Sixers start 2018 off right with victory over Spurs

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

Philadelphia 112, San Antonio 106 – Box Score

The January Sixers are back! Well, maybe. Facing a Spurs team on the second night of a back-to-back and missing/resting 5 of their top 8-ish players, Philadelphia kicked off the new year right by extending their winning streak to three games.

Despite San Antonio resting Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker, Danny Green, and Manu Ginobili (and Rudy Gay missing due to injury), the Sixers almost pulled one of their patented second half collapses. After trailing by as many as 16 points in the third quarter and 9 in the fourth quarter, the combination of LaMarcus Aldridge (24 points, 14 rebounds) and Patty Mills (26 points) propelled the Spurs to a 2-point lead with just 2 minutes remaining in the game.

As a “here we go again” pall took over the Wells Fargo Center, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich made the somewhat curious decision to intentionally foul Ben Simmons for the second possession in a row. To his credit, having split the pair seconds earlier, Simmons exorcised his Hack-a-Ben demons from a month ago by calmly knocking down both free throws to tie the game.

After Aldridge missed a turnaround jumper on the baseline, Sixers coach Brett Brown drew up a terrific game-deciding play. After passing off to J.J. Redick on the wing, Simmons received a back screen from Joel Embiid at the top of the key, and wide open, was fed the return pass from Redick under the hoop for an and-1. The play was basically the ideal way to incorporate the team’s top three threats; it allowed Simmons to finish in the paint against the much smaller Bryn Forbes, it used Embiid to suck the help defender’s attention up away from the rim, and the on-ball defender had to play up to honor Redick’s shooting ability, thereby creating a passing lane.

Whether the Spurs were at quarter-strength or not, it was a strong showing from the Sixers. For one night, they fixed two of their key weaknesses, actually winning the turnover battle (committing just 13 to 15 for San Antonio), and getting to the line a whopping 45 times (helped only slightly by the intentional fouls on Simmons).

Simmons displayed the aggression fans have been calling to see from him, attempting a team-high 18 attempts from the field and going 10-15 from the charity stripe for 26 points. After only once reaching double digits in free throw attempts through his first 34 games (the infamous Hack-a-Ben game against Washington), Simmons has now done so each of his last two contests.

After curiously going from “doubtful” to “very doubtful” to “out”, Embiid was announced as a surprise starter just prior to gametime. He was instrumental in the Sixers building an early lead, dominating the first quarter with 6 points (on a perfect 2-2 from the field and 2-2 from the line), 6 rebounds, 3 assists, and 4 blocks. Not bad for a guy who said before the game, that he couldn’t really use his hand to shoot, and after the game, that grabbing all those rebounds and blocking all those shots kind of hurt him. I don’t know the medical implications of playing through a sprained hand (I imagine they’re not something to be worried about), but I do know the Sixers aren’t winning the game without his final line of 21 points, 11 rebounds, 4 assists, and 4 blocks.

Philadelphia also received solid supporting efforts from J.J. Redick (20 points) and Dario Saric (15 points), who combined to knock down 5 of 8 shots from behind the arc. Redick was instrumental down the stretch with that nice feed to Simmons, and then on the subsequent possession, knocking down a tough 20-footer on a broken play with the shot clock expiring. Make or miss league.

The Sixers will take on Detroit Friday looking to move back up to .500 with a win. That would be a very nice way to leave the states before heading across the pond to face the Celtics in London.

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