Before Sunday’s game, Philadelphia 76ers coach Doc Rivers said his team needed to get a win without star center Joel Embiid — something Philadelphia failed to do the first four times Embiid had missed a game this season.
It turned out the Sixers managed to break that streak — but only after a frantic fourth-quarter comeback that saw Philadelphia outscore the Indiana Pacers 31-6 over the final eight minutes, allowing the Sixers to erase a 16-point deficit and emerge with a 119-110 victory.
“I think for a lot of reasons this is a big win,” said Matisse Thybulle, whose defense, including four steals and two blocks, played a critical role in turning the game in Philadelphia’s favor. “To be down and come back, to win on the road, to win without Joel, I think a lot of those reasons come together to make this a big win.
“I think we all feel pretty good having won it because we all know how bad a feeling we would’ve had if we lost.”
The story surrounding the Sixers has been the team’s struggles this season when Embiid — who was out Sunday due to back tightness — doesn’t play. While the Sixers entered Sunday 14-2 with Embiid in the lineup, they were 0-4 without him — including three demoralizing road losses to the Memphis Grizzlies, Cleveland Cavaliers and Detroit Pistons.
That led Rivers to say that not only did his team need to win without Embiid, it needed to play well without him for the first time this season. And, for much of the game, that looked like it wouldn’t happen, as the Pacers led by double digits for much of the night and generally controlled play.
But after Aaron Holiday’s bucket made it 104-88 with 8:13 remaining in the fourth quarter, the game flipped entirely in Philadelphia’s direction. The Sixers played a zone that flummoxed the Pacers offensively. Tobias Harris, who led Philly with 27 points — including 10 in the fourth quarter, said the team had worked on that zone look for just five minutes all season.
Meanwhile, the Sixers kept steadily chipping away at the lead before back-to-back buckets by Furkan Korkmaz pushed them into the lead for good with 2:30 to go, as he and Harris combined to outscore the Pacers by themselves in the final quarter.
“Just winning mentality,” Harris said of his mindset in the fourth quarter. “I knew that I was out there, and I was out there today to get buckets to help our team win. We started calling a couple sets for me to get on the block to go to work, and I just was taking advantage of the moment and opportunity.
“And as we were able to cut it back down, it opened up the floor for other guys too, and you know Furk was able to make some big shots and some big plays.”
As for the zone, Rivers joked after the game that the team was referring to the zone defense as the matchup zone famously employed by legendary coach John Chaney, a nod to the Hall of Fame coach who built a dominant program at Philadelphia’s Temple University and died this past week.
“Just taking them out of rhythm,” Rivers said. “It was great, like guys bought into it and zone is so interesting, especially in the NBA, because of the short shot clock. When you get a couple of stops, it starts becoming more mental to the other team.
“But, yeah, I just wanted to knock them off rhythm. I thought they had such great rhythm against us for those [first] three quarters. Running it toward the end, it was fantastic.”
More than anything, though, the Sixers felt good about winning a game without Embiid, the team’s talisman and arguably the league’s MVP through the first quarter of the season, who is averaging 28.3 points and 11.1 rebounds in the 16 games he has played.
Embiid missed Sunday’s game with lingering back tightness from the hard fall he took in Wednesday’s win over the Lakers. Despite scoring 37 points in Friday’s win over the Timberwolves, Embiid is still sore from the fall, according to Rivers.
The team’s troubles without Embiid have dogged the Sixers all season and left Rivers admitting after the game it was the “most gratifying” win his team, which sits atop the Eastern Conference, has had so far.
“For sure,” Rivers said, “but I think we’ve had a couple of them so far. … I hope we’re talking about gratifying wins all year. I mean, that’s the plan.
“There’s so much more to do.”