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.