Sixers say they learned their lesson after closing out Rockets


HOUSTON — No, not again. 

The Sixers weren’t going to let the Rockets steal another game down the stretch for the second time in less than a week. 

The lessons learned from last Wednesday’s loss were on the Sixers’ minds as they came to Houston eager to avenge Eric Gordon’s buzzer-beating three. They were ready this time, even when the Rockets threatened a comeback and got within one with three minutes to play. 

“I think we stayed on them a lot more defensively,” Ben Simmons said after the 115-107 win Monday (see observations). “Communication was better. But there were still times when they were just the Rockets, a great team, a great scoring team.”

After the Rockets got within striking distance, 106-105 with 3:06 to go, the Sixers held them scoreless for the next 2:48 during a 7-0 run. The Rockets did not hit a three after Gordon’s bucket with 3:28 remaining. 

“In the fourth quarter, we got stops defensively and the ball was moving,” Joel Embiid said. “Everybody was touching it … T.J. (McConnell) made a couple big shots. I thought we just learned our lesson and we did a better job.”

The Sixers overcame seven turnovers in the fourth, including another late-game 24-second violation. 

“I thought we showed a toughness,” Brett Brown said. “I thought we showed an awareness of a defensive game plan. There’s still areas that we all want, closing out games, the execution of how to walk down a game. I felt our defense did that more than our offense did.”

The Sixers split the season series with the Rockets and picked up their first win in Houston since 2011. 

“That is a team that plays hard,” Ryan Anderson said. “They’ve got a lot of young, hungry players. We knew that was how they were going to play.”

Embiid involved in crunch time
One of the most glaring issues in the Sixers’ loss to the Rockets last week was Embiid’s lack of involvement down the stretch. On Monday, he scored a basket and pulled down three rebounds over the final 2:30 of the win. 

“I thought Jo rebounding was key toward the end,” Simmons said. “We went to Jo a lot in the post and he did what he was supposed to do, be a beast down there.”

Embiid had four points, six rebounds, one assist, one steal and one block overall in the fourth (see highlights). With a total of 22 points, nine rebounds, five dimes and two steals, he became only the third player since the 1983-84 season to post those numbers in 25 minutes or less. Embiid joined Fat Lever (1990) and Pau Gasol (2015). 

Still, he’s wants to do more. 

“I thought I did an OK job,” Embiid said. “I don’t think I’m back to being what I was last year defensively, but I thought this game I made some progress.” 

Simmons feeling comfortable away from rim
Simmons has been producing the majority of his offense in the paint. He changed it up by knocking down three jumpers, 16 and 17 feet from the basket (see video). Simmons had attempted (and missed) only two shots from the 16- to 24-foot range entering the game. 

“I’m comfortable taking them, so I’ve got to start doing that more often,” said Simmons, who finished with 24 points, seven rebounds and nine assists (see highlights). “I just need to get prepared before games, make sure I go through my routine.”

Simmons incorporated jumpers into his pregame drills while working with the Sixers’ shooting coach. Brown isn’t forcing the issue, but is noticing more confidence from the rookie with those shots.

“It’s just a whole other situation that a team has to figure out. How do we game plan that?” Brown said. “I think it’s going to happen sooner than others think. If he can reliably rise up and hit some 15-, 17-foot jump shots, it just makes the other parts of his game more explosive and he becomes more complete.” 

Brown staying optimistic about Fultz
Brown reiterated his positive outlook on Markelle Fultz now that the rookie has been ruled out indefinitely with right shoulder scapular muscle imbalance.

Brown, who is well-versed in rookie injuries, is looking to “reload him, re-deliver him to an NBA court where he feels good, he’s ready to go play and be Markelle Fultz again.”

“Right now, we all saw that wasn’t the case,” Brown said. “In a very sort of twisted way, I’m viewing this as a positive opportunity.”

Notes and tidbits
• The Sixers’ bench combined for 40 points between Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot (17), Amir Johnson (12) and McConnell (11). Brown called the trio “excellent” and said those players were necessary to beat one of the league’s top teams (see video).

• James Harden described the Rockets’ energy as “terrible” at the start of the game. They were not aggressive on the defensive end as the Sixers scored 37 points in the first quarter alone.

• The Sixers had a 13-rebound edge on the glass. They are the only team to out-rebound the Rockets this season, and also did so in their last matchup. Johnson led the way with 10 boards while every starter grabbed at least five.