INDIANAPOLIS — The 76ers will have to wait to clinch the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed.
That’s because the Indiana Pacers defeated the Sixers on a night when the Brooklyn Nets beat the Chicago Bulls.
The Pacers prevailed, 103-94, Tuesday at the Bankers Life Fieldhouse. At the same time, the Nets escaped the United Center with a 115-107 victory over the Chicago Bulls.
As a result, the Sixers (47-22) are clinging to a two-game lead over the conference’s second-place Nets (45-24) with three games remaining. Philly is one win and one Nets loss away from clinching the No.1 seed.
An inability to stop Caris LeVert and make shots down the stretch doomed the Sixers.
LeVert scored 11 of his game-high 24 points in the fourth quarter. He scored nine of Indiana’s final 11 points to help the Pacers (33-36) clinch a berth in the conference’s play-in tournament. Meanwhile, the Sixers made just 7 of 20 shots in the fourth quarter and shot 29.5 % in the second half. Philly was outscored, 52-32, after intermission.
“I thought the first five minutes of the third we were just horrible offensively,” coach Doc Rivers said. “You know, it’s rare that I’ve said this was an offensive loss, but this was an offensive loss tonight for sure.”
Danny Green, Seth Curry, and Mike Scott, who started in place of Joel Embiid, all failed to score after intermission. The trio shot a combined 0-for-11 after intermission.
Tobias Harris finished with a game-high 27 points. Ben Simmons added 20 points, eight rebounds, seven assists, and two steals. However, the three-time All-Star point guard had five turnovers and was a game-worst minus-18.
The loss snapped Philly’s season-best eight-game winning streak. It was the ninth consecutive time they faced an opposing team missing multiple key players.
The Sixers were also undermanned for the second straight game. This time, they were missing Embiid and three reserves.
Embiid was out with what the team labeled a non-COVID-19 related illness. Coach Doc Rivers wouldn’t disclose who is on the team’s traveling party. However, several sources said the MVP candidate did not accompany the team to Indiana.
Meanwhile, Matisse Thybulle (bruised left hand), Furkan Korkmaz (sprained right ankle) and Shake Milton (swollen right knee) also missed the game. The three were with the team in Indiana.
Milton was a late scratch. Thybulle is listed as day-to-day. This was the fourth straight game that Korkmaz missed. He participated in drills on the court before the start of the game.
But the Pacers were in worse shape than the Sixers.
Sitting out were Malcolm Brogdon (sore right hamstring), Aaron Holiday (sprained right toe), Jeremy Lamb (sore left knee), Edmond Sumner (left knee contusion), Myles Turner (partial plantar plate tear, right toe), and T.J. Warren (stress fracture in left foot).
Brodgon, Turner, and Warren are all starters. Lamb is the sixth man, while Holiday is a key reserve.
Seemingly in control of the game, the Sixers had a 16-point lead late in the second quarter. However, the Pacers went ahead 75-72 with 1 minute, 14 seconds left in the third. The teams went into the fourth quarter tied at 75. A lot of that had to do with the Sixers scoring just 13 points on 6-for-24 shooting in the third quarter, including going 0-for-7 on threes.
The Sixers built a six-point cushion in the fourth quarter, but the Pacers closed the gap to one point. Philly then went ahead by four points before the Pacers knotted the score at 92 with 4:34 remaining on Domantas Sabonis’ dunk.
Then LeVert hit a pair of foul shots with 3:24 left to put Indiana up 94-92. LeVert added a basket with 2:23 left to give the Pacers a four-point cushion. And his three-pointer with 57.3 seconds left extended Indiana’s lead to 99-92.
The Sixers shot 58.1% in the first half.
Harris thinks Philly’s defense was the biggest difference between their first-half offensive performance and the second-half offensive performance.
“In the first half, we were playing really locked-in,” Harris said. “We were getting some good stops at times, able to get out in transition. .... In the third quarter, they just had too many looks, too many good looks and open looks. So I relate that to the defensive end for sure.”
Scott finished with three points on 1-for-4 shooting, while Green scored six on 2-for-9 shooting.