The Sixers only needed to lead for 1.1 seconds Friday night at Wells Fargo Center.
They played from behind throughout the game but pulled ahead of the Trail Blazers when required thanks to Joel Embiid. He hit a turnaround jumper on the Sixers' last possession to lift the team to a dramatic 120-119 victory.
Embiid posted 39 points, seven rebounds, four assists, three blocks and two steals.
Blazers guard Anfernee Simons was tremendous in his return from a four-game absence with a sprained ankle. He dropped 34 points and shot 8 for 12 from three-point range. Portland also got 24 points from Jerami Grant and 22 from Damian Lillard.
The 44-22 Sixers will next play the Wizards on Sunday in Philadelphia. Here are observations on their comeback win Friday:
Crashing back to earth in first
Following the Sixers’ impressive 4-1 road trip, it’s hard to imagine the team could’ve made a worse start than it did against Portland.
The Blazers played effective zone defense early vs. the Sixers, who were deliberate and indecisive in the half court and opened 0 for 5 from three-point range. Meanwhile, Portland sunk its first six long-distance shots, including a Grant corner three assisted by Matisse Thybulle.
Tyrese Maxey began the night on Lillard, although the Sixers were willing to switch one through four. Lillard had Maxey shaking his head early after drawing the whistle he wanted with a swift rip-though move. The seven-time All-Star also got a foul call on Embiid later in the first quarter that the star big man couldn’t believe. The Sixers’ frustrations with fouls continued at a borderline comical level when they went to their bench. De’Anthony Melton committed two fouls on Lillard in his very first possession. Jalen McDaniels picked up three fouls in the first quarter.
The Sixers missed a few good looks and Portland hit some well-contested shots. That said, the Sixers played subpar, mistake-heavy defense in the first half. It also didn’t help that Embiid, who entered the game with a streak of 30 consecutive made free throws, began 3 for 7. Embiid was much better from the floor (5 for 6 in the first) and increased his aggression once Blazers backup center Drew Eubanks subbed in.
A nice Melton stint got the Sixers temporarily on track, but their deficit reached 15 points early in the second quarter following a couple of Simons triples. Simons and Grant combined to score 38 first-half points on 13-for-18 shooting.
Thybulle the visitor
Playing his first game at Wells Fargo Center since moving to Portland at the trade deadline, Thybulle received a tribute video and an almost entirely warm reception in the first quarter.
By the second quarter, he had a more standard taste of life as a visiting player in Philadelphia. Thybulle heard boos when he knocked down a corner three. The 26-year-old also made Embiid pay for dribbling a bit too casually with him in the vicinity, swiping a back-tap steal. Cam Reddish capitalized on that extra possession with a mid-range jumper and the Blazers soon grew their lead to 71-50 on a tough Grant three.
The Sixers assigned James Harden to Thybulle defensively. Harden struggled on the other end in the first half with both the Sixers’ starters and in bench-heavy lineups, missing all five of his three-point tries. He did pass Philadelphia native and Temple legend Guy Rodgers for 21st on the NBA’s all-time assists list in the first period and went ahead of Michael Jordan for sixth on the league’s all-time made free throws list early in the fourth.
As for Thybulle, he ended the evening with five points on 2-for-4 shooting, two rebounds, a steal and a block in 19 minutes.
Embiid, second unit bring Sixers back
Thybulle missed two jumpers from the left wing early in the third quarter, although he did chip in offensively with an alley-oop dunk.
Blazers head coach Chauncey Billups decided to sub Thybulle out and put Reddish in after the Sixers mounted an Embiid-led run. Tobias Harris (eight points on 3-for-11 shooting) made a mid-range jumper, Harden nailed a pull-up three, and the Sixers had Portland’s lead down to seven points despite everything that went wrong in the first half.
The Blazers regained their footing thanks largely to Simons, who converted a couple of impressive floaters and yet another three. Simons is fully capable of these sorts of nights — he scored a career-high 45 points earlier this season against the Jazz — but the Sixers will be disappointed with how frequently the 23-year-old managed decent looks long after it was obvious he posed a big threat. Still, give credit to Simons for proving he could keep scoring inside the arc when the Sixers did run him off the three-point line. And credit to the Sixers for holding him scoreless over the game's final 11:07.
McDaniels was one of six players to come off of the Sixers' bench. He threw down a driving dunk late in the third quarter but then fouled Lillard on the subsequent possession. In his 10 minutes, McDaniels racked up five fouls. Thybulle wound up with zero.
Danuel House Jr.'s play was among the Sixers' second-unit bright spots. House played high-energy defense on Lillard for a few minutes in the second quarter and added five points in the fourth on a high-flying alley-oop slam and a corner three. Georges Niang's shooting was a major plus, too. Niang went 4 for 7 from long distance, including a jumper that trimmed Portland's lead to 112-104 with 5:17 to go. He closed the game over Harris.
Portland predictably ran its offense in the fourth through Lillard, who fell to 2 for 7 from three when he narrowly misfired with Embiid sprinting at him in pick-and-roll coverage. Embiid was active and aggressive on the perimeter in the fourth, which contributed to Lillard and Simons firing up unsuccessful jumpers. Threes from Melton (13 points, five assists) and Harden (19 points, nine rebounds, eight assists) kept the Sixers' comeback rolling in the right direction, and two Embiid free throws improbably tied the game at 114-all with 2:50 remaining.
The Blazers swarmed Embiid on a late after-timeout play and Jusuf Nurkic forced a turnover, but the Sixers benefited greatly from Nurkic going 1 for 5 at the foul line in the fourth. Nurkic made a crucial bucket in the final minute, however, driving in for a go-ahead, and-one layup after the Sixers blitzed Lillard and he quickly dished the ball.
The Sixers still had a shot, though. These days, any shot Embiid takes feels awfully promising.