SALT LAKE CITY, UT – In the most welcomed fashion lately, the 76ers have been making a habit of achieving some “first time in a long time” feats.
They saw no reason to buck that trend Tuesday at vivint.SmartHome Arena, in a match-up that marked the opener of a five-game, 10-day Western Conference road trip.
Missing their main man in the middle, a reliable veteran backcourt threat, and with several bigs battling early foul trouble, the Sixers still managed to handle the Utah Jazz, 104-97.
The win was the Sixers’ first in Salt Lake City since January of 2005, and secured for the club its first five-game winning streak since it won six in a row from December 31st, 2011 through January 10th, 2012.
“I think tonight, because it’s a win, and it’s on the road, makes it more special,” said Brett Brown, who didn’t have either Joel Embiid (load management) or Jerryd Bayless (left wrist contusion) at his disposal. “To the guys’ credit, we won on the road. It’s a gutsy win.”
Fittingly, it was one of the Sixers’ gutsiest players who made a major difference.
Dario Saric, looking more and more comfortable by the game, came up big. He paced the visitors with a season-high 25 points (7-13 fg, 5-9 3fg, 6-6 ft), while adding 10 rebounds for his first double-double of the campaign.
Saric’s two free throws with 10.2 seconds left – moments after Utah had sliced the deficit to three – pushed the Sixers across the finish line.
“Dario, probably when you look at it, was the MVP of the night,” Brown said.
“It’s easier for us when we start our trip on the West with a win, especially here, where it’s always hard to play,” said Saric. “That’s the right way how we were supposed to play.”
Ben Simmons was also key Tuesday, delivering yet another diverse showing. His box line was highlighted by 16 points (7-22 fg), a career-high tying 13 boards, 6 assists, 3 steals, and 3 blocks.
“It shows a lot about our team, that we pushed, how we fought through it, and there were guys who stepped up,” Simmons said of Tuesday’s victory.
His defensive length produced several vital stops down the stretch, as the Sixers kept their streak alive.
“We just want to win,” said Simmons, whose double-double was his seventh in 10 appearances. “It’s all about winning for us.”
Along with Saric, JJ Redick and Robert Covington helped lead the Sixers’ steady, efficient attack from outside the arc, where they were 12 of 27 (44.4%). The two deep threats tallied 20 points and 14 points, respectively, behind the strength of three 3-pointers apiece.
Covington was particularly important to the Sixers’ rebounding cause. He snared 12 caroms for his first double-double of the fall.
Richaun Holmes, tapped to start Tuesday in place of Embiid, thought the Sixers did well in respect to “gang rebounding.” The Sixers outdid the Jazz on the glass, 56-45.
“It’s a collective effort,” said Holmes, who had 4 points and 5 rebounds. “We were able to come out on top in the rebounding match-up, and win the game.”
Amidst all of Tuesday’s noteworthy contributions, it was hard not to take extra notice of Saric’s impact, and the coinciding strides he’s displayed recently. Against Utah, the 2017 Rookie of the Year finalist enjoyed another quick start, again knocking down early jump shots, which seemed to set the tone for the rest of his night.
Counting Tuesday’s win, Saric has now reached double-figures in four of his last five appearances, all of which have been starts.
Brown believes it’s more a matter of the 23-year old’s confidence.
“I always felt that no matter [when] he came into a game, he was going to come back, get his confidence,” said Brown. “I think his confidence is now at a place it was last year. He is very loved by his teammates. He’s a great teammate, he wears his heart on his sleeve, and he really, really competes.”
Saric attributed part of his success Tuesday to the effective pick-and-pop perimeter game he and Redick created. Redick’s movement would draw defensive attention, leaving Saric open on the wing.
“I felt this can be my night,” Saric said. “You need to stay focused all game, try to keep my mind with what Coach says, stick with the plays, stick with my game, too, how to score in my role.”
Holding Utah without a field goal for more than five minutes during the latter stages of Tuesday’s first quarter, the Sixers mounted a 16-2 surge that put them in control.
The Jazz closed the gap to 46-44 by halftime, and threatened again early in the third period, but the Sixers answered with a 21-7 blitz fueled by a string of treys from Redick.
Nonetheless, Utah was undaunted. Saric’s triple with five minutes to go nudged the Sixers’ margin back to 15, insurance that proved helpful with the Jazz refusing to yield.
Rudy Gobert, Utah’s massive five-man, finished with 16 points and 15 rebounds; however, the bulk of his scoring was done at the free throw line (8-12) in the fourth quarter. His lay-up off a Sixers’ turnover in the closing seconds made it a 100-97 game, setting the stage for Saric’s clutch foul shots.
“This is a great night,” said Brown, “winning on the road, watching these young guys compete, the bench being with each other. That’s what should be remembered.”
All noteworthy lasting impressions Tuesday, as one promising streak was extended, and another pesky one fell.
Your thoughts, No. 25?
The Sixers continue their trek Thursday, at Sacramento.
With Tuesday’s sudden passing of former Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Roy Halladay in mind, a visibly moved Brett Brown opened his pre-game media availability at vivint.SmartHome Arena with the following remarks:
“Our organization would like to share our sadness with Roy Halladay’s death today. Our thoughts go out to his family. [He was] one of Philadelphia’s great sportsmen, is a future Hall of Famer, a Cy Young winner, recognized as a fierce competitor, and an incredible worker. Our organization respects the legacy that he has left behind.”
Halladay spent the final four seasons of his 16-year career with the Phillies. He earned two of his eight All-Star selections, and the second of his two Cy Young Awards with the club. The right-hander was 40 years old.