HOUSTON, TX – Whether it’s San Antonio, Dallas, Houston, or any combination of the three NBA cities, Texas has been tricky territory for the Sixers to navigate for the better part of the last decade.
By no means was the Sixers’ now-completed two-game trek to the Lone Star State an easy one. Far from it. This two-step had plenty of dramatic moments, from a thrilling finish Saturday in Dallas, to another tight fourth quarter Monday in H Town.
But thanks to a determined 115-107 triumph at Toyota Center, the Sixers could head back to Philadelphia feeling proud, and increasingly confident.
Combined with Saturday’s two-point win over the Mavericks, the Sixers achieved a feat that’s eluded the franchise since 2001. Win consecutive games in the Texas on the same road trip.
“I thought we showed a toughness,” Brett Brown said during Monday’s post-game press conference, when he was asked about the Sixers’ trip.
With Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid combining for crucial plays in crunch time, the group refused to buckle. Brown, however, sounded most pleased with how the club’s defense held up.
“We won the game because did a far better job of defending the 3-point line, moving our feet, accurate switches, and really good communication,” said Brown.
He was able to make the statement with such conviction because he had just gone back and rewatched Monday’s final 6 minutes of play before addressing the media.
Overall, the Sixers limited the dangerous Rockets, which carried the league’s third-best record into Monday’s tilt, to 39.8 percent shooting, and 27.7 percent from the outside.
“Our defense was pretty good,” Brown said.
At the outset of the weekend, the Sixers left for Big D with the sting of Wednesday’s buzzer-beating loss to Houston still fresh. After hanging on against the Mavs Saturday, then shutting the door on the Rockets Monday, the Sixers competed like a club intent on not experiencing that type of pain again.
“I think we owed Houston one,” said T.J. McConnell. “They squeaked one out against us at home. We came back, held onto the lead in this one, same with Dallas.”
The gritty (we know this is an oft-used adjective to describe McConnell, but what else can you say?) point guard and his teammates made sure there was no repeat of last Wednesday’s events.
As it’s gone lately, Simmons and Embiid were big for the Sixers, stuffing the stat sheet in their own respective ways. Simmons, for the second game in a row, established a new personal scoring high, doing so with 24 points (10-15 fg). He supplied 7 rebounds and 9 assists as well.
Joel Embiid accounted for 22 points (9-12 fg), while grabbing 9 boards and handing out 5 helpers.
Perhaps most telling was that the Simmons-Embiid duo proved particularly clutch when Monday’s game was on the line.
“It feels good to get two wins on the road trip, especially for our confidence,” said Embiid. “I think we did a better job, and we have to keep working to get better every game.”
After Houston used a 12-3 spurt to pull within a point, 106-105, with 3 minutes, 6 seconds to go, Embiid answered by draining a soft, left-handed, 4-foot jump hook in the paint to stem the tide.
On the Rockets’ ensuing possession, McConnell kept a steamrolling James Harden in front of him, giving Embiid enough time to slide over and block the All-Star’s attempted lay-up. Embiid then corralled the loose ball, turned the keys over to Simmons, who then carved his way through the open court with speed, grace, and power en route to an emphatic two-handed flush.
Just like that, in the span of 60 seconds, the Sixers, riding two of their lottery picks, had regained control. Before the Rockets would score again, Simmons and Jerryd Bayless (10 pts, 3-6 fg, 2-5 3fg, 5 reb, 5 ast) combined to tack on three more points via free throws, which put the game out of reach.
“A lot happened,” said Simmons, while recalling the pivotal sequence. “We made some big plays. Joel was big for us. We know what he’s supposed to do, and that’s to be a beast down there.”
“As a leader, in that type of situation, I want the ball, make sure to quiet the crowd, and get the team going again,” said Embiid. “That’s what I did, that’s what Ben did, and from there, we got a win.”
“Those two guys together [have] been really good,” said Brown. “Our [three] wins have come on the road, and those two players especially have been excellent together.”
While Simmons and Embiid certainly assumed vital roles in getting the Sixers over the hump at Houston for the first time since 2011, it would have been hard to see Monday playing out the way it did without essential contributions from the bench.
Seeing steady time with members of the starting unit, McConnell – on the strength of a 3 for 3 showing from behind the arc – finished with 11 points. His last two triples came in the third quarter, and served as the backbone of an 11-3 run that pushed the Sixers’ margin from 3 to 12.
The reserve corps was also spearheaded by Amir Johnson. With his 13th NBA season just underway, the 30-year old manufactured his first double-double since the tail end of the 2015-2016 campaign, with 12 points (6-10 fg) and 10 rebounds.
Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot was responsible for providing the Sixers with a spark in the opening period. Between a flurry of drives to the basket, and a couple of 3-pointers, the second-year wing man pieced togethera run of 11 straight points. He went for 13 in all.
“Our bench has been playing well,” said McConnell. “We got to continue to play well, provide energy, and do what this team needs us to do to win.”
Brown thought McConnell, Johnson, and Luwawu-Cabarrot specifically were “fantastic.”
“We needed all of that to be able to beat one of the top teams in the NBA.”
True to form, Houston kept firing from 3-point land throughout the night. The hosts got several decent looks late, but, unlike last Wednesday in South Philadelphia, they couldn’t find their range down the stretch.
That the Sixers were able to come up with the rebounds that resulted from the Rockets’ 34 missed treys was important. They wound up outdoing Houston on the glass, 48-35.
Another area in which the Sixers enjoyed a difference-making advantage Monday was in respect to their inside scoring game. They were 20 better than Houston in the paint, 54-34.
“Any time you can come back and pull out a few victories, that’s great,” said McConnell. “Two game road trip, coming back 2-0, there’s a lot of momentum going into the next game, so you can’t ask for anything more.”
Reflecting on the Sixers’ trip, Simmons agreed.
“The Dallas game gave us a lot more confidence, and coming into Houston, we came in with the same mentality, and that was to get a win,” said the rookie. “Now we go home to play Atlanta and Indiana, and that’s where our focus is.”
With Texas, refreshingly, looking pretty good in the rearview.
The Sixers’ two-game swing through the Lone Star State was particularly productive for second year wing man Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot. His string of 11 straight points helped key his club’s potent first quarter.
Nevermind the fact it will be brief, for the first time this season, the Sixers will find themselves on a homestand, as they play the Atlanta Hawks Wednesday in what marks the first of two consecutive contests at The Center. Heading into action Monday, Atlanta was tied with Dallas for the lowest winning percentage in the NBA. The Sixers will welcome Indiana Friday, then set out for five straight Western Conference road games.