The 16-win Rockets had only eight players dressed for Wednesday night’s game against the Sixers.
Veteran point guard D.J. Augustin, who’d been listed as questionable during the day with a left ankle sprain, did not play. Kevin Porter Jr. limped off the floor after spraining his left ankle in the third quarter.
Doc Rivers was not very sympathetic.
“No one felt disheartened when we (had players) missing games,” the Sixers’ head coach said before the game. “I don’t remember Denver (on Jan. 9) saying, ‘Oh my god, we don’t want to play this game.’ This is just the way it is this year.
“But it’s this way every year. There’s obviously not this many injuries, but every year you go through the regular season and you go through a stretch where you catch every team that’s healthy and rolling, and then you catch a stretch where guys are banged up or where teams are actually healthy but just not playing well. That’s why you can never overdo the regular season. … Once you go into the playoffs, (it’s a) different beast.”
The immediate task in front of the Sixers is securing the Eastern Conference’s top seed, and they further boosted their chances of doing so with a 135-115 win over Houston at Toyota Center.
The 45-21 Sixers now lead the second-place Nets by two games.
Joel Embiid led the team with 34 points and 12 rebounds.
The Sixers will travel back to Philadelphia for a home back-to-back Friday and Saturday against the Pelicans and Pistons.
Here are three observations on their sixth consecutive win:
Simmons puts foot on gas early, puts up some jumpers
Ben Simmons took six field goals in the first period, making five. Notably, three of those attempts were jumpers.
He made a nine-footer from the post, and he also drained a fadeaway 16-footer late in the quarter. In between, he missed a pull-up try from the left elbow.
Against a Rockets team barely able to field the minimum number of players, Simmons was smart to push the pace and pressure Houston’s defense with downhill attacks. That’s a natural approach for him, and it was a good way to wear down the Rockets early.
“I’ll let you guys talk all about the jump shooting," Rivers said. “I think you guys love that subject, so I’ll let you stay on it. We’ll keep winning, you guys keep talking about the jump shots. But I don’t care. He works on everything; he really does. We’re working on ... hooks, fadeaways. But I just want him to keep playing. I don’t worry about his shot selection right now. For the most part, he takes pretty good ones.”
The Sixers had advantages across the board Wednesday, but none were more obvious than Embiid’s.
Embiid was defended by Kelly Olynyk, Houston’s only healthy big man. He started 2 for 8 from the floor but still amassed 17 first-half points and passed out of double teams well.
“We clearly had a matchup," Rivers said. “Early on, they tried to trap and we kept getting threes. In the third quarter they didn’t trap, and so we went to Joel. I (said to) one of our guys, ‘It’s not rocket science. We have a matchup against our best player. Let’s use it.’ And I thought our guys did a good job of it.”
Embiid looks like he’s easily able to identify open skip passes but, in most cases, he doesn’t throw them unless he can see it’s a safe option. The best play for him in the playoffs will sometimes be tossing the ball back out to the perimeter and trusting his teammates to be productive from there.
Given Embiid’s injury history and status this season as one of the league’s two or three best players, any awkward movement or hard hit must be a bit worrisome to the Sixers’ bench. He exited Wednesday after 25 minutes and didn’t need to play in the fourth quarter.
One way Green should help in playoffs
Danny Green made three early corner three-pointers. He entered Wednesday’s game having made 44.3 percent of his corner threes, per Cleaning the Glass.
Green’s ability to move to the right spots outside of the Sixers’ structured offense should be valuable in the postseason. When opponents know the Sixers’ sets and place most of their attention on the team’s stars, Green’s knack for sneaking to an open area will be useful.
“Hell, it’s called the Danny Green cut," Rivers said of Green's corner-to-corner move. “Clearly, he probably does it better than anybody. He probably gets two or three a game where he’s just dead-open from movement. The one in the first half was just genius. It’s a read and the guy was still standing in the opposite corner; he didn’t know Danny had gone. He has a knack for it.
“I’m really hoping all our other guys see it, because it is obviously instinctive but it is probably something you can teach, as well. I’m hoping our other guys see it.”
As a team, the Sixers shot 10 for 17 from three-point range in the first half. They were less successful after halftime but still had no trouble scoring thanks to Embiid and the decimated state of the Rockets’ roster.
Thybulle, bench avoid drama
Matisse Thybulle shouldn’t catch anyone off guard at this point. He’s incredibly gifted at darting into passing lanes and blocking jumpers, skills that should appear on scouting reports across the league. Still, he seems to consistently stun opponents.
Within his first six minutes Wednesday, Thybulle had two blocks and two steals.
Rivers played some zone defense with Thybulle on the floor early in the second period. The results were mixed, but it’s an intriguing defense whenever Thybulle is on the court — especially with Simmons. The two still aren’t playing together much, though.
Furkan Korkmaz was sidelined Wednesday by a right ankle sprain and Tyrese Maxey joined the four Sixers bench regulars — Thybulle, George Hill, Shake Milton and Dwight Howard — in the team’s rotation. Maxey converted two catch-and-shoot threes and recorded 12 points and seven assists in 22 minutes.
Though he’s still below 30 percent from long range, it would qualify as a surprise if Maxey does not improve from three-point territory to some degree in his second professional season. There are no egregious flaws with his shot, and he’s a hard worker who should have a better idea of how to make jumpers cold off the bench and where he’s most likely to have opportunities to fire.
“Joel’s been telling me, ‘If you’re open, shoot the ball. You work so hard, why would you pass up shots?’ That comes from everybody," Maxey said. “Every time I shoot and miss or make, Tobias (Harris) will yell, ‘Tyrese, you’re a great shooter.’ When you have those guys having confidence in you, that builds confidence within yourself."
Shake Milton took charge of the Sixers’ second unit in the first half, scoring 12 points on 10 field-goal attempts in his initial stint.
The team’s bench closed this one out decisively, allowing the starters to all have a short night. Harris’ 26 minutes were the most of any Sixer.