Zion Williamson’s absence did not sap the drama from Friday night’s game at Wells Fargo Center between the Sixers and Pelicans.
Five New Orleans players were sidelined, including Williamson (fractured left ring finger), Brandon Ingram (left ankle sprain) and Steven Adams (right first MTP sprain). Furkan Korkmaz (right ankle sprain) was the only Sixer out.
Still, the Sixers’ path to their seventh consecutive victory was anything but comfortable.
Leading by two points, the Sixers committed an eight-second violation with 10.7 seconds left. Eric Bledsoe drove baseline and couldn’t connect with Willy Hernangomez on the Pelicans’ final possession, and the Sixers pulled out a 109-107 win.
Joel Embiid scored 35 or more points for the 17th time this season, recording 37 and grabbing 13 rebounds.
Tobias Harris had 17 points. Seth Curry posted 16 first-half points, six rebounds and five assists.
Ben Simmons nearly had a triple-double with eight points, 10 assists and nine rebounds.
The 46-21 Sixers will play the Pistons on Saturday night. They’re now three games ahead of both the Nets and Bucks at the top of the Eastern Conference and have five regular-season games left.
Here are three observations on the Sixers' win Friday:
Embiid goes to work right away
With Adams out, Willy Hernangomez had the unenviable task of guarding Embiid. It didn’t go well for him.
Embiid scored 12 points on five field-goal attempts and drew two fouls on Hernangomez within the first seven minutes and 40 seconds of the game. Next up to the plate was Jaxson Hayes, who almost immediately fouled Embiid on a rip-through move.
It’s often accurate to say Embiid makes difficult things look rather easy. While that was the case Friday, he also had no problem playing a physical game, sealing deep in the post effectively on several occasions.
The Sixers recognized early that New Orleans was unable to contain Embiid. He’s the team’s default go-to guy, and the pieces around him have been good at understanding their supporting roles.
Embiid went 12 for 12 from the foul line, while no other Sixers starter attempted a free throw. His first second-half foul shots didn't come until 1:39 remained in the game. Give the Pelicans credit for sending aggressive, effective double teams after halftime.
Nikola Jokic is the very strong, deserved favorite for MVP. Embiid likely won’t earn that honor, but this has been one of the greatest seasons in Sixers history. Where exactly it ranks is up for debate, but it’s surely the best since Allen Iverson’s 2000-01 campaign.
New Orleans missed 19 of 21 three-point tries in the first half. At one point, Embiid was 3 for 3 from long distance and the Pelicans were 3 for 23.
New Orleans took care of the ball, grabbed offensive rebounds and hung around, though. The Sixers’ third-quarter performance also helped.
Neither the Sixers’ starters nor their bench played well in the third, which began with the team up by 16 points and ended with the Pelicans leading by three. Bad Sixers possessions against New Orleans’ zone were a factor, in addition to open jumpers starting to fall for the Pelicans.
“ ... I swear they just beat us off the dribble without pick-and-rolls — just straight-line drives," Sixers head coach Doc Rivers said. “Joel and Dwight (Howard) were in help the entire night, which allowed their bigs to have freedom. So we were not connected defensively at all.
“But we weren’t connected on either end. I thought the first half, obviously we were great offensively. The second half, I thought their zone affected us. That hasn’t happened all year. ... And then defensively, we were pretty bad all night.”
Time and again, the Sixers have won this season despite subpar stretches and relinquished leads. Harris has tended to be an integral player in those types of games, and he was again Friday.
The 28-year-old scored five points in an 8-0 Sixers run that gave the team a 102-101 edge. Harris also made a go-ahead three from the right corner with 1:10 to play.
With Friday's win, the Sixers are an NBA-best 25-8 in "clutch" games.
Mixing things up on the bench
Curry picked up two quick fouls and George Hill entered the game earlier than usual as a result.
Hill had a solid night, recording 11 points in 17 minutes. His pick-and-roll chemistry with Dwight Howard is developing. The two 35-year-olds sat next to each other and chatted in the designated “cool down” zone where masks are not required.
Mike Scott replaced Harris late in the first period. Since Matisse Thybulle was guarding Lonzo Ball and New Orleans was using a traditional frontcourt, Rivers thought it made sense to have a power forward on the floor.
Tyrese Maxey, the 10th man in the Sixers’ rotation Wednesday, did not play. Scott had three points in 12 minutes.
“They were just too big," Rivers said. “I actually really thought hard about still going small, but their bigs were athletic, long. It’s what I said the other night: we like the small lineups but there are going to be certain teams that going small could be dangerous. I thought tonight was one of those nights, so we went with Mike instead.”
Thybulle has been impressive defending larger players, though it will be interesting to see how much the Sixers give him that responsibility in the playoffs. There might be certain matchups where he’s more valuable against a perimeter threat. Of course, it’s a moot point against opponents that share Rivers’ preference of playing a small second unit (at least in terms of the power forward spot).
Regardless, Scott appearing in a close playoff game seems unlikely outside of a situation where he’s required because of injuries or foul trouble.