The Philadelphia 76ers appeared to be looking at a fifth loss in five games without Joel Embiid this season on Sunday night. The script was an easy and familiar one to write.
Then, with their All-Star center sidelined by back tightness, the team pulled off a tremendous fourth-quarter turn-around, coming back from a 20 point second-half deficit to beat the Indiana Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse 119-110.
Ben Simmons had 21 points, seven assists, six rebounds, four steals, and two blocks. Tobias Harris recorded 27 points and eight rebounds in the win for the Sixers, who have improved to 15-6 this season.
Here are three takeaways on their win Sunday night:
No Embiid, no problem for the Sixers filling the position
Tony Bradley received his first start of the season as head coach Doc Rivers preferred to keep Dwight Howard on the bench.
The fourth-year center had a challenging assignment as he had to guard all-star Domantas Sabonis, but he held his own to open the game, partially because the Sixers were fortunate that Sabonis missed a few open pick-and-pop jumpers.
Still, Bradley looked solid enough and didn’t appear to do much wrong, although Indiana exposed his lack of foot speed a bit more after halftime.
The Sixers’ collective energy and general readiness to play wasn’t an issue, the way it had been in their loss Monday night to the Detroit Pistons, and they jumped out to an 8-0 lead.
The team’s early shooting woes from Friday’s game against the Minnesota Timberwolves then resurfaced as Indiana went on a 14-2 run, and the Sixers missed 12 of their first 17 field goal attempts.
Perhaps searching to see if another strategy could shift the game’s momentum, Rivers inserted Simmons at center in the second quarter. While that lineup didn’t fare badly, the Sixers couldn’t establish clear advantages on either end of the floor. Rim protection and an overall lack of defense is still an obvious deficiency, one Sabonis exploited with a deep seal and finish in the paint against Harris.
Rivers noted Friday the Sixers have had little opportunity to practice with Simmons at the five, though he called it a “look that I like.” As a change of pace or option in situations when Howard is especially ill-suited to play, it makes sense that Rivers would want to try it. At the moment, however, Simmons at center lineups are not a magic bullet.
Bench steps up big late
Dwight Howard was an active rebounder and a physical screen setter as usual, though free throw shooting remained a weakness for the 35-year-old. After a five-for-12 night at the foul line, he’s made 48.4% of his free throws this season. Howard finished with 11 points and 15 rebounds in 25 minutes.
On these nights without Embiid, the Sixers sure could use special efforts from their complementary players. It didn’t appear that was going to quite happen Sunday as Danny Green and Seth Curry combined to shoot six for 17.
Matisse Thybulle’s defense wasn’t as sparkling in the first half Sunday as in recent games. During his initial stretch, he was beaten back door by Brogdon and unable to get on top of a ball screen, conceded a pull-up three-pointer to the Pacers guard.
Furkan Korkmaz lost his individual matchup against Doug McDermott in the first half, failing to track him off the ball on several occasions.
However, Thybulle and Korkmaz both made plenty of pivotal plays during the Sixers’ fourth-quarter surge, including Thybulle taking a huge charge on Aaron Holiday, blocking a T.J. McConnell layup attempt, and turning a steal into a Korkmaz fast-break three. Thybulle’s elite ability to force turnovers helps open the door for these types of improbable victories.
The young wing duo closed the game and played critical roles in the Sixers’ dramatic comeback. Korkmaz scored a season-high 17 points and Thybulle had four steals and two blocks.
Looking for stops and finding them late
Whether or not the league’s best post-up player (Joel Embiid) is available, it’s tough to win games in which the opposition scores 95 points through three quarters
What went wrong for the Sixers’ defense? Embiid’s absence is the no-brainer answer, along with strong games from Brogdon and Sabonis.
Schematically, the Sixers had much more luck in the fourth quarter with a 2-3 zone that gave Indiana trouble. The Sixers did well to force turnovers from that zone and continued to compete hard, even when facing a large deficit.
Rivers and the Sixers deserve credit for switching up the defense and executing so effectively with a look that they haven’t used very often this season.
While the Sixers’ success when Embiid plays matters more than their struggles before Sunday when he sat, the fact that they earned a win without him and did it with a big comeback is a big step in the right direction.
The Sixers (15-6) will return to action Wednesday with a matchup against the 9-11 Charlotte Hornets, the final contest of their three-game road trip.