PHILADELPHIA, PA – A defense capable of stiffening in crunch time. An offense willing to share the ball and spread the wealth. A raucous home crowd rising as one with victory in sight.
Brett Brown has long viewed these elements as ideal, foundational pillars to the type of program he’s always hoped to build in Philadelphia.
Wednesday night, in the 76ers’ 119-109 victory over the Atlanta Hawks, all three ingredients were well-represented, particularly with the game hanging in the balance.
The triumph, which marked the Sixers’ first of the season at The Center, and third in a row overall, didn’t come without its fair share of ups, downs, and then, encouragingly, ups again.
But, once 48 minutes were in the books, the bottom line from Wednesday was this – while there were still lessons for a young team to learn, they could be digested in the context of a win.
“We started out really well, and we ended really well,” Brown said.
Indeed the Sixers did. They raced out to leads of 13-4 and 25-8 within the first 7 minutes of play, but Atlanta’s sweeping assault on the lane got the Hawks back into the game. The Sixers’ margin dropped to 2 points at halftime, 59-57, before the hosts fell behind by as many as 7 points in the third quarter.
By the end of the period, though, the Sixers had fought back to knot the score at 93. Then, to start the fourth, they proceeded to hold the Hawks without a bucket for almost 7 minutes.
Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, who in the last 5 minutes of regulation combined to score 12 of the Sixers’ final 16 points, helped steer the squad to safety.
Brown was glad the Sixers’ defense ultimately caught up with the offense.
“Our defense was good in the fourth period,” said the fifth-year head coach. “I thought it was a perfect storm for us, where we good on offense and we were good on defense. It led us to a 26-16 period.”
Invoking a familiar refrain from the Sixers’ other three wins this year, Embiid and Simmons saved some of their best stuff for last (the rest of this stuff, it should be noted, was really good, too).
With under 2 minutes to go, Embiid sparked a stretch of back-to-back baskets with a hard two-handed dunk. Seconds later, he ensured the Sixers would stay ahead by double-digits, using an up-fake to setup a smooth right-handed finger roll.
Right after that, Simmons provided the exclamation point by throwing down a powerful, suspended-in-air style slam.
“I got up there and I was like, ‘Oooh. I’m pretty close,’” said Simmons, when asked to recall the emphatic sequence.
The rookie point man nearly pulled off his second career triple-double, posting 19 points (8-16 fg), 13 rebounds, and 9 assists.
“I’m finding where I can score, where I can be effective,” he said. “I’m still learning that part of the game It’s coming to me a lot more.”
Embiid came away with yet another potent display. In a career-high 30 minutes, 15 seconds of action, he tallied 21 points (9-16), 12 rebounds, a career-high 6 assists, and season-best 3 blocked shots, doing so all while facing a steady wave of double-coverage from Atlanta.
“Especially in the third and fourth quarter, they were double-teaming me a lot, and I had to be a quarterback and just move the ball around. That’s what I felt like I did,” said the big man, who’s now reached 20 points in five consecutive contests.
“Everybody was just moving the ball, and finding the best shot we could.”
Which brings us to the second big picture theme to emerge from Wednesday night. Yes, the tightening of the Sixers’ defense was important, but so too was their offensive efficiency.
Seeking evidence? The Sixers manufactured a season-high 36 assists on 46 made field goals. The pass was very much king, just how Brown likes it.
“We don’t want the ball being stuck,” said Brown, who preaches a “good-to-great” mindset that requires players to decide whether to shoot, drive, or pass in half a second. “We call it ‘popcorn.’ The thing moves. Tonight, that volume of assists and sharing the ball, I really feel like that is the link to successful teams.”
The end goal, as Brown sees it, is to foster a culture of unselfishness.
“We are a very big team on being unselfish,” said Robert Covington, who Wednesday put up team-highs of 22 points (7-15 fg, 6-11 3fg) and a plus-14 rating. “Nobody is caught up in getting shots. It’s a matter of the way our offense flows.
“We don’t care about who does what, who does this. We’re a team, and it doesn’t take one person to win. It takes a whole team to win, and that’s what’s beneficial about us.”
Although Covington, Embiid, and Simmons left the arena Wednesday as the Sixers’ top scorers, there was plenty of balance to be found on the stat sheet. Jerryd Bayless nailed a key 3-pointer to give the Sixers welcomed breathing room in the fourth quarter. He notched 14 points (5-9 fg, 2-5 3fg) in all against Atlanta.
Amir Johnson supplied 12 points (5-6 fg) and 8 boards, while T.J. McConnell generated 12 points (6-10 fg), 6 rebounds, and 7 dimes.
“At times, we’re great at both ends,” Simmons said of the Sixers. “For us to get better, we have to be consistent.”
At least for the past week, the most consistent quality about the Sixers is that they’ve been winning. The team’s 4-4 start is its best since 2013-2014, Brown’s debut campaign.
Wednesday, in their third attempt in front of a sold out building, the Sixers delivered a treat to the home crowd. Brown was happy.
“To be able to come here, and share what we’re growing with our fans, let them experience some of the joy that we haven’t had in previous years, this is a good thing,” he said. “We want our home court being loud and proud, and we want to give [fans] something to cheer about.”
The Sixers started Wednesday’s match-up a perfect 5 for 5 from 3-point territory, and outscored Atlanta by 15 from beyond the arc. The Sixers were plus-four on the glass as well, and, as the evening went on, got a handle on the Hawks’ inside game. Atlanta had 32 points in the paint by the break.
“This was a challenging game,” said Brown. “I think the group responded to our home court, and I think the fourth period served us well both sides of the ball.”
Two vets working as an effective tandem.
With the jam on this late third-quarter sequence, Amir Johnson, who for a second straight game deposited a season-high 12 points, gave the Sixers the lead back.
Despite parting ways with a slew of proven veterans this off-season, four-time All-Star Paul George chief among them (plus Jeff Teague, Monta Ellis, and C.J. Miles), the Indiana Pacers has enjoyed pretty encouraging start, all things considered. Heading into a match-up with the Cleveland Cavaliers Wednesday, Indy had won back-to-back games, the first victory coming against the San Antonio Spurs. The Pacers actually took the floor one game ahead of the Cavs in the standings.