Sixers Crown Themselves Kings of January

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

Philadelphia 122, Sacramento 119 – Box Score

Last season, the Sixers won 10 games the entire season. Often, after the team inevitably fell into a big hole, they would feint at making a comeback, only to run out of gas / the opponent stopped relaxing. It generally led to opposing coaches saying Philadelphia was a team that never quit, but really, it was just a team not playing good basketball.

Now, the Sixers just completed a month of January where they finished 10-5. Monday night, they were nearly outscored by DeMarcus Cousins in the first quarter alone (18 points for Cousins to 21 for the Sixers), falling behind by 14. Without Joel Embiid, Philadelphia resorted to having Ersan Ilyasova defend Cousins for long stretches, which is about as effective as having an oil man defend our country’s natural resources.

But these are the new Sixers, the “Cleveland Cavaliers want to trade for TJ McConnell” Sixers, the “Robert Covington better receive an All-NBA defensive team” Sixers, and after they chipped away at the deficit in the second quarter, they cranked the attack up to Jason Statham levels in the second half. They scored 42 points in the third quarter, and 74 points in the second half as a whole, the highest second half total for a Sixers team since 1993.

It set up a wild finish where Philadelphia looked to have the game won and the in-arena Jumbotron was already doing Raise the Cat graphics. Suddenly though, a couple Matt Barnes (16 points) threes and a bad Sixers turnover had trimmed the lead to just 1 point in the closing seconds. After Gerald Henderson (15 points) sank two free throws, the Kings had a chance at a game-tying three. For some reason, Brett Brown once again left Ilyasova in the game on a crucial defensive possession. For at least the third time this year, Ilyasova completely spaced out and blew a defensive assignment. It led to a WIIIIIDE open Arron Afflalo corner three, which in defiance of all things Sixerdom, did not go in. New Sixers indeed.

Spiritually, Dario Saric was the catalyst of the comeback. He arguably played his best NBA game, coming off the bench for 17 points on 8-11 shooting, 5 rebounds, and a career-high 6 assists. Saric showed off the next-level court vision that had people comparing him to Ben Simmons in terms of being a point-forward. It seemed like every pass was better than the last, which made the ball movement infectious for the team as a whole.

Robert Covington was the other Sixers star of the evening. He finished with his second-straight 20 & 10 game with 23 points, 10 rebounds, and 4 steals. Rock caught fire in the third quarter, scoring 12 points in the frame alone, and I don’t know where the team would be without his defense. An all-too-common Sixers defensive possession involves him snuffing out a drive, switching onto someone else and stopping a second drive, before finally helping off and reaching a paw into the fray to create a loose ball situation. His transformation into one of the best perimeter defenders in the league this season has been simply remarkable. And his agent is receiving calls this morning from about 12 NFL teams after this full-court in-bounds pass to Gerald Henderson.

The Sixers needed those two, in addition to a Nik Stauskas revenge game (16 points on 4-6 from three) and some sweet Jahlil Okafor offensive moves (15 points), to overcome the dominance of DeMarcus Cousins. Boogie finished with 46 points, 15 rebounds, and 5 assists. The Sixers had no answer for the fact that he was stepping beyond the arc (4-6 from three), driving his way to the hole and drawing contact (20-22 from the foul line), or bullying his way around the offensive glass (4 offensive rebounds).

As usual, the best person at stopping Cousins was himself, as he committed 8 turnovers and fouled out of the game with a minute left (drawing the usual Boogie reaction toward the refs). That last foul was a bit of a cheap call, but he had been playing with 5 for a while, and drew a handful of defensive fouls against Nerlens Noel that easily could have been offensive, but the refs didn’t want to foul him out on such a play. I think it all evened out in the end.

So Philadelphia ends an exciting month on an appropriate note with a victory. Best of all, the pick swap with Sacramento makes this the perfect game to have won. The Sixers are only a half-game worse than the Kings in the standings, making it more and more likely that swap will come into play come lottery time. That scenario would be especially sweet if the Sixers do the seemingly impossible and make the playoffs. They’re still only 4.5 games out of the 8th seed, crazier things have happened.

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