Joel Embiid and Deandre Ayton finally met on the basketball court.
You remember Ayton: He's the Phoenix Suns center Embiid said was "going to get his ass kicked this year" when Embiid appeared on ESPN's "The Jump" on Sept. 21. He's also the rookie Embiid trolled on draft night after ESPN analyst Chauncey Billups said the first overall pick reminded him of the Sixers center.
Embiid tweeted "Keep my name out of this lol" and "Don't compare Ayton to me either … I play DEFENSE."
Ayton didn't say much in response. Embiid and the Sixers had to dig deep to keep it that way after Monday's game.
Battling back from a 15-point first-quarter deficit, the Sixers prevailed 119-114 at the Wells Fargo Center.
Embiid said he wasn't motivated to go against the prized rookie.
"Nah, I'm not worried about anything," he said. "It's just a regular game to me. Like I said, I've matured a lot.
"But he has a lot of potential. He's going to be a really good big in this league."
This was the second time in two months Embiid has spoken highly of Ayton after his comments on draft night and in September.
The victory extended two winning streaks. The Sixers (12-7) won their third straight game. This also marked their 19th straight home win, dating back to last season. The Suns, with the NBA's third-worst record, dropped to 3-13. But this was closer than expected.
The Sixers didn't take their first lead (70-68) until Embiid converted a three-point play with 8 minutes, 15 seconds left in the third quarter. And they had just a three-point lead (117-114) with 5 seconds left after Mikal Bridges' three-pointer.
Jimmy Butler gave the Sixers their five-point margin of victory by hitting a pair of foul shots with 2.6 seconds left.
"It's hard winning in the NBA," Sixers coach Brett Brown said. "I thought we were flat. I think that was my motivation to go with T.J. [McConnell as the backup point guard after intermission]. And whatever reason, at times that happened. … But the first half, I thought that was flat."
After a slow start, Embiid finished with 33 points, 17 rebounds, three steals, and one block. His one negative was six turnovers. This marked his 11th game of the season with at least 30 points and 10 rebounds. It was also 17th double-double of the season.
Meanwhile, Ayton finished with 17 points, nine rebounds, and one steal. Teammate Devin Booker led all scorers with 37 points before fouling out late in the game. In all, the Suns had six double-digit scorers.
Ben Simmons was one assist shy of a triple-double with 19 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists for the Sixers. Reserve post player Mike Muscala finished with a season-high 19 points. JJ Redick added 17 points, while Butler had 16 and two steals.
This game might have signaled a change at the Sixers' backup point guard position, with McConnell replacing Markelle Fultz in that role in the second half.
McConnell, who had not played in the previous three games, received a standing ovation when he initially entered the game with 27 seconds left in the first half. He received another rousing greeting when he re-entered with 3:40 left in the third quarter. Simmons replaced him with 7:36 to play. That came 13 seconds after McConnell excited the crowd by stealing the ball, leading a fast break and feeding Muscala on a dunk to put the Sixers up, 100-90.
Asked if McConnell will remain in that role, Brown responded, "I don't know."
What's going to be the determining factor?
"Just when I think it through deeper, look at tape and see who we are playing, the next opponent," the coach said. "All those things that I should do."
Right now, McConnell gives the Sixers a better chance to win. The team knows that. It was just playing Fultz as a way to build his confidence and/or showcase him for potential trading partners. Right now, they need to produce – not build confidence. That's why the Sixers went to McConnell.
"You definitely want to go out there and compete," said Fultz, who played a season-low 7:05 — all in the first half. "I am a competitor. But at the end of the day, coach made a decision to do that, so I have to live with it. My mindset is when I step on the floor, I go out to play. But once [McConnell] goes out there, I root for him. It's not like I am pouting on the bench or anything. I want to get out there. I am rooting for my teammates."
Fultz, the first pick of the 2017 draft, was held scoreless after missing both of his shots. He also had one rebound, one assist, one turnover, and three personal fouls.
Early on, it was all Phoenix.
Ayton opened the scoring with an alley-oop dunk on an assist from Booker 15 seconds into the game. He added an 18-foot jumper for his team's second basket with 10:12 left in the quarter. And he had a 16-foot jumper over Embiid to give the Suns a 38-26 advantage 56 seconds into the second quarter. But the Sixers gradually cut into the lead before building a 12-point advantage.
This game was a homecoming for Bridges and Richaun Holmes.
The Sixers selected Bridges, a Villanova and Great Valley High School product, with the No. 10 pick in the June draft. But less than an hour later, the Sixers traded him to the Suns for their 16th overall pick, shooting guard Zhaire Smith of Texas Tech. The Sixers also received the Miami Heat's first-round pick in 2021. The Sixers really liked Smith, just not at the 10th pick. He has been sidelined so far this season with a broken left foot and an allergic reaction to food.
Meanwhile, the Sixers shipped Holmes, a reserve center, to the Phoenix for $1 million in July. The move cleared the way for them to give power forward Jonah Bolden a four-year, $7 million contract. The Sixers selected Holmes with the 37th overall pick in the 2015 draft. His wife and son still live in Philadelphia.