Andrew Unterberger

#SixersJanuary back on with wire-to-wire win over Raptors

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AP Images

#SixersJanuary back on with wire-to-wire win over Raptors

Well, it certainly doesn't feel like the Philadelphia 76ers never trailed in that game against the Toronto Raptors, does it? The Sixers technically held on for the wire-to-wire 117-111 victory against Toronto, despite that lead getting Cliffhanger precarious down the stretch, getting back to .500 on the season thanks to big efforts from Ben Simmons, T.J. McConnell and Joel Embiid. 

Of course, if the Raptors were on their game, the Sixers might not have escaped with this one. Following a hard-fought loss to the Warriors (and in Kyle Lowry's first game back since missing a few games with a bruised tailbone), the Raps seemed out of rhythm for most of the afternoon. The Sixers' stout defense certainly played a part in that, but the Raps also just missed shots, and generally lacked the tenacity they attacked Philly with in their two meetings this December. 

Nonetheless, the Sixers played well enough to win for three quarters, and snapped out of their usual late-game momentum funk in time to not totally give the game away. Credit for that part has to go to Simmons, who rolled in a layup and the kicked out to Dario for an open three with minutes to go, expanding a dangling one-point Sixers lead to a relatively secure six they were able to protect from there. He also made the Raps pay for intentionally hacking him late, calmly sinking two to keep Toronto at bay. Embiid also helped clinch things with late free throws, part of his 34-point, 11-rebound afternoon (see video), and with mighty defense around the basket that closed things off for the surging Raps. 

And yet, this was once again the T.J. McConnell game. He tangled early with Raptors star (and professional Sixers torturer) DeMar DeRozan, and that seemed to ignite an unusually aggressive T.J., as Timothy John went on to score a career-high 18 on 8-13 shooting, to go with eight dimes, six boards and three steals (see video) — also helping to hold DeMar to a manageable 24 points for the afternoon. He did get passive late, which he kicked himself for a little in his post-game interview, but it was still a magnificent afternoon for Teej, and his buckets were invaluable on an afternoon where our shooters weren't hitting much (6-25 from deep) and nobody besides JoJo was doing much in the half-court. 

Even though they had to work for it at the end a little more than we'd like, there's no denying the size of this win for the Sixers. Aside from giving them a statement W over one of the East's elite, it keeps them from falling too far back of the playoff pack, while the Pacers are surging and while the Sixers still have some tough games immediately ahead of them, I figured if they got one win in their four-pack against the Celts, Raps, Celts again and Bucks, they'd be in decent shape — now, they have two more chances to come out with a split. 

What's more, you can now add Toronto to the list of very good teams the Sixers don't have to worry about playing again this season — a list that already includes the Warriors and Rockets, and is one game away from also including the Celtics. Though it's dampened their 20-20 record until this point, it's pretty incredible to be halfway through January and already be done playing arguably the league's four best teams, two of which are in their division. Smooth sailing is on the horizon, and in the meantime we're officially in the midst of #SixersJanuary. Salvation is free. 

Someday the Sixers will be the other team

Someday the Sixers will be the other team

Remember that game against the Golden State Warriors earlier this season when the Philadelphia 76ers got up 20-plus in the first half, lost the lead in the third quarter and ended the game in garbage time? Transport that game across conferences and continents and you basically got a carbon copy of Thursday afternoon’s London-set "home game" loss to the Boston Celtics. 

Everything was humming in the first half. JJ Redick was coming off screens like Klay Thompson, hitting just about everything, while Ben Simmons was hitting turnaround jumpers (!!) and bullying smaller defenders. Joel Embiid wasn't even scoring — he ended the half with just six — but he was distributing, springing Redick on some killer screens, and being his usual game-changing self on the defensive end. The Celtics were ice cold, as they blew layups and committed silly turnovers. It was beautiful, and it was 100 percent never going to last. 

The best you could've really hoped for in the second half was that the Sixers would be able to at least hang around for the rest of the game once they inevitably blew their double-digit lead (which was actually already single digits this time by the break). No such luck: The C's pulled away in the fourth, and Brett Brown tapped out with about four minutes to go, with T.J. McConnell and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot shepherding the team down the stretch. 

The Sixers lost 114-102, in a game that was both much closer and not quite as close as that score implies (see game recap). They fell to 0-3 for the season against the Celtics — with a fourth game coming up in Boston next week. 

How disappointing is this? I'd peg it at somewhere between a five and six — not heartbreaking, but not negligible. Hard to get too upset about losing to a better team because they're better, and the first half was fun enough that you could hardly call the whole experience a wash. Still, the Sixers keep getting tastes of earning that one statement, signature win that end up just being referendums on all the things wrong with them: How Brown should be fired, how all our veterans suck, how the Markelle Fultz trade was a disaster. (Jayson Tatum's third-quarter explosion certainly doesn't help a ton with that last one.) The emotional swing is tough to stomach, although Sixers fans would be playing themselves if they weren't at least a little numb to games that follow this general script at this point. 

The rough part is, as previously mentioned, that the Sixers' schedule stays challenging from here: home on MLK Monday vs. Toronto, at Boston next Thursday, home next Saturday for the first of four against Milwaukee. The Sixers basically have to hope to get out of a brutal January without falling too far behind, because the rest of their schedule from there is easy enough — loaded with multiple games each against the Nets, Hornets, Hawks, Magic and Grizzlies — that they should be able to make up some ground, if they stay healthy and aren't already miles away. 

The Sixers, who fell to 19-20 with the latest loss to the Celtics, might not get back above .500 for a little while still. Nonetheless, they remain in pretty good shape for a postseason push, and Fultz could be coming back (if not necessarily with his jumper) soon. 

Someday, maybe not even that many years from now, the Sixers will be the team that gets down early, but everyone knows is coming back to lay the smackdown in majorly embarrassing fashion. In the meantime, trust the bleedin' process. 

Sixers fans deserved a blowout win

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USA Today Images

Sixers fans deserved a blowout win

Nearly halfway through the NBA season, we finally got it: the win easy enough to (almost) make up for all the hard ones. The Philadelphia 76ers got out to an early lead against the Detroit Pistons in the first quarter, which grew to a sizable lead in the second, which ballooned to blowout proportions in the third, which stayed as such during a fourth quarter in which the Sixers' stars didn't play a second.

Final score: Sixers 114, Pistons 78. How sweet it is. 

And the best part? Well, the best part of owning the Pistons by 36 is always just owning the Pistons by 36 — any more of a beating and we'd require a guest solo from Eddie Van Halen at halftime — but the second-best part was that all of the starters played well. 

J.J. Redick continued his hot streak, scoring 21 on just 11 shots, with a team-high +34 for the night. Robert Covington shook off a shaky start to hit three big second-half threes to ensure that this one would be a laugher in the fourth. Dario Saric had a casually effective 11-6-3, with another solid night from deep (2 of 4). And Joel Embiid, playing against old foe Andre Drummond, anchored an ironclad Sixers D in the first half, and put up 23 and nine in just 25 minutes — seemingly scoring at will at the end of the third, just so he could be sure to get his numbers before an inevitably inactive fourth. 

But the story from this one was, of course, Ben Simmons. The Fresh Prince was dominant early in this one, hitting his first five shots on a variety of creative and aggressive moves, not exactly hitting or even testing jumpers, but expanding his repertoire to include the little push shots, floaters and bankers that Simmons needs in his arsenal to be an effective scorer without a proper working jump shot. His offensive forcefulness also opened passing opportunities that had been largely closed to him in recent games, ending with 19 and nine on 9 of 13 shooting, with a pair of blocks and steals each. It's been a while since we'd seen Ben look as intimidating as he did in the season's first month, but with the point guard averaging a 22-6-6-3-2 on 57 percent shooting over his last three, Scary Simmons appears to have returned.

And look man, we were owed a game like this. We haven't gotten a win that could accurately be described as "comfortable" since Thanksgiving. The Sixers aren't the Warriors, but they aren't go-months-without-relaxing bad, either. Eventually the Ballers were gonna break loose for a win that was never in doubt, and finally on Friday, we got to close this one out with Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, James Michael McAdoo and Justin Anderson (welcome back!) hoisting triples. About friggin’ time. 

So the Sixers have won four in a row, battled back to .500, and are finally back in the playoff picture, sitting at eighth in the East with their 19-19 record. What do they earn for their achievement? Five days of rest and a ticket to London, where they'll play the Celtics next Thursday afternoon. 

Maybe not the best timing for the suddenly gelling Sixers to go most of a week without playing, but five days off to rest Joel's aching limbs — and give Markelle Fultz the practice reps to hopefully get him back in the fold shortly after the team's return Stateside — won't be the worst thing. The Sixers have righted the ship on their seemingly adrift season, but the waters stay rocky from here, with four straight against the cream of the East: Boston (twice), Toronto and Milwaukee. Then again, this is Sixers January — the month of utmost Process invincibility — so perhaps it's the rest of the East that should be fearful at the moment.