The 76ers were down two stars on Monday — and it didn’t show against the Miami Heat.
The undermanned squad pulled off its biggest win of the season, beating the Eastern Conference’s first-place Heat, 113-106, at the Wells Fargo Center.
Joel Embiid and James Harden both rested on the tail end of the back-to-back, a move that apparently would leave Tobias Harris and Tyrese Maxey with little help.
However, Maxey, who scored a game-high 28 points, got much-needed help from Shake Milton and Furkan Korkmaz. Milton and Korkmaz scored 20 points and 18, respectively, off the bench.
But Maxey was the man of the night and the sellout crowd of 21,386 let him know it, chanting “Maxey! Maxey! Maxey!” in the final minute. Thirteen of his points came on the fourth quarter on 5-for-5 shooting, including two threes, and then for good measure, he added a crowd-pleasing block with only 21 seconds left.
“Philly is different,” Maxey said of the chants. “It’s different. But I can’t take any of this credit. I’m just looking at the stats right here and guys like Shake and Furk and Paul Millsap started tonight. I don’t think [Millsap] played in the last [seven] games. Furk hasn’t played much and for those guys to stay ready and come in and play 31 [minutes for Milton] and 27 minutes [for Korkmaz], it’s just a testimony to our group.”
The victory elevated the Sixers (44-27) one spot to second place and put them 2 ½ games behind the Heat (47-25) with 11 regular-season games left.
The Sixers had some big wins while playing undermanned this season. Perhaps their most notable ones before Monday night were beating the Denver Nuggets on the road on Nov. 18 and the Memphis Grizzlies at home on Jan. 31. Embiid missed both of those games.
However, the Sixers then had a two-time All-Star in Andre Drummond to replace him at center. The Sixers also had a solid sharpshooter in Seth Curry. But Drummond and Curry were shipped to the Brooklyn Nets along with Ben Simmons to acquire Harden and Millsap.
Finding a consistent outside shooter and suitable backup center has been a struggle since the trade. But no one noticed that Monday night.
“Coming off last night’s loss, it was almost exactly what we needed,” said coach Doc Rivers, whose squad lost to the visiting Toronto Raptors 93-88 on Sunday. “I’m really happy for Furk and Shake in particular. I just thought it was tough [not playing much] and they hung in there.”
Milton and Korkmaz took advantage of Embiid missing the game with back tightness and Harden having the night off for left-hamstring injury recovery.
Korkmaz shot 7-for-12 and Milton made 9 of 18 shots to go with six assists and five rebounds.
“At the end of the day, you have to respect dudes that are in the NBA,” Heat center Bam Adebayo said of the Sixers’ reserves. “They’re in the NBA for a reason. I don’t take any matchup lightly. They were just making tough shots.”
Former Sixer Jimmy Butler led the Heat with 27 points.
The Sixers avoided their second straight loss and third in their last five by playing great team ball. They took the lead at 101-99 on Korkmaz’s three-pointer with 4 minutes, 13 seconds left. Then Harris’ 6-foot jumper on the next possession gave the Sixers a four-point cushion.
Shortly afterward, Maxey took the game over with a personal 9-0 run.
The Sixers led 106-101 after Maxey’s three-point play with 2:18 left. Then Maxey’s three with 1:33 left put the Sixers up eight. He responded with another three-pointer to make it an 11-point game. Maxey also had a key block on Caleb Martin’s layup attempt with 21 seconds remaining.
Rivers paired normal starters Matisse Thybulle, Harris, and Maxey with undersized center Millsap and power forward Georges Niang.
This marked Millsap’s first appearance since playing nine minutes in a reserve role in a 99-82 road loss to the Heat on March 5. Meanwhile, this was Niang’s seventh start of the season.
The Sixers were overmatched from the start as Miami had a lineup featuring six-time All-Stars Butler and Kyle Lowry and fellow All-Star Adebayo to go with the sharpshooting Duncan Robinson and hard-nosed P.J. Tucker.
For Butler, this was just his third game in Philadelphia since being traded to the Heat on July 6, 2019.
Milton shot 4-for-15 and had scored a combined 10 points in the last eight games heading into Monday. He didn’t score a point in four of the last five games of that stretch. But he didn’t attempt a shot in the last three games and attempted only one shot in each of the previous two games.
But he came back to life on Monday with the extended minutes and went back to a scorer’s role.
He scored seven points on 3-for-5 shooting in the first quarter. He added two more points in the second quarter. Milton struggled a little bit in the third quarter, missing three of four shots. But he got things going early in the fourth quarter for the Sixers, scoring eight points.
A Korkmaz sighting
Meanwhile, Korkmaz looked like he benefited from being out of the rotation. The swingman had 10 points on 4-for-4 shooting, including two threes, to go with three rebounds and two assists in the first half. The fifth-year veteran looked comfortable while doing a solid job of executing the offense.
“I felt good about Furk,” Rivers said. “It’s funny, when I had him go in first, my coaches were looking at me, and my thing was Shake and Furk because we don’t have another guard. We needed two guys that could handle the ball at the same time. Furk handles the ball almost as much as Shake so Shake doesn’t have the full-time duty, and that’s what we were doing today.”
Korkmaz didn’t miss until a corner three-pointer with 3 minutes, 52 seconds left in the third quarter. He scored eight points after intermission.
The Turkish player was asked if his 18-point performance gave him comfort after a tough stretch.
”I wouldn’t say comfort,” he said. “This is something I have to do every night when I get playing time. Since I knew James [Harden] wasn’t going to play tonight, I realized that I was going to get some more playing time. For me, I think it was a serious test.
“But the times when I didn’t play, I didn’t go home and cry about it; I did the opposite. I went to the court and worked even harder and tonight, I reaped the award for doing so.”