Sixers destroy Bucks in regular season finale for 16th straight win

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

Philadelphia 130, Milwaukee 95 – Box Score

Seeking to clinch the third seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, the Sixers wasted no time showing they were the more motivated team in Wednesday night’s regular season finale against Milwaukee. Just 6 seconds into the game, Marco Belinelli, filling in as a starter for J.J. Redick (lower back tightness), drained a three from the right wing. The points continued to come nearly that quickly for the Sixers throughout the rest of the game.

As shot after shot found the mark, Philadelphia went up by as many as 30 points in the first quarter, ending the frame ahead by 28. Heading into the locker room at halftime, the Sixers had a Wells Fargo Center record 80 points in the first half. With the outcome long since decided, the only drama toward the end of the game concerned an unlikely triple-double for Markelle Fultz.

The rookie snagged his 10th rebound with a little more than a minute left in the game, immediately getting mobbed by both teammates on the court and the bench along the baseline. Fultz finished with 13 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists, 2 steals, and a block, joining Ben Simmons and T.J. McConnell among Sixers point guards to record a triple-double this season, and becoming the youngest player in NBA history to pull of the feat.

Aside from the round statistical benchmarks, Fultz was merciless in attacking the basket and used his long wingspan to track down seemingly every loose ball. He looked incredibly confident on the court and it’s amazing that in a few short weeks, he’s gone from a total question mark to a pivotal part of the playoff rotation.

Of course, there was no shortage of great performances from the Sixers in the blowout victory. Here were a few:
– Dario Saric came back from the dentist with a new mouthpiece and scored 24 points in 28 minutes.
– Richaun Holmes dunked any ball without a five-foot radius of the basket, finishing with 19 points, 7 rebounds, and 2 blocks.
– T.J. McConnell received time alongside the other two point guards with Redick out, and responded with his best game in quite some time (16 points, 6 rebounds, 7 assists, and 4 steals).
– Justin Anderson actually led the scoring, dropping 25 points on 5-12 shooting from behind the arc. Anderson is likely the best two-way option on the wing to back up Robert Covington; this performance might give Brett Brown added confidence to turn to him in the postseason.

The Philadelphia victory marked 16 straight wins, the longest winning streak in NBA history to end a regular season. The Sixers will face the Miami Heat in the first round of the playoffs, starting on Saturday. Donning a black mask in a pregame press conference, Joel Embiid said he is unlikely to play in Game 1, a sentiment that Brett Brown reiterated after the game. Fortunately for the Sixers, Embiid or no Embiid, they’ve proven they can get the job done.

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Veterans step up to secure 15th straight win for the Sixers

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

Philadelphia 121, Atlanta 113 – Box Score

In the penultimate game of the regular season, the Philadelphia 76ers tested the very outer limits of just how many young stars could be out or under the weather before jeopardizing the team’s chances of winning. Joel Embiid spent the night sending out a picture of himself with a mask on social media. A mere 13 seconds into the game, Dario Saric caught an inadvertent elbow from John Collins, suffering a cut lip and chipped tooth; the Homie would not return to action. Questionable entering play with a stomach flu, Ben Simmons had flashes of brilliance, but was clearly not his dominant self from the past few weeks, having as many turnovers as assists (6 of each).

Fortunately, the Sixers roster is now more than a collection of young, raw talent. With those core players recuperating or ailing, facing a Hawks team heading for the lottery but clearly still trying on the court, it was the old geezers (i.e. the guys in their 30’s) to the rescue!

Whenever Philadelphia needed a big bucket, they would set a pick for J.J. Redick to come off the left wing to the top of the key for an open look from three. More often than not, he canned the shot, making 6 of 9 attempts from downtown for a game-high 28 points. Redick also continued to show off his off-the-bounce chops, dishing out 5 assists, including a very nice shovel pass in traffic to Amir Johnson underneath the basket for a pivotal hoop in the fourth quarter.

Speaking of Johnson, the big man had arguably his best game of the season, finishing with 15 points, 8 rebounds, and 5 assists. Most of those dishes were hand-off-type plays to teammates coming off screens for threes, but one was a backdoor bounce pass to Redick right on the money for a reverse lay-in. The scoring was what we’ve come to expect from Amir, flipping up awkward-looking hook shots in traffic or pure hustle plays around the basket. Not House of Highlights-worthy stuff, but 2 points is 2 points.

The vets off the bench made their marks on the game as well. Assuming a bigger role with Saric injured early, Ersan Ilyasova went off for a Sixers season-high 26 points, 8 rebounds, and 2 blocks. The Professional shot 4-8 from downtown, while also utilizing the threat of his outside shot a couple times to pump fake and step in for a shorter jumper or drive to the hoop. Meanwhile, Marco Belinelli did Marco Belinelli things, making 5 of 12 from behind the arc for 20 points. I thought this one-footed, off-balance, banked three perfectly encapsulated his tenure in Philadelphia.

The Sixers will need all hands on deck one more time for the season finale tonight against Milwaukee. The Bucks could finish anywhere from 6th-8th in the East depending on tonight’s outcome, but maybe they would want to finish 7th and get the injured Celtics in the first round? They also owe a first-round pick to Phoenix that is protected #17-30 and they’re right on the precipice of that level, so it’s hard to know whether they would prefer the pick defers another year or not. Basically, Milwaukee’s motivation is very much up in the air.

Saric’s status won’t be known until after a dentist’s visit today. A win (or a very unlikely Cleveland loss against the Knicks) and Philadelphia will secure the coveted 3rd seed in the East. It’s also one more chance for Ben Simmons to cement his Rookie of the Year case against Donovan Mitchell, who apparently doesn’t know what the word “playing” means. Let’s see a 16th straight win heading into the playoffs!

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Sixers win epic showdown against LeBron, move into 3rd seed in the East

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

Philadelphia 132, Cleveland 130 – Box Score

Maybe it had to end that way. The Sixers had led Cleveland by as many as 30 points and were ahead by 23 at halftime. Then, in a throwback to December of 2017, Philadelphia gave up 43 points in the third quarter, allowing the Cavaliers to eventually trim the gap to as little as 1 point in the game’s final minute. So when Robert Covington was whistled for a foul with 1.9 seconds remaining, the Sixers up 3, and LeBron James ruled to be in the act of shooting from behind the arc, Philadelphia fans were mentally prepared for the gut punch to come. We had seen this movie far too many times before.

Except this time, the final blow never came. LeBron missed the second free throw, and after he intentionally missed the third, Cleveland’s tip-in attempt somehow didn’t go in and the Sixers escaped with the victory. It felt like an exorcism for every terrible loss we’ve had to sit through over the last however-many years. Arguably the greatest player of all time in the sport missed a free throw with a chance to tie the game and the Sixers won their 13th straight contest to move into 3rd place in the Eastern Conference with less than one week remaining in the regular season. 2018 is truly a charmed year for Philadelphia sports.

It was a memorable finish to a truly epic game. The first half was like a fever dream for Sixers fans, as the team dropped 78 points on the Cavs, their highest first half total since February 11, 1992. Ben Simmons was clearly fired up to face his mentor (and future teammate?) on such a big stage. Simmons finished two assists shy of a triple-double in the first half, eventually achieving the feat in the third quarter, thereby tying Russell Westbrook for an NBA-best 4 triple-doubles before the fourth quarter this season.

The rookie finished with an incredible 27 points, 15 rebounds, 13 assists, and 4 steals, but what really stood out was the flair he brought to the table for this game. Simmons was just routinely pulling off crazy, And-1 stuff like this behind-the-legs dribble into an assist:

Even the King wanted no part of Simmons when he was making his way down the lane.

With Simmons simply everywhere on both ends, teammates were able to feed off that energy around him. J.J. Redick scored 19 of his his team-high 28 points prior to halftime, doing a terrific job running around screens and losing Cavaliers defenders who have, at best, a passing interest in playing defense. Likewise for Marco Belinelli, who had 12 points at the half, and eventually hit 6 threes on the night for 23 points. Markelle Fultz even hit a 20-footer! Everything was going right for Philadelphia.

But you knew LeBron James wasn’t going to get punked like that. Not in this important a game. The King scored 19 points in his 8 minutes of playing time in the third quarter. He dropped another 16 in the fourth, and after starting the game 1-7 from the field, suddenly he’s looking at a 44-point, 11-rebound, 11-assist night. Seriously, Ersan Ilyasova had about as much chance here as the cow in Twister:

Yet, even LeBron’s heroics weren’t quite enough. This was the first time we saw Brett Brown coaching in a playoff-like atmosphere and the results were promising. He made the adjustment to start sending a double-team at LeBron in the final minutes. It resulted in consecutive open threes for Cedi Osman, who crucially, missed them. You live with having Osman try to beat you rather than letting LeBron keep torching you.

Brown perfectly subbed in units for free throw shooting, defense, or rebounding down the stretch. I also liked his decision to foul up three with under 30 seconds left. The final time, I maintain Covington has to realize they aren’t blowing the whistle right away and get his hands off LeBron once he starts going into his shooting motion.

In the end though, the Sixers survived King James and the once-every-few months explosion from Jeff Green (33 points), all without Joel Embiid! The big man was at the game and in good spirits following his surgery. Hopefully, if these two teams meet again in the next month or so, he’ll be in uniform.

For now, the Sixers are the 3rd seed in the Eastern Conference, which takes on added importance with the news that the 2nd-seed Celtics will be without Kyrie Irving until next season. Philadelphia’s remaining games come against tankers in Dallas and Atlanta, and a possible meaningless-for-them finale against the Bucks, so the path to finish 3rd is right in front of them. Plus, Indiana lost last night, so 1 Sixers win or 1 Pacers loss guarantees them at least the fourth seed and home court advantage in the first round. But they fought for the 3-seed Friday night and they’ll look to keep it. From everyone I’m seeing, there will be even more epic battles to come.

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Sixers keep rolling along with their 12th straight win

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

Philadelphia 115, Detroit 108 – Box Score

Joel Embiid and Dario Saric still sidelined? Doesn’t matter.

A Pistons team who entered play on a 5-game winning streak and needed to win to avoid being eliminated from the playoffs? Insignificant.

Anthony Tolliver having the game of his life, shooting 7-8 from behind the arc for 25 points? A minor inconvenience.

Right now, the Sixers are the train in Snowpiercer, barreling down the worldwide track, unimpeded by all opposition. Wednesday night’s win in Detroit made it 12 straight wins for Brett Brown’s club and, even more remarkably, the fourth straight victory without Joel Embiid (five really, if you count the game he was injured).

Although Detroit kept this one semi-competitive (RIP the streak of wins by double digits), the Sixers were in control from the outset. J.J. Redick started the game en fuego, knocking down three first quarter triples, scoring 13 points in the opening frame on his way to a team-high 25 points. The Ringer podcaster shot a sparkling 10-13 from the field and dished out 6 assists. He continues to take a larger role in the offense with Embiid sidelined (25.9 usage rate the last four games compared to 21.4 for the season) and it’s working out just fine.

Marco Belinelli somehow continues to hit every off-balanced jumper imaginable; he made four more threes to finish with 19 points. Richaun Holmes (11 points) dunked everything in sight, as he does. Robert Covington lived up to that “elite” billing defensively from Brett Brown, recording 3 steals and 2 blocks. Ben Simmons had a ho-hum game of 16 points, 6 rebounds, and 7 assists.

Oh, and Markelle Fultz attempted a three! It was a buzzer-beater at the end of a quarter and it missed, but at least he doesn’t have some sort of psychological block about taking one in a game. Baby steps!

The Sixers have the 4th-best net rating in the NBA and are tied for the 5th-best record in the league. They are deadlocked with Cleveland at 48-30 for the third seed in the East. Friday night’s game against the Cavaliers is the biggest game for the franchise since the 2012 playoffs. Will the Sixers train keep rolling down the track, or is LeBron the Chris Evans character? We’ll find out tomorrow night.

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Sixers crush Nets for 11th straight win

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

Philadelphia 121, Brooklyn 95 – Box Score

On a day the Sixers honored the past with the unveiling of a Dr. J. statue, we were once again reminded how bright the present is for the franchise. Even with the entire starting frontcourt sidelined for the second straight game (Joel Embiid is basically a cyclops at the moment and Dario Saric is out until Friday with elbow cellulitis), Philadelphia still demolished Brooklyn to extend the team’s NBA-best winning streak to 11 games.

It’s the longest win streak for the Sixers since 1990, back when Charles Barkley was the Mound Round of Rebound and not yelling about a turtle rat. They’re not even sweating any of these games out, having won 9 straight by double digits, the longest such streak in the NBA this season. No one on the team was forced to play more than 28 minutes, a huge bonus considering the Sixers will be right back in action tonight in Detroit.

Facing a 25-win Brooklyn team that only appeared to be going through the motions at this point in the season, there was no shortage of standout performances. Ben Simmons was a victim of the team’s success yet again, missing out on a triple-double by sitting out the entire fourth quarter and finishing with 15 points, 12 rebounds, and 6 assists. A silver lining of Embiid being out is that it’s chipping away significantly at the “Simmons was only being propped up by Embiid” narrative. The club is still winning, with Simmons leading the way solo, bolstering his case for Rookie of the Year over Donovan Mitchell. I liked Ben’s unselfish reasoning for why the award would mean something to him:

Meanwhile, Robert Covington terrorized the Nets defensively, ending his abbreviated evening with 4 steals and 3 blocks. He also knocked down 4 threes for 12 points, as he and J.J. Redick (game-high 19 points on 8-15 shooting) provided Simmons with ample support on the perimeter.

In a blowout contest, easily the most intriguing storyline of the night involved Markelle Fultz. For the first time since his return, we got to see Fultz and Simmons share the court, as the pair played about 3 minutes of game action together in the third quarter, outscoring Brooklyn 11-10. I thought the duo did a good job trading off as lead ball handler, and the offense never seemed bogged down, even with the spacing concerns. I would want to see it against an opponent with a glimmer of interest in playing defense though.

Fultz recorded 10 points and 3 assists on the game, looking the most aggressive we’ve seen him this season. Time and time again, he attacked the basket like he was John Wick and someone stole his dog. The shooting isn’t there (his one free throw attempt was pretty ugly), but Fultz is still finding a way to help the team.

As an added bonus, although Cleveland won, Denver was able to take care of business at home against Indiana. The Sixers now have a 1.5-game lead over the Pacers for home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Philadelphia will look to avoid a letdown against the Pistons tonight before the huge game against Cleveland Friday, easily the most important game remaining this regular season.

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Wildcats are National Champions Once More

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

Villanova 79, Michigan 62 – Box Score

The Wildcats have both the National Player of the Year and another guy projected to be a lottery pick in this summer’s NBA draft. So, in true Villanova fashion, it was somebody else entirely who stepped up in Monday night’s National Championship game to carry the Wildcats across the finish line.

Early on, Jay Wright’s club found itself down 14-8, struggling against a highly-touted Michigan defense that wasn’t allowing the open threes they had received two nights earlier against Kansas. Fortunately, Donte DiVincenzo doesn’t need to be open, he just needs the ball and his never-ending pool of confidence to go to work. The Michael Jordan of Delaware started firing away, making long, contested threes, and driving to the hoop to finish with a smattering of off-angle scoop shots and ferocious dunks. DiVincenzo scored 18 of Villanova’s final 29 points to end the half and the Wildcats found themselves up 9 heading into the locker room.

The Big Ragu continued to simmer in the second half, at one point scoring 11 straight for the Wildcats. He would finish with a game-high 31 points on 10-15 shooting, knocking down 5-7 from three, and even adding 2 incredible blocks, one where he used perfect verticality to stonewall Michigan’s Charles Matthews on a dunk attempt. In the end, the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award could go to no one else.

With Jalen Brunson on the bench for much of the second half with 4 fouls, it was Mikal Bridges who caught fire to provide some auxiliary support for DiVincenzo. The soon-to-be first round pick scored 15 of his 19 points after halftime, including knocking down 3 silky smooth threes that were like visual catnip to talent evaluators everywhere.

Michigan never looked to have the firepower to keep up with the Wildcats once they were able to solve John Beilein’s defense. The Wolverines shot just 3-23 from three and Villanova did an excellent job cleaning up the glass, outrebounding Michigan 38-27. Villanova maintained a healthy double-digit advantage throughout the second half, allowing its fans to marinate on what an incredible accomplishment two National Championships in three seasons truly is.

It really is remarkable what Jay Wright has done with this program. Villanova has the best record in college basketball over the past five years. They’re now only one of four programs to win two titles over a three-year period since 1975. Plus, Villanova won all its tournament games by double digits, the first champion to do that since North Carolina in 2009. The Wildcats have a sustained level of success and a unique place in history, while reaching an incredibly high ceiling of dominance.

Best of all, the run should keep going. Brunson and Bridges will move onto the NBA, but I can’t wait to see this roster next year when DiVincenzo and Omari Spellman are “the guys” (DiVincenzo might test the NBA waters, but I expect him to return and have one year as the unquestioned star to boost his draft stock). The beauty of Jay Wright’s program is that because guys buy in to the idea that they’ll be there for a few years, there are always battle-tested underclassmen ready to step to the front line.

For now though, let’s luxuriate in this title, as Philadelphia became the first city to have won the Super Bowl and the NCAA tournament in the same year. It’s a golden age for both Philadelphia sports and the Villanova basketball program. Put those V’s up, Villanova fans, and like Donte DiVincenzo after canning a triple, feel free to let them hang in the air.

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Villanova bombs away to blast its way to the title game

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

Villanova 95, Kansas 79 – Box Score

The story coming out of Villanova’s Elite 8 victory over Texas Tech was how the Wildcats found a way to win despite being uncharacteristically cold from behind the arc. Saturday night’s Final Four matchup against Kansas went in an entirely different direction.

Two minutes into the game, the Wildcats went on a run where they scored on five straight possessions, including going 4-4 from the three-point line. In the blink of an eye, the Jayhawks found themselves down by double digits. It was enough to make your head spin even if you’re weren’t a former Jayhawk on pain meds from facial surgery.


But the onslaught from downtown by no means ended there. Before the first half was even over, Villanova had already tied the record for made threes in a Final Four game (13). They would go on to set the record at 18 (on 40 attempts), leading by as many as 22 points in the second half to easily advance to Monday night’s title game against Michigan.

The game was vintage Villanova, who has already set the records for most threes made in an NCAA tournament and for a season. They were so hot from downtown that they didn’t even need to shoot their first free throws until there were less than nine minutes remaining in the game.

It was a true egalitarian effort, as every Villanova starter made at least two threes in the first half. Two of those opening four threes came from big man Omari Spellman, who finished the game with 15 points, 13 rebounds, and 3 blocks. Kansas center Udoka Azubuike was simply not accustomed to having to guard his man that far away from the basket, and Spellman made him pay.

The Wildcats went with a true 5-out offense, and Kansas’ propensity for helping off their man to stop dribble penetration constantly provided Villanova with open looks. They certainly did not squander those opportunities. Time after time, Player of the Year Jalen Brunson (18 points, 6 assists) would get into the lane and either find a teammate behind the arc or someone making a savvy backcut to the rim. Kansas head coach Bill Self could be seen pleading with his guys to stay with their men no matter what, but it was to no avail.

Even when Kansas did everything perfectly, things still seemed to go Villanova’s way. Early in the second half, the Jayhawks blocked a Villanova drive and the Wildcats were scrambling to get a shot off before the shot clock expired. Eric Paschall pulled up from about 28 feet, canning the triple and basically extinguishing any hope for Kansas that the second half would go differently.

Paschall basically couldn’t miss on the night, shooting 10-11 from the field and 4-5 from three for a game-high 24 points. It was a fitting display for a guy who has really put the work in to improve his shot. Paschall shot just 31.5% from three at Fordham, 27.9% last year with the Wildcats, and started this season an abysmal 1-25 from downtown. He’s now up to a a very respectable 35.7% on the season and torched a #1 seed on college baskeball’s biggest stage.

Villanova will enter the title game as a 7-point favorite over Michigan. In the last week alone, the Wildcats have shown both how dangerous they can be at their peak and how resilient they can be otherwise. 40 minutes left will decide if they can grab their second national championship in the past three seasons.

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Sixers pass first test without Joel Embiid

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

Philadelphia 101, Atlanta, 91 – Box Score

Just as everything was finally coming together for the Sixers, the bottom dropped out on their dream season. The recently returned Markelle Fultz collided with Joel Embiid, causing the star center to suffer a concussion and orbital fracture which would require surgery and sideline him for an estimated 2-4 weeks. The tail end of that time period would leave Embiid unable to play in the first round of the playoffs. Understandably, the last two days have seen a Chicken Little “sky is falling” mentality envelop Philadelphia fans.

If their first game without Embiid is any indication though, maybe the sun will keep shining. Granted, Atlanta is on the fast-track to a high lottery pick and their leading scorer Friday night was Damion Lee, a guy who wasn’t in the NBA a couple weeks ago and comes from Philadelphia’s 6th-most well-known college basketball program (love you, Drexel). Still, the Sixers unloaded a whopping 39 points in the third quarter, enabling Brett Brown to empty out the bench with a 27-point lead heading into the fourth. Joel who?

As expected, the Sixers used a committee-approach to pick up the slack for Embiid. Ben Simmons recorded his 5th triple-double of the month with 13 points, 12 rebounds, and 11 assists, not to mention a steal and 2 blocks. Ben has firmly grasped the fact that teams with nothing to play for have no desire to step in front of a 230-pound freight train in transition.

The Sixers also ran a lot more offense through their shooting guards, as J.J. Redick and Marco Belinelli combined to score as many points as the entire Hawks team in the third quarter. Redick finished with 19 points on 8-14 shooting for the game, with only 3 of those attempts coming from behind the arc. The star podcaster has seen his usage rate jump from 21.3% on the season up to 26% the last two games (Embiid having missed most of the Knicks game). We’ll see if that trend holds going forward.

The reinforced bench came through as well, led by Ersan Ilyasova’s 21 points and 16 rebounds. In a game against his former team, Ersan was happy to take all the available shots afforded by Embiid’s absence. His work on the boards allowed the pairing between him and Richaun Holmes to be particular effective. The top-two five-man lineups for the Sixers last night both featured the Ilyasova-Holmes frontcourt. I don’t know how viable those two together are defensively, but they certainly have the potential to blitzkrieg teams offensively with Ilyasova spacing the floor and Holmes rim-running and dunking on fools.

Finally, Markelle Fultz finished with 10 points in 19 minutes off the bench. His huge dunk in semi-transition went viral, but I was much more excited by this fadeaway jumper over Mike Muscala.

That ability to create shots out of nothing is the ingredient the Sixers offense has been lacking this season. Defenses are still staying well off Fultz at the three-point line, but the jumper is still hidden in there somewhere. I remain very encouraged.

Cleveland also won Friday night, keeping the Sixers a half-game back of Cleveland for the third spot in the East. They did move a half-game ahead of idle Indiana. Most importantly, they showed they can still mop the floor against the tankers of the league even without Embiid. Simmons announced after the game that even without the self-proclaimed Process, this group isn’t going anywhere.

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Embiid suffers facial injury as Sixers topple Knicks

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

Philadelphia 118, New York 101 – Box Score

When Brett Brown announced Markelle Fultz would be returning to the court for the tail end of the season, Sixers fans hoped he would be able to make an impact. They just didn’t figured that impact would come with Joel Embiid’s face.

Moments into the start of the second quarter, a botched dribble-handoff between the two resulted in Fultz’s shoulder colliding with the big man’s dome. Embiid was down on the floor for a bit before heading off to the locker room, where he sat out the remainder of the game.

Fortunately, it would appear the result isn’t as bad as it could have been. The diagnosis in the arena was a facial contusion, with Embiid having cleared the concussion protocol. However, he’s still going to the hospital for some precautionary tests, so the team may not be completely out of the woods yet.

Despite the injury, there was a game still to be played. The Knicks may be in full tank mode, but somebody on the Sixers had to keep up with the mid-range jumpers from Michael Beasley (22 points).

In a flashback to last year when Embiid was shut down for the season, it was Dario Saric who stepped up and carried the load. The second-year forward finished with 26 points, a season-high 14 rebounds, 5 assists, and 2 steals. Saric always gets credit for his hustle and making winning plays on the margin, but he’s also more than capable of taking a star turn with a larger share of the spotlight.

Others chipped in up and down the roster. Ben Simmons fell two rebounds shy of yet another triple-double (13 points, 8 rebounds, 10 assists). J.J. Redick assumed some of that extra usage with Embiid out, handling the ball more on his way to 21 points, 6 rebounds, and 5 assists. Richaun Holmes saw his most playing time in a while with both Embiid and Amir Johnson (flu) sidelined. Holmes was as active as ever, bouncing around the court for 15 points and 7 rebounds.

As for Fultz, he certainly does not lack for aggressiveness attacking the basket in his return. He also had 7 assists without a turnover, giving him a 15:1 assist-to-turnover ratio in his two games back. For whatever learning curve Fultz might have in getting back up to game speed, rediscovering his court vision doesn’t seem to be an issue. We also saw his first free throws post-shoulder mystery! There was definitely still a bit of a hitch, but it wasn’t an abject disaster.

The win was the 8th straight for the Sixers and completed the first season sweep against the Knicks in nine years. Philadelphia remains just a half game back of Cleveland for 3rd place in the East; the Cavaliers also won Wednesday night in Charlotte. The Sixers will be back in action Friday night in Atlanta, but their top priority will be ensuring there are no lingering effects of the blow to the head for Embiid, and that he’s fully healthy whenever he returns to the court.

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Sixers win again as Markelle Fultz makes long-awaited return

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

Philadelphia 123, Denver 104 – Box Score

(Disclaimer: Despite his +16, Markelle Fultz was not the reason the Sixers won Monday, their 7th straight win to pull within one game of Cleveland for the third seed in the East. Joel Embiid was an absolute monster, dunking somebody the announcers were calling Paul Millsap into oblivion and roaming everywhere defensively, at one point guarding three different people on a single possession. Ben Simmons had a double-double on rebounds and assists because Rookie of the Years don’t have to be shoot-first guards. Dario Saric, Robert Covington, and J.J. Redick combined to shoot 11-21 from three, with Dario doing a Super Mario leap that you’ll see in GIF form for the rest of his Sixers career. Still, Monday night was all about Markelle Fultz. So is this recap.)

Where were you when you heard the news? Less than two hours before tip-off, Brett Brown made the out-of-nowhere announcement that Markelle Fultz would be playing in his first game since October 23. Suddenly, everything else in the world became secondary. Every local and national basketball writer/reporter/fan instantly declared Monday night’s Sixers/Nuggets game Must-See-TV. A friend texted me if I wanted to buy tickets on the secondary market last-minute and go down for the Fultz return game (I could not because I was helping to facilitate a puppy finding a new home, long story).

The point is, Fultz playing after missing close to 70 games with a mysterious shoulder injury, that we still haven’t received a clear explanation about, provided the perfect combination of shock, fascination, and intrigue. Once you heard, you weren’t doing anything else Monday night.

Even watching the game from home was a surreal experience. As soon as Fultz rose up from the bench to enter the game, the crowd rose in unison to give him a standing ovation.

They continued standing and cheering as he brought the ball up for the first time. After his nervous energy caused Fultz to turn it over on his very first possession, they still stood and cheered the second time he brought the ball up. And you better believe folks were excited when he swooped in for his first points of the game.

With minutes left in the game and the Sixers running the clock down on another blowout victory, the crowd began chanting for Fultz to re-enter the contest.

Remarkably, Brett Brown acquiesced. It’s a good thing he did, as those last three minutes became a showcase for Fultz to make like Austin Powers and regain his mojo. The Sixers repeatedly put Fultz in the pick-and-roll and got him switched onto Mason Plumlee, who had already blocked Markelle a couple times earlier in the game. Fultz made some sort of adjustment though, and finally got a 14-footer up and over the Nuggets center, hitting the front rim and backboard before finding its way down. It wasn’t pretty, but it was a made jumper, and Philadelphia rejoiced. The next one was both successful and pretty.

During what was essentially a high school showcase atmosphere centered around Fultz, the Wells Fargo Center crowd did the Vikings skol chant with “Fultz” now replacing “Foles”, because we have become a crazy town fueled by non-stop victory in 2018.

Final line for Markelle Fultz: 10 points on 5-13 shooting, 4 rebounds, and 8 assists against just that very first turnover. Questions answered about the shoulder: zero. Maybe we’ll get those someday. For now, everything we witnessed on the court was enough.

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