Eric Gordon. Brandon Ingram. De'Aaron Fox.
The Sixers have a nearly unparalleled knock for getting killed by big shots in the final minute, one they haven't shown much flair for reciprocating since T.J. vs. the Knicks. Seems like every time the ball finds its way to an opposing shooter beyond the arc with that guy's team down two and a Sixers defender lunging in his direction, the ball inevitably goes down, usually taking Philly's hope along with it.
Not last night. The scene was certainly set in Denver: Sixers get out to a decent-sized late lead, get impossibly tight down the stretch, give up silly turnovers and allow the other team to slowly (or quickly) creep its way back in the game. And so an 11-point margin had shrunk to three in the final minute, with the Nuggets skipping the ball around the perimeter until it ended up in the hands of Will Barton, free for a look as Jerryd Bayless scrambled to throw a hand in his face. To say that Sixers fans had seen this movie more times than all 23 Rocky movies combined would still be an understatement.
But somehow, the shot was long, and clanked off the back rim. Dario Saric (sort of) secured the rebound, and the Sixers held on for the 107-102 victory. Yes, Virginia: Somebody finally missed that goddamn shot against the Philadelphia 76ers.
Good thing, too, because the Sixers needed that win, for a number of reasons. Most crucially, taking down the Nuggets without Joel Embiid basically squares the Sixers for their embarrassing road loss in Portland minus the Blazers' best player, and prevents them from slipping to five games under .500, a detour from the playoff hunt that would've been pretty tough for the Ballers to navigate their way back from. With a win tonight in Phoenix, the Sixers could even potentially end this five-game road stint with a winning record -- no small thing, especially considering when we get back to the WFC, they're slated for four toughies against the Spurs, Pistons, Celtics and Raptors.
And getting the win without Embiid -- their first such W in their last seven tries -- was undoubtedly huge for the team's (and Brett Brown's) confidence and sanity, considering how despairing they've looked without JoJo of late. The Sixers' calendar-ending back-to-back set is at least the last such two-fer the team will have until late January, so they should have JoJo available most nights, but you never know with the star center, and if the Sixers want any chance of making the postseason, they can't afford to just write off every game where he's not playing.
As big as it is to get the W, though, it wouldn't be terribly realistic to look at this as a feel-good win. The Sixers did blow the game -- going up 103-97 with four minutes to go, and then not scoring again until Denver was forced to foul in final half-minute -- but the Nuggets just didn't capitalize on their late-game ineptitude well enough to steal back the victory. Ben Simmons played splendidly as usual on defense but was largely terrible on offense, ending with just six and six with five turnovers, his most ineffective game in the midst of what surely marks the roughest stretch of his rookie season.
In truth, the Sixers were bailed out of this one by their backup backcourt, McConnell and Bayless. We're used to T.J. playing savior by now -- 10 points and eight assists in 25 minutes, including a gorgeous floor-length laser of a dime to Robert Covington that's certainly one for the end-of-year sizzle reel -- but Bayless' clutch play in the early fourth was an extremely pleasant surprise, as he scored a quick seven to start the quarter and get the Sixers the separation they needed to hang on when he and the rest of the team ran out of miracles later in the quarter.
Final game of 2017 tonight in Phoenix, presumably with Joel this time. If you told us at the beginning of the season the Sixers would be entering 2018 at 17-19... it wouldn't exactly feel like a triumph, but it'd least be "OK, fair enough." Seems to me that "OK, fair enough" is reasonable thing to shoot for at year's end, no?
Have mercy on us, Devin Booker.