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Sixers-Pelicans observations: Strong effort shorthanded but skid continues

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Sixers-Pelicans observations: Strong effort shorthanded but skid continues

BOX SCORE

NEW ORLEANS — A must-see battle of bigs turned into a must-read injury list. Joel Embiid was an unexpected late scratch because of back tightness in Sunday’s touted matchup against the Pelicans.

And with that development, the tone of the game changed completely. Instead of Embiid taking on the towering duo of Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins, the already-shorthanded Sixers scrambled to piece together a competitive squad.

Playing without Embiid, Robert Covington and T.J. McConnell, the Sixers dropped their fourth straight game, 131-124, Sunday night to the Pelicans.

• Davis and Cousins didn’t do as much damage as what seemed likely without Embiid. Davis posted 29 points and eight rebounds and Cousins tallied 23 points and nine boards, but those totals weren't as monumental given the performances both have had against the Sixers in the past. It was actually former Sixer Jrue Holiday turned out to be the game’s highest scorer (34 points).

• Ben Simmons recorded his 15th double-double and ninth 20-point game (27 points, 10 assists, five rebounds). Rajon Rondo topped the assist duel with 18 dimes along with 13 points.

• The energy in the arena was lackluster in the first half. There was barely a reaction when Tony Allen walked off the court with a knee injury.

• The Sixers trailed 66-55 at the half and got back into the game by outscoring the Pelicans, 40-21, in the third. JJ Redick posted 11 points (a team-high 28 points overall), backed up by bigs Johnson and Booker with eight apiece. 

• But how does a 105-all tie turn into a nine-point deficit just-like-that? The Sixers allowed four straight threes, a pair by Holiday and one each from Davis and Cunningham, over a span of just 1:41 in the fourth. The Pelicans remained in control after that.

• Covington was out, as expected, after falling out of bounds and suffering a lower back contusion Saturday in Cleveland. X-rays and a CT scan came back negative. Covington is doubtful for the Sixers’ next game against the Timberwolves.

• Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot started in place of Covington. Luwawu-Cabarrot had a rough shooting night, going 2 for 10 from the field and missing all four of his three-point attempts.

• Brett Brown inserted Luwawu-Cabarrot in the starting lineup instead of going with three guards because the backcourt reserves were already depleted without McConnell, who missed his fifth games out of the last six because of a sprained AC joint in his left shoulder. Brown needed Jerryd Bayless to be available off the bench, while the Sixers clearly need McConnell’s hustle back on the floor.

• This injury-stricken game was an opportunity for role players to step up. Trevor Booker proved to be reliable again off the bench in his second game (16 points, nine rebounds). Richaun Holmes neared a double-double with 12 points and nine rebounds.

• After going back and forth … and back and forth from the Sixers to the Sevens, Furkan Korkmaz put his time in the G League to use. He clocked 20 minutes for five points and three rebounds, including this jam.

• The Sixers shot a solid 27 for 30 from the free throw line but struggled 9 for 29 from three (31 percent). The Pelicans, as noted above, excelled from long range. They scored 45 points off 15 for 24 shooting (62.5 percent).

• Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry has heard the comparisons between Simmons and Magic Johnson, and he doesn’t think they’re off base.

“I think Ben is truly going to be one of the great young players in this league,” Gentry said. “When you say he plays like Magic, everybody goes like, 'Ahh,' but he’s out of that mold right there where he does a lot of things.”

• Gentry also got to know Embiid during their trip to Africa in August for Basketball without Borders. He described Embiid as “a character.”

“Just to see him on the court and see him with kids and see some of the things that he can do, it’s very impressive,” Gentry said.

• Familiar faces: Holiday played his first four seasons on the Sixers. Pennsylvania native and St. Joe’s alum Jameer Nelson signed with the Pelicans for his 14th NBA season. Nelson and his teammates were watching the Eagles game in the locker room earlier.

• Sixers fans were spread out around the arena in team jerseys and T-shirts. One fan hopped on a plane from Philadelphia by himself to catch the game. Another traveled from Pensacola, Florida, noting he’s been a dedicated fan “since the Tony Wroten days.” 

Cavs stuck in 'Strugglesville' but still manage to survive

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Cavs stuck in 'Strugglesville' but still manage to survive

CLEVELAND -- There was none of the usual postgame chatter or music in the Cavaliers locker room.

The mood was somber and quiet, not the same place.

"Right now we're in Strugglesville," LeBron James said. "But it felt like a win. We needed it. Definitely."

Isaiah Thomas made two free throws with 11 seconds left and Cleveland came up with a defensive stop in the frantic final seconds after blowing a 23-point lead to beat the Orlando Magic 104-103 on Thursday night and snap a four-game losing streak.

After Thomas made his shots, Orlando's Elfrid Payton missed a contested layup with three seconds left. The three officials ruled there was an inadvertent whistle and held a jump ball at midcourt.

Magic forward Aaron Gordon grabbed the toss and sank a 45-footer as the horn sounded and Cleveland's crowd shrieked in disbelief. But Gordon committed a jump-ball violation with the move and Cleveland only had to inbound the ball to come away with a victory following a crazy and exhausting final sequence that left everyone dazed.

"No, I don't," said Thomas when asked if he knew what happened. "It was a lot of back and forth. I'm just glad we just came out with the win" (see full recap).

Rockets cruise past Timberwolves in Harden’s return
HOUSTON -- Eric Gordon scored 30 points to lead the Houston Rockets to a 116-98 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Thursday night.

James Harden returned to the Rockets' lineup after missing seven games with a left hamstring strain and finished with 10 points on 3-for-15 shooting, and added seven assists, two steals and two blocks in 26 minutes. Houston went 4-3 in his absence.

Chris Paul had 19 points, nine assists and six rebounds, and Clint Capela added 20 points for the Rockets. Houston has won 15 of the past 17 meetings with Minnesota, including a 10-game winning streak at home.

Gordon closed out a big third quarter by hitting a buzzer-beating 3-pointer off the glass from a step behind the half-court line. After hitting the shot under heavy pressure from Andrew Wiggins, Gordon gave a high-five to Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta, who was sitting courtside near the shot.

Gordon's 3-pointer helped the Rockets finish the third quarter on a 16-4 run to take an 89-70 lead into the fourth with their largest advantage of the game. Gordon made 11 of 19 shots, including 7 of 13 from 3, and fell just short of his season-high 33 points against Utah on Dec. 18.

With Rockets small forward Trevor Ariza sitting out the first part of a two-game suspension for a postgame locker room incident on Monday night in Los Angeles, Luc Mbah a Moute started in Ariza's place, scoring 14 points in 32 minutes.

Along with Ariza, reserve guard Gerald Green was also serving the first of a two-game suspension for the altercation with the Clippers (see full recap).

Blazers top Pacers for 5th straight home win
PORTLAND, Ore. -- Damian Lillard scored 26 points and eight assists, Jusuf Nurkic had 19 points and a season-high 17 rebounds, and the Portland Trail Blazers won their fifth consecutive home game, beating the Indiana Pacers 100-86 on Thursday night.

C.J. McCollum added 16 points and Shabazz Napier 13 for Portland, which seems to have its homecourt mojo back, winning five straight after dropping six consecutive home games in early December. The Blazers also beat Indiana for the ninth consecutive time on their home floor.

Victor Oladipo and Darren Collison scored 23 points each for Indiana.

Portland took control late in the third quarter, when the Blazers held Indiana scoreless for more than five minutes. It was part of Portland's 21-2 run, during which Napier scored eight points to help erase a six-point deficit and give the Blazers an 89-76 lead midway through the fourth quarter.

Indiana was without forward Myles Turner, the team's second-leading scorer this season. Turner has missed five consecutive games with a right elbow injury (see full recap).

Sixers suddenly beating once unbeatable teams

Sixers suddenly beating once unbeatable teams

BOX SCORE

BOSTON — What a difference two games make.

The Sixers entered this week 0-8 against the top three Eastern Conference teams: the Celtics, Cavaliers and Raptors. By Thursday night, they had picked up two straight wins over them.

The Sixers followed up Monday’s victory over the Raptors with an 89-80 win over the Celtics (see observations)

“I think we are in a good position right now,” Ben Simmons said. “Still a lot of improvement, a lot of things we’ve got to pick up on, but I think we are doing really well and getting better.” 

All season long, a downfall of the Sixers has been giving up leads. Ten, 15, 20 points have been erased just like that. 

The Sixers’ largest advantage was 21 points in the last two games, and in both instances their opponents fought back. The Raptors cut the lead to one with three minutes to play; the Celtics got within seven with two minutes on the clock.

Unlike in the past, the Sixers held on for wins.

“We’ve been in that situation too many times,” Joel Embiid said. “We just have to stay calm and keep moving the ball. We made a couple mistakes, but everything was fine and we got the win.” 

The game was missing two key players. The Celtics were shorthanded without their leading scorer, Kyrie Irving (shoulder). The Sixers were down starting shooting guard JJ Redick (leg). Brett Brown considered their absences “almost a wash.” 

Newly-announced All-Star starter Embiid led all players with 26 points, 16 rebounds and six assists, his 19th double-double of the season. 

“They are still a great team,” Brown said of the Celtics. “For us to come in here and build a lead, hold onto the lead, close out the game, and at times not in a pretty way, is a fantastic result for us.” 

With the win, the Sixers snapped a seven-game losing streak at TD Garden dating back to April 4, 2014. They also avoided a regular-season sweep by the Celtics. 

The Sixers moved above .500 (21-20) and into the eight spot in the East. The Celtics and Raptors could be postseason pairings if the Sixers hold their ground in the standings, a scenario they are well aware of in these regular-season games. 

“I don’t know what seed we are going to be, but that’s a potential matchup in the playoffs,” Embiid said. “We always want to come out and try to dominate and let them know that it’s not going to be easy.”