DETROIT, MI – When it comes to the 76ers’ plans, short-term and long, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid figure to be vital pillars of the franchise’s future.
And while the two blue chip prospects have held their own in the early days of the 2017-2018 campaign, their heady individual contributions, prior to Monday’s trip to the brand new Little Caesar’s Arena in downtown Detroit, had yet to produce the sought-after, collective pursuit of a win.
By the end of the evening, that dynamic had changed, convincingly, as the duo helped steer the Sixers safely to their first victory of the season, a dramatic 97-86 triumph over the Pistons. The visitors had led by as many as 21 points in Monday’s first half, but witnessed their margin dip to 3 twice in the fourth quarter.
“They really came into the building knowing that we needed to get a win,” Brett Brown said of the Sixers afterwards. “It certainly feels good for those guys in the locker room, the coaching staff, and I’m sure the fans, to walk away with a win.”
In respect to Simmons, all the 2016 No. 1 pick did Monday was continue to make more history.
With 21 points, 12 rebounds, and 10 assists, Simmons became just the third rookie in franchise history to post a triple-double since 1983, when assists first started being tracked. Michael Carter-Williams and Andre Iguodala were the other two first-year Sixers to achieve the feat.
Embiid, meanwhile, reached the 30 point-mark (11-15 fg) for the first time this season, and his third time overall as a pro, doing so in 28 minutes. He also brought down 9 boards, and generated a telling plus-21 rating.
“I’m just glad we won, honestly,” Simmons said from inside the Sixers’ locker room. “That means so much more than stats for me. It’s awesome to have a triple-double, but at the same time, it’s even better to have a win, especially with these guys, and a young team like this.”
Half of Simmons’ helpers came on baskets scored by Embiid, none more decisive than the big man’s 11th and final field goal of the night with 74 second to go. The conversion essentially sealed the Sixers’ win.
“I thought we did some good things in crunch time,” said Brown. “I thought especially Ben and Joel teamed up together. We put them in pick-and-rolls, those two, whether it was in the middle of the floor or on the side. Ben, with his height, could drop stuff over to Joel rolling, and I thought we did a good job executing some stuff that we’re trying to do.”
Embiid liked what he saw from the Australian, too.
“He followed the game plan, and what coach was calling,” said Embiid, the 21st player all-time to notch at least 20 points 20 times in the first 34 games of his career. “I thought we had a great two-man game, especially. They couldn’t guard that. I think going forward, it’ll be good for us if we keep doing the same thing.”
Further underscoring the impact of Simmons’ poise down the stretch was that the 21-year old registered either an assist or secondary assist on each of the Sixers’ last three buckets – threes from T.J. McConnell and Robert Covington, and the Embiid and-1. In between, Simmons also sunk a pair of foul shots (he went 5 for 6 from the stripe) with 2 minutes, 25 seconds left in the fourth quarter to push the Sixers’ lead from 4 to 6 points.
“I felt like I needed to just kind of take over, find guys, and make plays,” Simmons said. “Coach trusted me towards the end, he told me that. That means a lot, having Coach’s trust.”
On top of Embiid and Simmons, Robert Covington stepped up in the clutch as well. He tallied 7 of his 13 points in the fourth period, including a timely old fashioned 3-point play that gave the Sixers needed insurance once Detroit had sliced the gap to 3 points for a second time. Moments earlier, when the Pistons had pulled to within 3 for the first time since the first frame, the forward delivered an important dime to JJ Redick (7 pts, 7 reb), who cut inside for a lay-up.
That Monday’s Eastern Conference match-up ended up getting as tight as it did was a testament to the strength of Detroit’s comeback bid. Playing as sound a half of basketball as they have in four outings this season, the Sixers dominated the first 24 minutes of action, carrying a 56-43 edge into the break, and limiting the Pistons to 40.9 percent shooting.
Brown felt his club set the tone.
“We tried to do everything we talked about, and we tried to get it done through a defensive lens,” said Brown. “We’re trying to grow a base of that.”
By intermission, Embiid, back in the fold after sitting out Saturday’s contest in Toronto, had scored 15 points, while Simmons had pumped out 13 points, 6 rebounds, and 5 assists. For the Sixers, turnovers were down, the glass was being cleaned, and key Detroit threats like Tobias Harris, Andre Drummond, and Avery Bradley had been relatively contained.
In the third quarter, sparked by the bruising Drummond, Detroit started to charge back, making it a 75-67 game entering the fourth.
For the better part of Monday’s tilt, when Drummond (14 pts, 14 reb, 4 stl) was on the floor, so was Embiid, and vice versa.
“It was good,” said Embiid, when asked about his first regular season match-up with Drummond, the league’s leader in double-doubles (230) since 2012-2013. “Obviously, I had an okay game. I thought I got what I wanted, and then we got a win.”
Yes, Embiid certainly had his way. He and Simmons both proved to be punishing scoring forces Monday, particularly inside. There was little Detroit could do to slow them down.
And even though Embiid and Simmons might have emerged as the headliners, Brown thought the final outcome reflected a group effort.
“We all felt we’re doing the right thing…in relation to how you move the program forward,” Brett Brown said afterwards. “To get rewarded with a win, it just validates some of the work that everybody has put in.”
It was Monday Night Hoops in the Motor City, and two of the leading men from the Sixers’ match-up with Detroit obliged.
The Sixers will make a brief stop at The Center Wednesday for their second home game of the fall, welcoming the Houston Rockets to town. While Houston is expected to be without Chris Paul, there is still, of course, the James Harden factor. Five days after Wednesday’s pairing in South Philadelphia, the Sixers and Rockets will meet again in Texas in the finale of the Sixers’ two-game trip to the Lone Star State.