James Harden

Sixers say they learned their lesson after closing out Rockets

Sixers say they learned their lesson after closing out Rockets

BOX SCORE

HOUSTON — No, not again. 

The Sixers weren’t going to let the Rockets steal another game down the stretch for the second time in less than a week. 

The lessons learned from last Wednesday’s loss were on the Sixers’ minds as they came to Houston eager to avenge Eric Gordon’s buzzer-beating three. They were ready this time, even when the Rockets threatened a comeback and got within one with three minutes to play. 

“I think we stayed on them a lot more defensively,” Ben Simmons said after the 115-107 win Monday (see observations). “Communication was better. But there were still times when they were just the Rockets, a great team, a great scoring team.”

After the Rockets got within striking distance, 106-105 with 3:06 to go, the Sixers held them scoreless for the next 2:48 during a 7-0 run. The Rockets did not hit a three after Gordon’s bucket with 3:28 remaining. 

“In the fourth quarter, we got stops defensively and the ball was moving,” Joel Embiid said. “Everybody was touching it … T.J. (McConnell) made a couple big shots. I thought we just learned our lesson and we did a better job.”

The Sixers overcame seven turnovers in the fourth, including another late-game 24-second violation. 

“I thought we showed a toughness,” Brett Brown said. “I thought we showed an awareness of a defensive game plan. There’s still areas that we all want, closing out games, the execution of how to walk down a game. I felt our defense did that more than our offense did.”

The Sixers split the season series with the Rockets and picked up their first win in Houston since 2011. 

“That is a team that plays hard,” Ryan Anderson said. “They’ve got a lot of young, hungry players. We knew that was how they were going to play.”

Embiid involved in crunch time
One of the most glaring issues in the Sixers’ loss to the Rockets last week was Embiid’s lack of involvement down the stretch. On Monday, he scored a basket and pulled down three rebounds over the final 2:30 of the win. 

“I thought Jo rebounding was key toward the end,” Simmons said. “We went to Jo a lot in the post and he did what he was supposed to do, be a beast down there.”

Embiid had four points, six rebounds, one assist, one steal and one block overall in the fourth (see highlights). With a total of 22 points, nine rebounds, five dimes and two steals, he became only the third player since the 1983-84 season to post those numbers in 25 minutes or less. Embiid joined Fat Lever (1990) and Pau Gasol (2015). 

Still, he’s wants to do more. 

“I thought I did an OK job,” Embiid said. “I don’t think I’m back to being what I was last year defensively, but I thought this game I made some progress.” 

Simmons feeling comfortable away from rim
Simmons has been producing the majority of his offense in the paint. He changed it up by knocking down three jumpers, 16 and 17 feet from the basket (see video). Simmons had attempted (and missed) only two shots from the 16- to 24-foot range entering the game. 

“I’m comfortable taking them, so I’ve got to start doing that more often,” said Simmons, who finished with 24 points, seven rebounds and nine assists (see highlights). “I just need to get prepared before games, make sure I go through my routine.”

Simmons incorporated jumpers into his pregame drills while working with the Sixers’ shooting coach. Brown isn’t forcing the issue, but is noticing more confidence from the rookie with those shots.

“It’s just a whole other situation that a team has to figure out. How do we game plan that?” Brown said. “I think it’s going to happen sooner than others think. If he can reliably rise up and hit some 15-, 17-foot jump shots, it just makes the other parts of his game more explosive and he becomes more complete.” 

Brown staying optimistic about Fultz
Brown reiterated his positive outlook on Markelle Fultz now that the rookie has been ruled out indefinitely with right shoulder scapular muscle imbalance.

Brown, who is well-versed in rookie injuries, is looking to “reload him, re-deliver him to an NBA court where he feels good, he’s ready to go play and be Markelle Fultz again.”

“Right now, we all saw that wasn’t the case,” Brown said. “In a very sort of twisted way, I’m viewing this as a positive opportunity.”

Notes and tidbits
• The Sixers’ bench combined for 40 points between Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot (17), Amir Johnson (12) and McConnell (11). Brown called the trio “excellent” and said those players were necessary to beat one of the league’s top teams (see video).

• James Harden described the Rockets’ energy as “terrible” at the start of the game. They were not aggressive on the defensive end as the Sixers scored 37 points in the first quarter alone.

• The Sixers had a 13-rebound edge on the glass. They are the only team to out-rebound the Rockets this season, and also did so in their last matchup. Johnson led the way with 10 boards while every starter grabbed at least five. 

Sixers-Rockets observations: No heartbreaking collapse this time

Sixers-Rockets observations: No heartbreaking collapse this time

BOX SCORE

HOUSTON — A double-digit lead is never safe against the Rockets, is it? 

The Sixers beat the Rockets for the first time in eight meetings, 115-107, but it wasn’t without another near-letdown in the fourth quarter. 

Ben Simmons turned in a team-high 24 points as the Sixers had seven players score in double figures Monday night. Joel Embiid was right behind him with 22 points.

Let’s get right to the final minutes of the game and then see how they got there.

Fast-forward to 9:30 to go when the Sixers were up 10. The Rockets started to chip away, cutting the Sixers’ lead all the way down to five with 8:37 to play. The Sixers responded by going up 10 again behind an offensive rebound, layup, block and steal by Embiid. 

From that point, the Rockets went on a 6-0 run to make it 103-99 with four minutes left. Embiid grabbed the rebound off Clint Capela’s attempted go-ahead layup to halt the Rockets’ momentum. 

The Sixers hit two straight baskets to go up five, but just like they did in their last meeting with the Rockets, committed a 24-second violation down the stretch. Ryan Anderson and Trevor Ariza both missed threes that would have brought the Rockets back within two.

• The last time the Sixers beat the Rockets was Nov. 13, 2013. Does that feel like a long time ago? Well, consider this: Tony Wroten posted an 18-point, 10-rebound, 11-assist triple-double in his first career start. The Sixers’ James Anderson led all players in scoring (36 points). 

And the last time the Sixers won in Houston dates even further back to Feb. 16, 2011.

• So how did it all begin on Monday night? The Sixers shot a season-high 65.2 percent from the field in the first quarter to jump out to a 10-point advantage. The Rockets saw a window of opportunity when Simmons took a seat halfway through the second. They went on a 7-0 run and cut the deficit to one point. The Sixers pushed their edge back up to seven points after Simmons checked back in. Dario Saric hit a pair of threes and Simmons found Embiid for an alley-oop. The Sixers ended the quarter with three straight turnovers, though, and were up just two at halftime. 

• The Rockets’ backcourt took turns dominating in the first half. James Harden played the entire first quarter and scored 12 points, including 6 of 7 at the line, which the Sixers wanted to limit. Eric Gordon didn’t attempt a shot in the first but exploded for 15 points as he played the entire second quarter. He hit a trio of threes, which wasn’t even the biggest standout. He took a whopping nine shots, 75 percent of his total season average of 12.0 attempts per game. Harden (25) and Gordon (29) were the only Rockets with over 15 points.

• The Sixers were locked in on limiting the sharpshooting Rockets from three and at the line. Their efforts paid off as the Rockets shot 13 of 47 (27.7 percent) from long range. The Rockets outscored the Sixers 28-17 at the free throw line, led by 10 of 12 from Harden.

• Embiid, Saric, Simmons and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot (see below) combined for 47 of the Sixers’ 58 first-half points. Harden and Gordon were responsible for 30 of the Rockets’ 56.  

• The Sixers kept the Rockets at bay in the third, going up by as many as 14 points. The Sixers again reached 65 percent from the field, partially in thanks to T.J. McConnell, who led the team with eight points (2 for 2 from three) in five minutes (read more on McConnell here). Amir Johnson pulled down six rebounds in the third to match the Rockets’ team total. Harden added another 11 points but no other Rocket scored more than four. 

• Embiid didn't show signs of being bothered by his right hand contusion. He knocked down 9 of 12 field goals (22 points), pulled down nine boards and dished five assists (see highlights).

• Simmons made three jump shots — yes, jump shots — from 16 and 17 feet from the basket. Entering the game, he had shot just 0 for 2 in the 16- to 24-foot range from the hoop. Simmons neared a double-double with 24 points, nine assists and seven boards (see highlights). He was mixing up his shot locations, not just focusing in the paint, during pregame drills.

• Luwawu-Cabarrot broke out to a hot start. He scored 11 points on a perfect 4 for 4 from the field in six minutes during the first quarter. Luwawu-Cabarrot also went 2 for 2 from three, seeing the results of taking hundreds of three-point shots every practice.  

• Robert Covington was in a very different situation in Houston nearly three years ago to the day. He was waived by the Rockets on Oct. 27, 2014. 

• Embiid fouled Luc Mbah a Moute and knocked him to the ground. Embiid helped him up and Mbah a Moute replied with a friendly tap on the back. Mbah a Moute has played a major role in Embiid’s career, first recognizing the big man’s potential when Embiid attended his basketball camp in Cameroon back in 2011. 

T.J. McConnell 'the best player on the floor' vs. Rockets, Embiid says

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T.J. McConnell 'the best player on the floor' vs. Rockets, Embiid says

Before the Sixers' season started, it was hard to know what exactly T.J. McConnell's role would be.

Ben Simmons, the No. 1 overall pick in 2016 who missed all of last season, was being groomed to be Brett Brown's point guard. This year's No. 1 pick, Markelle Fultz, was a point guard at Washington. The newly-acquired JJ Redick and a healthy Jerryd Bayless muddled the entire guard picture.

But as his effort in Wednesday night's heartbreaking loss to the Rockets showed, Brett Brown will always find a role for McConnell.

"Inspirational," Brown said when asked about McConnell's performance. "Game-changing stuff. T.J. gets, 'Oh, he can't play with Ben because he can't shoot' and, you know, 'He can't do this because he can't shoot.' T.J. wins. That kid is a winner. Often times people look at him like what he can't do and how can you pair him with people like Ben. We don't think that at all and we're not going to do it. Tonight we played him with Ben and we'll continue to do that and I thought that his game tonight was inspirational."

The third-year guard was a big catalyst for the Sixers in almost beating Houston and superstar James Harden. He bothered Harden all night, forcing the five-time All-Star into eight turnovers. McConnell finished with just six points but filled the rest of the stat sheet with nine assists, six steals and five rebounds.

"T.J., I thought was the best player on the floor," Joel Embiid said. "He was all over the gym. Getting steals, playing defense. Setting up the team as a point guard. He found me, we've had that relationship since last year, but I thought he was the best player on the floor."

McConnell wasn't concerned about his stats. Or being an inspiration. He knows his role and filled it quite well Wednesday.

"I'm just trying to provide energy for our team and help us win," McConnell said. "If it was inspiring that's great but I'm just out there to do whatever this team needs me to do."

Before the game, Brown said that McConnell would get the minutes left by Fultz, who will be out for the next three games at minimum. 

But don't expect McConnell to look at it as a handout. He's had to earn everything he's gotten. A long shot to make the Sixers' roster out of camp his rookie season, McConnell played in 81 games and started 17. Last season, when his role was expected to be reduced, he played 81 games again and started 51 of them. 

McConnell is an NBA player. Maybe not a star, or even a starter, but a damn good player. On Wednesday, he didn't look out of place playing against Harden or dishing to Embiid. He was right where he belonged, fulfilling his role.