3 observations after Sixers survive Spurs in OT, win on Simmons tip-in originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia
After three consecutive blowout wins, it seemed the Sixers might be cruising to another victory Sunday night in San Antonio.
They instead squandered a 17-point lead against a pesky, undermanned Spurs team and found themselves in an intense, high-drama game.
Joel Embiid was isolated on Keldon Johnson and missed a fadeaway jumper from the left wing on the final possession of regulation with the score tied at 107-all. He again had a chance to win it in OT, and Ben Simmons saved the day by tipping in his miss.
Embiid had 34 points and 12 rebounds. Seth Curry scored 22 points on 8-for-10 shooting.
With the win, the Sixers lead the Eastern Conference by a half-game at 43-21.
Complete coverage of the Philadelphia 76ers and their rivals in the NBA from NBC Sports Philadelphia.
San Antonio was without DeMar DeRozan (rest), Jakob Poeltl (rest), Trey Lyles (right ankle sprain), Dejounte Murray (left knee soreness) and Derrick White (right ankle sprain), while the Sixers were fully healthy.
The Sixers will play the Bulls on Monday night in Chicago. Here are three observations on their victory in San Antonio:
All about the big men
Embiid was sidelined with a left knee bone bruise when the Sixers beat the Spurs by 35 points back on March 14. Instead of Tony Bradley, San Antonio on Sunday had to deal with a four-time All-Star.
That task was especially difficult with Poeltl out and Drew Eubanks starting. Embiid made his first five shots, including two easy finishes off of pick-and-rolls with Tobias Harris.
Embiid at one point was outscoring the Spurs by himself, 13-8. San Antonio was fortunate that he picked up two early fouls and was called for his third with 1:29 left in the second period. Harris also had early foul trouble, leading to minutes for Matisse Thybulle with the Sixers’ starters.
When Dwight Howard is on the floor, he’s often in the middle of the action. For a second consecutive game, he was very productive in his first stint, recording eight points, eight rebounds and three blocks. Guarding stretch fives and defending away from the paint in general remains a concern, but that’s not a major issue when Howard is having a positive impact on so many possessions.
The other side of that coin is the Sixers usually need Howard to score and rebound at a high rate. Otherwise, his deficiencies tend to be problematic.
Even at 35 years old, Howard looks quite springy, and it’s a great bet that he’ll be physically stronger than the opposing backup center.
Curry the hot hand early
Don’t expect any dramatic changes with the Sixers’ bench when the playoffs arrive. The team has 11, “maybe even 12 guys” with a “chance of playing every night,” head coach Doc Rivers said pregame.
“We pretty much know who’s going to play,” he said. “I think you know. We play the same guys every night. We’re not going to come into the playoffs and all of a sudden say, ‘Now we’re not going to play anybody.’ We’re going to play the same way we play all year. We may shorten minutes. Depending on how guys are playing, we may lengthen minutes. But I’ll let everyone else get stuck in what rotations we’re using this night or that night. We just want to try to win games, and that’s what we’re going to focus on. Whoever needs to play that night will probably play.”
The recent pattern for Rivers and the Sixers has been leaving one starter who’s playing well on the floor with the second unit for a few minutes, then transitioning to a zero-starter lineup. Sunday night, Curry was that player.
Curry scored 11 first-quarter points on 4-for-5 shooting. He immediately made a three-pointer from the left corner after the Spurs turned to a zone defense and also handled occasional pressure effectively as a ball handler.
His 6-for-6 three-point performance puts him at 43.7 percent from long distance on the season.
It’s been an odd and sometimes frustrating season for Curry after he tested positive for COVID-19 in January, but he still looks like a potential postseason X-factor. One or two of these kinds of games could swing a playoff series.
Quiet offensive night for Simmons (until the game-winner)
Simmons was scoreless in the first half and recorded just five points in the game on 2-for-6 shooting. Harris also had a subpar scoring game with six points on 3-for-10 shooting.
Though Simmons being somewhat peripheral for the Sixers offensively is not optimal, he made smart decisions with the ball. Simmons had one of the Sixers’ 13 turnovers and dished out five assists.
There will surely be stretches during the postseason when opponents limit the Sixers’ transition opportunities and Simmons is less prominent offensively as a result. When that occurs, the Sixers will want Simmons to still play a role as a screener and roller, offensive rebounder, facilitator and cutter.
It’s fine to run the offense through Embiid or Harris when they have clear advantages, but that doesn’t mean Simmons becomes irrelevant. He proved that with his game-winning tip-in.
As a crunch-time defender, Simmons is elite both on and off the ball. He took two critical charges in overtime, showcasing excellent commitment and anticipation.
Simmons started the game guarding Rudy Gay, who scored 18 points on 7-for-17 shooting. Bench players Lonnie Walker IV (23 points) and Gorgui Dieng (17 points) hurt the Sixers.