AUBURN HILLS - Sometimes the game of basketball is hard to figure. Who would have thought that the 76ers would go into The Palace of Auburn Hills on Sunday, without Joel Embiid (rest and right elbow inflammation), without starting point guard Sergio Rodriguez (back at team hotel with gastroenteritis) and put a 97-79 pasting on the Detroit Pistons?
Sometimes the game is simple, and that's a big reason why the team pulled off the win and collected its second consecutive victory on the road for the first time since Dec. 21 and 23 of 2014 in Orlando and Miami.
Sunday the Sixers moved the ball as well as they have all season. It never stuck in one spot. Rarely did players try to create their own shots off the dribble. It was pass and move, dribble and dish, pick and roll. When it's that simple, it allows you shoot 38-for-68 (55.9 percent) from the floor, deal 24 assists and rarely have to force anything.
Of course, the Sixers don't garner wins without a little bit of drama, and this one had it. Making his season debut, center Nerlens Noel looked good in 10 minutes and 23 seconds of action in the first half after Jahlil Okafor picked up three fouls. On a drive to the basket late in the first quarter, Noel landed awkwardly and stayed on the floor for a few minutes. He continued to play, made both foul shots and started the second quarter. But at halftime the Sixers announced Noel had sprained his left ankle and would not return, his night finished with eight points.
By that time, however the Sixers had already built a 58-35 lead and seemed to have already drained the interest from the Pistons (13-13).
"I feel all over the place everyone contributed and it was a real team effort," said Brett Brown. "I thought it was a Philly-hard effort. I think that it was just a team result. As a team, we responded.
"Right now I think we're fourth in the NBA in assist percentage, which is a great number for us. When you talk about how many of your scored baskets are assisted, we're fourth, and I shared that fact before we started this game. We're proud of our ball movement. We're trying to grow it. We realize that we have a Joel and a Jahlil but you can't just come down and horse the post and stand. You've got to move. In the first half we had 19 assists. That's a massive number. In general, our ball movement over the past five to seven games has been very good and we needed every one of them tonight."
Sunday, T.J. McConnell was the orchestrator. Plugged into the starting lineup due to Rodriguez's illness, the 6-2 guard collected 12 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists. Robert Covington scored 16, Ersan Ilyasova 15, Okafor 14 and Nik Stauskas 10 in a balanced scoring attack.
"I think it gives you a little more confidence knowing that you are going to play more minutes," said McConnell, who started 17 games last season. "But it's for the wrong reasons, though. We want Sergio here. I just tried to step in and hold down the fort for as long as I could.
"Guys were telling me that I was getting close to the triple-double, so I was just trying to get guys the ball at the end."
Many found themselves open Sunday as the team improved to 6-18. They'll have the luxury of playing at home for the next four games. Perhaps they will have almost a full roster by then and Noel back from his latest injury.
"It just stiffened up on me close to halftime," said Noel, "especially when we got in here at halftime. It's a minor thing. I will probably be back by next game."
"I am excited," said Brown of Noel's return. "He and I have been with each other for a while. There's a human side to all of this that we all completely understand, the nature and the design of our team and where we're all at. There's no elephant in the room. He has worked to get back into this situation. He's heavier and bigger than he's ever been. He's 232 pounds. That's the most he's weighed since he's been with me. It's an indication that he could take some hits and still maintain that elite speed and athleticism. But to see him out on the floor with us in a 76er uniform and to coach him again and play him again, I'm excited and feel good about him having this opportunity again."
There's quite a bit to feel good about this team lately.