Sixers steal a win in Chicago

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

Philadelphia 116, Chicago 115 – Box Score

Right now, Chicago is in a situation very familiar to Sixers fans in recent years, openly tanking by announcing veterans Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday wouldn’t be dressing for the game. (Just don’t come out and say you’re trying to lose. You don’t want that $600k fine like Mark Cuban.) Meanwhile, the Sixers have already crawled through that river of toxic sludge and are finally on the other side, winners of five straight heading into an All-Star weekend where they had three players starting in the Rising Stars game and an All-Star starter to boot.

So it was no surprise when Philadelphia jumped out to an early 25-7 lead. Playoff-bound team destroys team positioning for lottery balls; it’s a tale as old as time. To the Bulls’ credit though, that’s not at all how things played out. Chicago got insanely out from the outside, tying a franchise record with 18 made threes on 34 attempts. Zach LaVine hit 5 of 7 shots from downtown for 23 points and  David Nwaba knocked down all 3 of his three-pointers for a career-high 21 points.

However, the real show-stopper was Bobby Portis, who went 6-9 from behind the arc and 15-26 from the field overall for a career-high 38 points, a dozen more than his previous career high. Part of the reason you make a solid contributor like Lopez a healthy scratch is to give more playing time to a younger guy like Portis, and he certainly made that decision look wise Thursday night. Late in the fourth quarter, the Sixers were down 5 and it looked like they were destined for a bad loss to kick off the second half of the season.

Ah, but the reason the Sixers went through those years of tanking was to obtain elite talents through the draft, and those elite talents were ready to step up for them when it mattered most. Down 1 with five seconds remaining, Joel Embiid used all of his 7’6″ wingspan to snag an errant Bulls inbounds pass.

Embiid dished it off to Ben Simmons, who was fouled. Now, Simmons had only gone 4-9 from the free throw line up until that point. But with the game hanging in the balance, Ben received a friendly roll over the front iron on the first shot, and calmly swished the second for the go-ahead point. Great confidence builder for the young man to hit game-winning free throws after teams were playing Hack-a-Ben earlier this season.

There was still plenty of time left for Chicago and they couldn’t have asked for a better chance to win when 6’2″ T.J. McConnell was switched onto the 6’11” Portis under the basket. Portis was fed the ball, but despite scoring 38 points already, couldn’t make it 40 as he missed the open bunny deep in the painted area. The Bulls even got one more chance with the offensive rebound, but Denzel Valentine’s short jumper was also just off the mark. The Sixers somehow escaped with a victory in the reverse of the sort of heartbreaking loss we saw them lose far too many times in recent memory.

Beyond their last second heroics, Simmons and Embiid were doing their best to single-handedly (double-handedly?) drag the Sixers to victory all night. Simmons dropped a career-high 32 points on 13-18 shooting, adding 7 rebounds and 11 assists. Embiid tallied 30 points, hitting all 3 of his attempts from behind the arc, and contributing in all the other areas with 13 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals, and 4 blocks. I’m not going to go in-depth on how amazing these guys are. You’ve seen them. It wouldn’t be surprising at all if Embiid received down-ballot MVP votes this season. Simmons is unlikely to miss another All-Star game for a long time.

The Sixers have now won six straight (still undefeated in the Eagles are Super Bowl Champions era) and are 2 games away from the 4th seed in the Eastern Conference. With the lowly Magic on tap next, things should continue to trend in an upward direction, as long as Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons keep playing like the stars they’ve already become.

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