DETROIT — When the Sixers brought back Ersan Ilyasova and signed Marco Belinelli this past February, fifth-year coach Brett Brown was simply hoping to add a boost to his team’s bench.
What he’s witnessed the past two months from both veterans, particularly in the wake of All-Star center Joel Embiid’s injury, has been above and beyond what Brown could have ever imagined.
“I love the foreign guys, as you know,” Brown said following his team’s 115-108 win Wednesday over the Detroit Pistons at Little Caesars Arena (see observations). “And to get them both in a single season, and to truly have a home for them, where you can give them 20 minutes, that is rare in March.”
And, without question, Ilyasova and Belinelli have taken advantage of their rare opportunity.
On the second night of a back-to-back, with playoff seeding up for grabs, the Sixers (48-30) put forth yet another dominant performance en route to their 12th consecutive win. And, once again, both Ilyasova and Belinelli played key roles in keeping the streak alive.
Six players finished the night in double digits Wednesday, including Belinelli, who put up 19 points off the bench — nine of which came in the fourth quarter. And Ilyasova? The 30-year-old forward supplied 13 en route to his third double-double in his past four games.
“They’ve just added so much,” Brown said. “None more important than the personal side of it. They’re good people.”
Another key veteran, JJ Redick, was undeniably the star of the night. He dropped a team-high 25 points, but Wednesday’s win proved to be a team effort, highlighted by a well-rounded offense and a tenacious defense.
“A lot of guys have just been playing well, knowing that we need a lot more from everybody as individuals,” said Ben Simmons, who finished with 16 points. “Everybody’s stepping up.”
Following the loss of Embiid, the Sixers were simply hoping to keep things afloat until he rejoined the team.
Thanks largely to a trio of veterans who have stepped up to fill the void, the Sixers now find themselves riding the team’s longest winning streak since the 1989-1990 campaign, and the fourth-longest streak in franchise history.
But in order to advance deep in the postseason, the Sixers will need a healthy Embiid. They know this.
“We are clearly a better team with Joel,” Brown said. “We have more potency with Joel. There is zero doubt about that. And we look forward to including an All-Star back in our lineup.”
Redick echoed his coach’s sentiment.
“Look, we’re trying to hold down the fort while he’s out,” he said. “But we know for us to be able to win, and win big, we need Joel healthy, and at his best.”
The Sixers’ dominant success as of late may have come as a surprise to some, given the injuries to Embiid and Dario Saric, who has missed time with cellulitis. However, their win streak has highlighted two key strengths: team chemistry and a deep bench.
“This is a testament on how we’ve grown as a unit, and the way our team has grown overall,” forward Robert Covington said of the team’s 12-game win streak. “We’ve done so much and we’re making the right strides.”
And they’re making the right strides at the right time.
With clutch contributions from their contingent of veterans, the Sixers gained a half game on the Cleveland Cavaliers, and will now enter their highly anticipated matchup Friday in a tie for third place in the Eastern Conference standings.
It’s a chance for the Sixers’ veterans to, once again, put their leadership — and talent — on full display.
“That’s going to be a true testament of a playoff game,” Covington said. “And I know Philadelphia is going to be behind us.”