Geez, if you only watched the ends of the last two Philadelphia 76ers games, you'd think they were owed years' worth of good karma from getting perpetually screwed in the fourth quarter or something. That's right, the basketball gods may have finally approved the Sixers' line of credit: One game (and eight days) after Brett Brown's squad came back from 20-plus down to squeak one past the Miami Heat, the team again pulled out a miracle last night in Chicago, coming from five down in the final minute against the Bulls to win 116-115.
And boy, did this one feel like a loss, too. After surging out to a 25-7 lead in the first, the Sixers quickly relinquished the majority of their lead to the Bulls, who pulled even in the third and kept the Sixers from ever running away with it. They hit an absurd 18 threes, tying a season high, and two role players posted career highs: starting wing David Nwaba (21 points on 9-14 shooting) and bench forward Bobby Portis (38 points on 15-26 shooting, including a stupefying 6-9 from three).
Meanwhile, the Sixers went cold down the stretch; Robert Covington missed a clean look at a three, Ben Simmons missed two of two from the line, Joel Embiid dribbled the ball off his foot. When Zach LaVine hit a tough pull-up three to put Chicago up five with a minute to go, and then Cov missed an open baseline two, it almost felt a merciful end to our suffering.
But somehow, that wasn't it. Portis shot a long two a little too quickly at the other end and missed, and Simmons put back his own miss at the other end for a quick two to cut it to three. LaVine bricked a tough jumper with 17 to go, and J.J. got fouled at the other end to prevent a possible tying three. He made both, and then good ball denial on the ensuing Chicago inbounds led to an Embiid steal and pass to Simmons, who got fouled.
After going just 4-9 from the line to that point, Simmons calmly nailed both his free throws to put Philly up one. Embiid stonewalled a Portis attempt near the basket at the other end with seconds to go, Denzel Valentine's putback attempt missed, and the game was over, with the Philly outscoring Chicago 6-0 in the final minute to seal the W.
It was beautiful, man. There aren't going to be many games in this life where you give up 18 threes, allow two opposing players to go for career highs, miss 14 free throws and go down five with 60 seconds to go and still somehow manage to win the damn thing.
But there also aren't gonna be many teams in this life with a one-two punch as potent as Simmons and Embiid. The latter picked up where he left off at the All-Star Game, scoring 30 (on 11-17 shooting, including 3-3 from deep) with 13 boards, five assists, three steals and two blocks -- just a few box score tallies away from his first 5x5 game. And the former picked up where he left off before the All-Star Game, scoring a career-high 32 (13-18 shooting) to go with seven boards, 11 assists a steal and a block. And maybe most impressive of all? The two had just three turnovers between them in 69 combined minutes.
Ben and Jo were nothing less than dominant on offense all night. They couldn't turn the faucet off on the Bulls defensively for most of the game -- though aside from a couple slow-ish rotations in the first half, I'm not even sure they played all that badly, rather just paying the three-point defense regression to the mean that Liberty Ballers writer Sean O'Connor had long been warning fans about.
But in any event, Embiid finally got the best of Portis in the final minutes, shutting him down on a couple crucial possessions (including the final one), and he made the play of the night on that inbounds steal. When you have two transcendent talents -- as Embiid and Simmons undoubtedly have proven they are, even this early in their careers -- you win a lot of games you probably shouldn't, and gravity was finally on the Sixers' side tonight.
Of course, the Sixers might not've needed such combined brilliance from their two best players if their supporting cast was able to pick up the slack a little. But no one else was really cooking for Philly last night, and as is becoming a distressingly frequent occurrence this season, Covington hit a couple shots early and then went flat for the rest of the game. Even on the Bulls broadcast, they were talking about how Cov was gonna have to hit shots in the playoffs for the Sixers to have a chance, and they're probably right: We need Rock's defense and smarts out there, but if he's gonna routinely brick open looks in big moments, he's gonna be a liability -- and he's now 6 of his last 29 from deep.
But that's a concern for another day -- one that seems more and more likely to actually be upcoming at this point. In the meantime, Philly is 31-25, having won six in a row, and with a creampuff game coming up next at home against Orlando, before a three-game roadie against East playoff teams (Washington, Miami and Cleveland) that represents the only really tough swing remaining on the Sixers' schedule. The playoffs seem increasingly probable, and with Simmons and Embiid playing at this level, just about anything seems possible if we get there. Pity the foolish rival execs who still don't trust the process at this point.