“Someday, the Sixers will be the other team,” I optimistically predicted on Jan. 11, after the Philadelphia 76ers’ lone “home” loss of 2018, against the Boston Celtics as the hosting team in London. The Sixers had been up big in the first half, stretching the lead to 20+, but the Celtics surged in the second half as the Sixers flailed, and the C’s ended up winning handily.
Well, someday has arrived, and it was a Valentine’s Day present Process Trusters won’t soon forget: Down 24 to the Miami Heat in the third quarter, the Sixers reeled off a 12-0 run to half the deficit, then battled back to recapture the lead in the fourth. They didn’t win handily, perhaps — a Dwyane Wade triple at the buzzer could’ve sunk ‘em — but they won, and after a year of seemingly ceaseless come-from-ahead losses, they finally put a come-from-behind 104-102 W in the books.
I’m still not totally sure how it happened. The Sixers, missing Joel Embiid with an ankle flare-up (that’ll be fine, right?), looked thoroughly lifeless in the first half as the Heat seized momentum, and even through their reanimated second half, they were still hardly hooping immaculate — they only shot 9-35 for the game from three, they turned the ball over 17 times and they committed 23 fouls. All that, combined with an early deficit and no Embiid… I mean, I made peace with this one ending up an L pretty early.
Luckily for us, the Sixers didn't. Their ability to hang around and fight back in this one can probably be most directly tied to their awesome effort on the boards: No less than six individual players grabbed at least seven rebounds last night — including J.J. Redick and Robert Covington, both of whom had frigid nights shooting — and their 23-3 advantage on the offensive glass was probably the ultimate difference-maker. Those extra possessions helped make up for the team's overall brickiness, and the lineup got a big boost from Richaun Holmes (11 and 9, with a couple blocks and assists, in his first real run in two weeks) and Marco Belinelli (17 points on 7-12 shooting in his impressive Sixers debut) off the bench.
But the real takeaway from this one is the same as it's been for most of the last month: Goddamn, Ben Simmons. In the 12 games since Simmons was first snubbed as an All-Star reserve, the rookie point guard has averaged 17-7-8 on 59% shooting, with two steals, a block and three turnovers. Last night was one of his finest all-around efforts — another triple-double (18-12-10) on efficient shooting (8-15 FG) with stellar defense (including four steals, a couple of which were huge second half momentum-swingers). There's still no doubt who this team's MVP is, but if there's a reason the Sixers now have a chance in games even without our JoJo, it's Simmons. May his All-Star revenge rampage last forever.
So, the Sixers go into the All-Star break with the 7th seed in the East at 30-25, a game and a half up on Miami, just two back of Washington in fourth, and with the third-best scoring differential in the conference. Right now, it seems like injuries are the only thing that could really threaten the Sixers' first playoff appearance in a half-decade, so let's just hope Joel, Ben and Dario make it out of All-Star Weekend alive and we can breathe a little easy for the rest of the season. Lord knows this franchise has long been owed a little karmic relaxation.