CHARLOTTE, N.C. — For much of the early season, the 76ers were the undermanned team with multiple players in health and safety protocols.
Monday night, they eventually prevailed over an opponent in a similar predicament.
Joel Embiid’s season-high 43 points to go along with 15 rebounds and seven assists propelled the Sixers to a 127-124 overtime victory over the pesky Hornets at the Spectrum Center, on a night when the Sixers went off for 44 points in the second quarter, survived the Hornets’ late rally, and overcame allowing 23 points off 15 turnovers.
The extra period belonged to Embiid, who is beginning to round into dominant form following his bout with COVID-19. He scored or assisted on all eight of the Sixers’ overtime points, including a jumper to put them up 125-122 and an over-the-top feed to Tobias Harris for a dunk to set the final score with 1 minute, 10 seconds to play.
“That’s what I have to do,” Embiid said. “My teammates and my coaches, they trust me to put me in those situations.”
Charlotte played Monday without star LaMelo Ball as well as Terry Rozier, Ish Smith, Mason Plumlee, and Jalen McDaniels, sidelined by the health and safety protocols. They were also on the second night of a back-to-back set after winning in Atlanta Sunday night.
Still, Sixers assistant Dan Burke — who fulfilled many of coach Doc Rivers’ pregame duties Monday while Rivers attended to a family matter he later called “a heavy day” — said he felt “a little angst” about facing the Hornets because “they’re a scrappy team, and we can’t lose sight of that.”
Charlotte coach James Borrego was bullish about his team entering the game, saying these types of nights were key character builders during the season’s grind.
The Sixers (13-11) needed to hold off a fourth-quarter surge by the Hornets, when Kelly Oubre (35 points) buried a three-pointer to put Charlotte up 119-116 with 1:01 to play in regulation. Embiid then drew a foul on the Sixers’ ensuing possession and went 1-of-2 from the line, then hit the game-tying jumper with 29.4 seconds to play. After Miles Bridges missed a step-back three-pointer, Embiid’s misfire off the glass at the buzzer sent the game to an extra five minutes.
After the game, Rivers said, “I can’t wait to watch the film, honestly.” His team will get the opportunity to immediately apply corrections against the same opponent, as the Sixers and Hornets will meet again Wednesday night in the same building. But the studies will go deeper than preparing for a rematch against the Hornets, Rivers said.
“We have to work on our team, so that will be our focus,” Rivers said. “I think, in the long run, you do that, you’ll be better prepared for anybody.”
Embiid keeps rolling
This was a “Feed the Pig” game for Embiid, who made 15 of his 20 attempts from the floor. That production and efficiency was needed on a night when the Hornets took 20 more shots (107) than the Sixers (87).
Before his monster finish, Embiid overwhelmed the Hornets’ undersized frontcourt of P.J. Washington and Nick Richards. Rivers actually thought his team did not identify the severe mismatch quickly enough. But once the Sixers did, Embiid exploited it over and over — and adjusted accordingly when Charlotte mixed in playing zone defense.
During the second quarter, Embiid spun and finished with authority, drew fouls, and converted and-one plays to close the first half with 17 points, 7 rebounds, and 3 assists. His old-fashioned three-point play with less than a minute to play in the halfgave the Sixers a 67-54 lead.
In the third quarter, Embiid consistently hit timely jumpers to keep the Hornets at bay, including a turnaround to extend the Sixers’ advantage to 95-88 in the period’s final minute.
It’s been less than a week since a frustrated Embiid sat inside Boston’s TD Garden after shooting a combined 7-of-33 over a two-game period since coming back from the virus. He broken each game down possession-by-possession with his personal trainer — including referring back to games from his dominant 2020-21 season -- and vowed to get himself more easy buckets.
The result: He has scored at least 28 points and 43 points, respectively, in the two games since — including the clutch shots to push the Sixers over the finish line.
“‘Easy ones’ doesn’t necessarily mean getting drop-off passes from my teammates,” Embiid said. “It means I’ve got to work harder to get deeper position on the block. And when I start seeing the ball go in the rim, it helps.”
Rivers received a text message on his flight back to Charlotte that starting point guard Tyrese Maxey would miss his first game of the season. Shake Milton found out he would be starting after his pregame shooting work, then filled in admirably by finishing with 16 points, 4 rebounds and just 1 turnover in 35 minutes.
Rivers characterized Milton’s performance as “up and down” but loved his early scoring spark (11 first-quarter points). He hit six of his eight shots on the night, including three three-pointers. Veteran wing Danny Green praised the way Milton got the Sixers into their sets and ran the offense.
“I just take it as an opportunity to step up,” Milton said. “Starting is something I feel like I can do, especially in this league.”
Milton’s step-back trey with less than four minutes to play in the second quarter pushed the Sixers’ lead to 55-46. In second half, Milton got free behind the defense for a rare breakaway dunk and hit a key corner three that quickly answered a finish by Cody Martin that that briefly gave the Hornets a 109-108 lead with about six minutes to play.
Furkan Korkmaz (8 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists) was the primary ballhandler with the second unit, while Isaiah Joe (nine points on 3-of-4 from three-point range) moved into the rotation as an additional guard.
Harris starts slow, then catches fire
After missing Friday’s win at Atlanta with a non-COVID-19 illness, Harris gained rhythm as Monday’s contest unfolded. He finished with 21 points, 11 rebounds, and 4 assists.
He missed six of his first eight shots in the first half. But, in the third quarter, Harris drew a quick goaltending call and then converted an and-one. Later in the period, he hit back-to-back three-pointers and drew a foul beyond the arc to help push the Sixers’ advantage to 89-82. He finished with 13 points in the quarter.
Harris said he felt “all right” throughout the game, but that he felt a little expected fatigue because he is still dealing with COVID-19 symptoms.
But he was the beneficiary of the Sixers’ final bucket that essentially sealed the win, a play Harris said they typically run about once a game and “snuck in there” a second time on the night.
“I saw the mismatch and just ducked in and was able to get the basketball,” Harris said. “… Joel kind of just saw it, and he was the one who called it out.”