Sixers-Thunder is becoming one of the NBA's best random rivalries

Sixers-Thunder is becoming one of the NBA's best random rivalries

The Oklahoma City Thunder beat the Philadelphia 76ers last night by the ultimately decisive score of 122-112 -- the most points the Sixers have given up since Dec. 10 in New Orleans. The Sixers mostly played well -- their stars in particular -- but foul trouble limited the playing time and defensive effectiveness of Joel Embiid and Dario Saric, the Sixers didn't quite have the depth to maintain without them on the court for stretches, and Russell Westbrook absolutely took over in the second half, making all the plays necessary to close this one out in OKC. 

It's an unfortunate, if forgivable, loss for the Sixers, who fall to 24-22 and the 8th seed in the East. But it's a huge gain for the NBA, who now have a great, weird rivalry on their hands. 

Of course, Process trusters will recall the first game this year between these two teams: the triple-OT thriller in Philly in mid-December, so epic and hard-fought a showdown that it practically knocked Embiid out of commission for the rest of the month. That was also a loss, but the drama of the game was notable enough -- exacerbated, of course, by JoJo's taunting of the Thunder (particularly once opposing center Steven Adams had fouled out), and by Westbrook's missed dunk over the big man -- that it was worth circling this one on the calendar, to see if either team would do anything to escalate the rivalry. 

The answer came early in this one. Not quite halfway through the first quarter, Embiid pump-faked from beyond the three-point line and drove past Adams to the hoop. Westbrook tried to slide in for the charge as Embiid elevated for the nasty dunk, positively posterizing the OKC point guard. (Still not totally sure why Westbrook didn't get the charge, to be honest, but all except Russ can probably agree that the NBA is better off for it.) Naturally, The Process stared down Westbrook on his way back on defense, and naturally, the Brodie spent the entire rest of the game hunting out his revenge and giving Embiid the business. 

Of course, the tradeoff ended up being a not-quite-advantageous one for the Sixers, since an incensed Westbrook ultimately exploded for 37-14-9, which combined with 20 and 13 from an always-where-he-needs-to-be Steven Adams and an efficient 31 from secondary scorer Paul George was simply too much for Philly to overcome. But the Sixers were able to at least keep the game close until its final minutes, as Embiid put up 27 and 10 on 10-16 shooting, and Ben Simmons continued his hot play with 22-4-7 on 10-14 shooting. If the Sixers were deep enough in the frontcourt that we weren't forced to play unsightly combinations of Amir Johnson, Trevor Booker, Justin Anderson and James Young -- none of whom played well in this one -- we might've even been able to hold on for the W. 

Nonetheless, the game was fun enough that Sixers fans can't even be too mad about the results. (The chuckles continued into the post-game, too, with Embiid tagging his Instagramof the Westbrook poster with the location "Crime Scene Investigation.") The Sixers and Thunder's season series is over, sadly, and they're unlikely to meet in the postseason anytime soon, but the two games next season are already pretty much guaranteed to be must-watches, while Embiid vs. Westbrook in the upcoming All-Star Game is sure to be one of the weekend's funniest subplots. 

Best of all? This was Embiid's 11th consecutive game without racking up a DNP for the Sixers -- the longest such streak of his thusfar short and compromised NBA career. What's more, the Sixers ruled that Embiid is "available" for tonight's game in Milwaukee, which would be his first time playing in back to backs. Slowly but surely -- knock on an entire log cabin here -- JoJo is putting his injury-riddled early history behind him, and acclimating to life as a star NBA player. And as much fun as it is to have the Sixers actually winning games this season, that's still all that really matters. 

More Sixers vs. Thunder, please

More Sixers vs. Thunder, please

BOX SCORE

OKLAHOMA CITY — The season series between the Sixers and Thunder isn’t really over, is it?

These teams could play each other 20 more times and each game would be one to watch.

What started in Philadelphia on Dec. 15 as a triple-overtime thriller carried over to Oklahoma City Sunday night as a high-intensity battle that resulted in a 122-112 win for the Thunder on their home court (see observations).

While the Sixers and Thunder will not face off again until next season, these two contests were just a glimpse into what already has the making of a must-see matchup. 

“After a little talk after game one, leading into this game, kind of was looking forward to it,” Russell Westbrook (37 points, 14 assists, nine rebounds) said. “But, you know, Oklahoma City, 2-0.” 

Their first meeting of the season at the Wells Fargo Center wrapped up with a preview of what was to come Sunday night. During the Thunder’s 119-117 victory, Joel Embiid waved goodbye when Steven Adams fouled out. That didn’t set well with Westbrook, who sent his own message to Embiid after the buzzer.

“He told me to go home,” Embiid said that night. “And this is my home and I ain’t going nowhere.”

When the Sixers traveled to the Thunder’s home, the Thunder put their mark on the game with a second-half push and improved to 19-7 at Chesapeake Energy Arena. They extended their current winning streak to eight games and recorded their 18th straight win over the Sixers dating back to 2008. 

“You come into this building and you know with the roster that they have that you are going to be in for a fist fight,” Brett Brown said. “They are a big team. They are a physical team. You roll out three gold medalists and All-Stars and you sort of have Steven Adams at the center of it all, you know you are in for a long night.”

It was clear from the start both teams hadn’t forgotten their first battle. There were hard fouls, players hitting the floor and aggressive drives to the basket. The Sixers’ and Thunder’s combined 106 points in the paint was reflective of the jam-heavy ballgame. Ben Simmons, Adams and Westbrook rank in the league’s top 10 in points in that area. 

“They are so many athletes,” Embiid (27 points, 10 rebounds) said. “There was a lot of dunks. It’s just a show. It’s fun to watch, it’s fun to be in. But I wish we would have had the win, but these games are fun.”

Entertaining with a strong undertone of fast-paced intensity. The similar styles of play fueled this up-and-down contest. Paul George (31 points) considers the Sixers and Thunder’s styles to “mirror” one another. 

Then there’s the shared desire to win.

“I thought the atmosphere in Philly was a great atmosphere to be a part of and go on the road and play that game. That was our first time enjoying ‘The Process,’” Carmelo Anthony (16 points) said. “Tonight was just, we knew it would be a fun, physical game. Those guys, they just play hard for the full 48 minutes regardless of what’s going on out there. I think Coach (Brett) Brown does a great job keeping those guys engaged throughout the course of the game.”

The teams could look different next season, with no guarantees of trades and moves in free agency, especially Paul George. But both Embiid and Westbrook are locked in for long-term deals, creating the foundation for an Eastern-Western Conference showdown that isn’t going away anytime soon.

Sixers' stars outshined in OKC

Sixers' stars outshined in OKC

BOX SCORE

OKLAHOMA CITY — It has been nearly 10 years since the Sixers beat the Thunder, and they will have to wait until next season to try to break that skid.

The Thunder topped the Sixers, 122-112, Sunday at Chesapeake Energy Arena to hand the Sixers’ their 18th straight loss in the matchup.

The trio of Russell Westbrook (37 points, 14 assists and nine rebounds) Paul George (31 points, four rebounds and four assists) and Steven Adams (20 points, 13 rebounds) propelled the Thunder’s (29-20) current win streak to eight.

Joel Embiid (27 points, 10 rebounds) and Ben Simmons (22 points, seven assists and four rebounds) led the Sixers (24-21).

A 101-tie halfway through the fourth turned into a Thunder domination to close the game. The Thunder scored 21 points in the final six minutes.

The Sixers have not won against the Thunder since Nov. 15, 2008, and are victory-less on the road dating back to Dec. 31, 2007, when the Thunder were the SuperSonics.

• Turnover check: The Sixers committed 18 (which the Thunder converted into 25 points), including seven in the third.

• Westbrook plays with an intensity that’s visible from any vantage point, but especially when the press seats at Chesapeake Energy Arena are courtside.

• The Sixers are 0-12 this season when giving up 114 points or more.

• Both teams were attacking the basket with driving dunks, it was no surprise they scored a combined 106 points in the paint (Thunder 62, Sixers 44).

• Third quarter problems snuck back in for the Sixers. They were up 75-68 with 7:33 to go in the quarter before the Thunder went on a 13-4 run to take back the lead. The Sixers trailed 92-83 going into fourth after Westbrook and George combined for 24 of the Thunder’s 35 third-quarter points. The Sixers scored 25.

• JJ Redick (leg) and Jerryd Bayless (wrist) were sidelined again. Andre Roberson suffered a season-ending left patellar tendon injury in the Thunder’s previous game.

• Embiid has been told by the Sixers staff he is available to play in Monday’s game against the Bucks, which would be his first career back-to-back, depending on how he feels after this game (see story). Brett Brown said Embiid’s minutes against the Thunder (36) would not be based on the possibility of him playing the next day.

• Richaun Holmes got playing time in a four-five duo alongside Embiid.

Trevor Booker left the game in the second half with right knee discomfort and returned to the bench, available to play.