CHICAGO — If the Sixers end their playoff drought this season, it’ll be because of the franchise’s big two.
All-Star Joel Embiid and rookie Ben Simmons showed just how much fun that could be Thursday night.
Embiid forced a turnover in the final seconds, Simmons scooped up the ball and made a pair of free throws with 5.6 seconds to play and the Sixers scratched out their sixth straight victory, 116-115, over the Bulls (see observations).
The win halted a four-game road skid but, more important to the Sixers’ fortunes, had Embiid and Simmons’ fingerprints all over it.
Simmons finished with a career-high 32 points and had 11 assists and seven rebounds to come close to his second straight triple-double while Embiid added his ninth straight double-double — 30 and 13 rebounds with four blocks — to pace the Sixers on a night when they didn’t get much else.
“Joel and Ben carried us,” coach Brett Brown said after his team won on the road for the first time since Jan. 26. “I thought everyone else really had subpar performances. You felt like we came out of a break.”
The tanking Bulls — starting center Robin Lopez was a healthy scratch as Chicago joins the dash for better NBA draft odds — made 18 three-pointers in both teams’ return from the All-Star break and appeared to have the Sixers on the ropes after Zach LaVine’s triple with 1:02 to play made it 115-110.
That was the last time Chicago scored.
Simmons followed his miss with a layup and JJ Redick made a pair of free throws with 8.0 seconds left to set up the final defensive sequence that put Simmons at the line.
“First of all, we needed a steal and I saw Joel get it and he kind of lobbed it to me and I said, ‘S---, I better get it,’” Simmons said. “Stepping up to the line, I knew I was going to knock ‘em down. You have to have that mentality. I was put to the line and I can’t be thinking I’m going to miss ‘em.”
With 26 games to play, the Sixers can move into the upper half of the Eastern Conference with a late surge, but will need solid play — and the workloads that come with it — from Embiid and Simmons. If their contributions Thursday (both players were on the court for at least 30 minutes) are any indication, Sixers fans might have more postseason success to celebrate in the spring.
“We stole that win. Sometimes you need those and that’s what we did tonight,” Embiid said. “It’s fun when you win games like that.”
It’ll be even more fun when games like that happen in the postseason … which looks much more plausible every game lately thanks to the big two.
“They feel something special is close. They feel something special that we’ve worked hard for for four years is just around the corner and no one is taking that for granted,” Brown said.
“There’s no entitlement. We just fight for everything we can get.”