Joel Embiid planted one foot, then the other, for his textbook Euro step toward the basket with the 76ers trailing by two points and less than 10 seconds to play. But he could not power the ball to the rim, much to the dismay of coach Doc Rivers, who clearly believed his All-Star big man had been fouled.
That sequence was the difference in the Sixers’ 106-103 loss to the Washington Wizards on Wednesday night at the Wells Fargo Center, putting a damper on what had been a terrific 4-0 homestand entering the night.
“I didn’t think we didn’t play hard. I just didn’t think we played well,” coach Doc Rivers said. “Missed a lot of shots. I didn’t think we had offensive rhythm the entire game. Spacing was poor overall. Just wasn’t my favorite game to watch as a coach.”
It was only the Sixers’ fourth loss in their past 19 games, though two of those have come against the Wizards. It was also a classic trap-game letdown wedged between a dramatic overtime victory over Memphis and a key three-game stretch coming up at Dallas, at Chicago (which led the Eastern Conference entering Wednesday), and against Phoenix (which led the West). Washington arrived in Philly on a six-game losing streak and played without star Bradley Beal, but got 24 points from Kyle Kuzma and clutch shot-making from Montrezl Harrell (14 points) and Spencer Dinwiddie (who overcame a rough 4-of-16 shooting night).
The Sixers trailed by as many as 12 in the first half and 88-83 with less than nine minutes to play. But shortly after re-entering the game, Embiid finished an and-1 to even the score, before dropping a pass off to Georges Niang to put the Sixers up 90-88.
A corner three-pointer by Niang then extended the Sixers’ lead to 93-88, but the Wizards rallied again to seize the advantage for good. Washington tied the score at 96 on a Harrell floater with less than 3 minutes to play, then took the lead on a Kuzma turnaround jumper before another Harrell push shot all but sealed the victory.
“These games happen,” said Niang, who finished with nine of his 12 points in the fourth quarter. “You try not to let them happen. Credit to them. They made shots down the stretch, but we definitely have to come out with more intensity in the first half and don’t give teams like this hope — especially when they’re coming in undermanned.”
Embiid’s mixed night
After missing the Sixers’ dramatic win over Memphis to rest, it took time for Embiid to regain his rhythm. The All-Star starter, who earlier Wednesday was named the NBA’s Eastern Conference Player of the Month for January, finished with 27 points, 14 rebounds, and 6 assists but went 11-of-27 from the floor.
Embiid started 1-for-6 in the first quarter, and did not make a trip to the free-throw line. Rivers said he thought Embiid was waiting for early double-teams instead of attacking with the ball, “and then once he started attacking, we were much better.”
“But we didn’t start the game off with any pace,” Rivers added. “That’s with Joel and everyone, and that allowed [the Wizards] to stay in the game.”
Embiid spearheaded the Sixers’ second-quarter rally, scoring via powerful finishes and pull-up shots while also bringing the ball up off rebounds, directing his teammates and distributing. He later gave the Sixers a 62-61 lead on a jumper early in the third quarter before following with a baseline spin and slam to extend that advantage.
He then went 2-of-6 from the floor in the final period, including a pull-up that rattled in to cut Washington’s lead to 102-100 with 40.8 seconds to play. Rivers said he liked Embiid’s angle on that decisive drive in the closing seconds, and confirmed he thought he may have been fouled under the basket by Kuzma (who was credited with a block).
“It was a game of foul calls,” Rivers said. “You just feel like, every play, there was a foul called tonight. And then the biggest play of the game, there was no foul called. But it is what it is.”
Embiid chose not to speak to the media following the loss. He did the same after the Sixers’ defeat in Washington on Jan. 17.
Maxey and Harris keep Sixers afloat early
When Embiid (and most teammates) struggled early, Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris kept the Sixers afloat. They made nine of the Sixers’ 12 field goals in the first quarter. Maxey finished with 22 points, eight rebounds and seven assists, while Harris added 18 points and nine rebounds but went just 7-of-17 from the field.
Maxey picked up where he left off following a terrific 33-point, 8-assist outing against the Grizzlies.
He provided a burst late in the first quarter, with two layups and two three-pointers before dishing a pass to Niang for a beyond-the-arc shot that cut the Wizards’ lead to 29-20. Maxey later hit a step-back jumper that tied the game at 54 late in the second quarter.
Harris, meanwhile, started 4-of-6 from the floor but made just one of his six attempts in the second quarter. He was 5-of-14 from the floor before a finish inside and a jumper cut the Wizards’ lead to 88-85 early in the final period.
Seth Curry’s late scratch due to back spasms, combined with Furkan Korkmaz’s (sore knee) and Shake Milton’s (back contusion) absences, messed with Rivers’ perimeter combinations.
Danny Green started alongside fellow wing Matisse Thybulle, but picked up three fouls by the midway point of the second quarter. Isaiah Joe, who totaled 11 points on 4-of-7 shooting during another productive night, was the first perimeter player off the bench. And two-way rookie Myles Powell was the backup point guard in the second quarter, playing his first meaningful minutes since a Jan. 10 win at Houston when Maxey, Curry, and Milton were all out.
“He was the only other guard, so there wasn’t a lot of thinking in that,” Rivers said of using Powell. “It was just that we needed another guy, and he didn’t handle it very well, honestly. For me, it was more the defensive end for Myles. Anybody can get the ball up the floor, but we gotta keep the ball in front of us, and I never thought he did.”
For a short stretch in the second quarter, Rivers deployed a lineup of Joe, Green, Thybulle, Harris and Embiid, before Maxey returned as a primary ballhandler. The Sixers then started the fourth quarter with Joe, Green, Harris, Niang, and Andre Drummond. Niang, who provided that fourth-quarter scoring punch, played in crunch time.
The Wizards’ bench outscored the Sixers’, 53-27.