They (the fans) are on him, and it hasn’t broken him. In fact it’s made him harder, and I feel like tonight’s example of him just shooting through it, and having the courage to take that last shot, is a mindset.”

Covington’s perimeter game is slowly begining to come around, connecting on 35.8 percent of his 53 three-point attempts in January. He’s averaging 12.3 points on 9.9 field goal attempts over that 9 game stretch.

Covington shot 36.3 percent on 939 three-point attempts prior to struggling from the perimeter to start this season.

Sixers sign, then waive, Mo Williams, then sign Chasson Randle
The Sixers made a pair of roster moves yesterday afternoon, first reported by Marc Stein of ESPN.

First, the Sixers claimed Mo Williams off of waivers. Williams was traded by the Atlanta Hawks to the Denver Nuggets earlier this week, with the Nuggets immediately waiving the veteran point guard. Williams has missed the entire season after undergoing surgery to remove bone spurs in October and is expected to retire at the end of the year.

The Sixers claimed Williams because of his $2.2 million contract. Should Williams clear waivers after being let go by the Sixers they would get his entire $2.2 million credited toward their end-of-year team salary calculation, despite the fact that they would pay just over $1.1 million towards his salary.

Should the Sixers not reach the salary cap floor by the end of the season they would have to distribute the difference between the salary floor and their team salary to the players on the roster, essentially guaranteeing that the team salary will reach at least $84.73 million, or 90 percent of the salary cap, by the end of the season, one way or another.

Yet that doesn’t mean the Sixers will actually spend $84.73 million in player salary, a loophole Joshua Harris and the Sixers have exploited for years. By being credited with $2.2 million towards an $84.73 million floor they’re forced to reach, for a salary they’ll only contribute $1.1 million towards, the Sixers can save $1.1 million in expenses.

This loophole, which applies the full season salary of a player who clears waivers to the team releasing the player, regardless of how long the player was on the team’s roster and how much of the player’s salary the team contributed towards, has been resolved in the next CBA. The new CBA, signed by both the NBA and the NBPA, will take effect this offseason.

The move, if Williams clears waivers, leaves the Sixers roughly $5.5 million short of the $84.73 million salary cap floor. The Sixers would have roughly $15 million in salary cap space after the transaction.

After waiving Williams the Sixers signed Chasson Randle to a second 10-day contract. Randle, whose original 10-day contract expired Thursday, averaged 6.5 points on 57.1 percent shooting, including 3-5 from three-point range, in his two appearances with the Sixers.

If the Sixers want to keep Randle beyond his second 10-day contract they will have to sign him for the remainder of the season. Teams can only sign players to two 10-day contracts before making at least a rest-of-season commitment.

Quotes of the night:

“Yeah, you know, I look at it every day. We’re coming for those playoff spots.”

— Joel Embiid on making a playoff push.

“I mean, I kinda had that in college too, but I’m kind of flexible. I think I’m flexible so it’s supposed to happen.”

— Joel Embiid in hyperextending his left knee.

Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.