Marquee games at the Wells Fargo Center bring out the best in the 76ers. Just ask the Milwaukee Bucks and now the Los Angeles Lakers.
The undermanned Sixers routed the Western Conference-leading Lakers Saturday night, 108-91, in front of a sellout crowd of 21,109. The win comes after they rolled over the league’s top-ranked Bucks in the nationally televised, hyped Christmas Day game.
Sixers coach Brett Brown said coming big the league’s two best teams spotlight moments does something for the team’s confidence.
“It has to,” he said. "Sometimes as a coach, it’s a little disturbing when you lay an egg sometimes on the road. You wished you didn’t.
“But if you are trying to find a silver lining, which in true. We were pretty good [in three victories] against the Boston Celtics. We were pretty good against the Milwaukee. We were pretty good against the Lakers.”
Saturday night’s victory improved the Sixers to 30-17 and 21-2 at home. It also extended the Sixers’ winning streak over the Lakers (36-10) to four games.
On this night, Ben Simmons showed the grit of a hockey player. The Sixers’ point guard had a tooth knocked out in the first half. He was evaluated at halftime and cleared to remain in the contest.
Simmons finished with 28 points, 10 rebounds, eight assists and four steals. Tobias Harris had a team-high 29 points to go with eight rebounds.
Lakers All-Star Anthony Davis finished with a game-high 31 points, while LeBron James added 29.
James came into the night needing 18 points to pass Kobe Bryant for third on the NBA all-time scoring list. The four-time league MVP surpassed that total and had seven rebounds, eight assists while committing eight turnovers. He now has 33,655 career points, trailing Kareem Addul-Jabbar (38,387) and Karl Malone (36,928).
“Where do I begin?” Brown said of describing James, a 17th-year veteran. “I’ve been in the league 20 years. So I’ve seen every one of his years.”
Brown was an assistant coach on the San Antonio Spurs squad that swept the James-led Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2007 NBA Finals. Then in 2013, the James-led Miami Heat defeated the Spurs in the seven games to win the NBA title. That was Brown’s final season with San Antonio.
“You step back and you watch his body of work no matter where he goes,” Brown said. "It’s just off-the-charts unique. He does it with class. ... He’s got character. He lives right. He acts right.
“He’s arguably the greatest player to ever play our sport.”
On this night, Sixers had a solid performance despite being without injured starters Josh Richardson and Joel Embiid. They shot 52.6% from the field and made 13 of 37 three-pointers while displaying a balanced attack. The Sixers also excelled on the defensive end.
Rookie Matisse Thybulle (five steals) and Simmons combined for nine of team’s 12 steals. The Sixers also held the Lakers to three points in the final 5 minutes, 20 seconds. Philly closed out the game on an 15-3 run over that time.
Richardson suffered a left hamstring strain less than four minutes into Wednesday’s 107-95 loss at Toronto. He’ll be reevaluated in about around two weeks. The shooting guard could miss at least the next five games.
Saturday also marked the ninth consecutive game Embiid has missed since tearing a ligament in his left ring finger in Jan. 6′s 120-113 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder at Wells Fargo Center, Friday was the first time Embiid was a full-time participant at practice. He hopes to return next week.
As result, Thybulle (six points), and Shake Milton (seven points, nine rebounds, three assists) started alongside starters Harris, Al Horford (16 points, six rebounds) and Simmons. This was Milton’s first start in 34 career appearances and it was Thybulle’s sixth straight start.
The players were forced to play multiple positions based on the lineup. Ben Simmons played in the post in addition to his normal point guard spot. Meanwhile, Harris guarded Lakers center Dwight Howard.
“Guys weren’t making excuses,” Horford said. “We just came out and said, 'Hey, we are going to take on the challenge and roll with it. It speaks a lot about this group. They are hungry. They are ready to play. And a lot of the guys that come off the bench, whatever you throw at them they are going to try to do their best.”
The Sixers played nine different players while pushing tempo and playing solid defense in the first quarter. They built a 12-point lead with 2 minutes, 20 seconds left in the first half. They went on to take a 35-25 advantage into the second quarter. Zhaire Smith, who was called up from the Delaware Blue Coats, suffered a left ankle sprain in the first quarter. He did not return in what was his first appearance of the season.
The teams played even in the second quarter, as the Sixers went into the half up, 59-50. Philly made 9 of 25 three-pointers (36%) in the first two quarters.
The Sixers opened the second half on 15-2 run to take a 74-52 lead after Harris’ dunk with 7:35 left in the third quarter. James interrupted that run when he passed Bryant into third place on a layup 13 seconds later.
Philly maintained that double-digit lead until James’ alley-oop dunk made it an eight-point game (91-83) with 6:41 left.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope hit a three-pointer and jumper on consecutive possessions to close the gap to five points (93-88) with 5:19 to play.
That’s when Brown called a timeout.
In the huddle, Horford had a message to his teammates.
“I told the group to 'Stay together, ' ” he said. “They made a run and we needed to respond. Up to that point, I felt like we were doing a job at the game, keeping them to a certain distance.”
Horford went on to jump start a pivotal 11-0 run out of the timeout.
He hit a jumper, a three, and another jumper in a personal 7-0 run to give the Sixers a 100-88 advantage.
“What we saw was Al Horford,” Brown said. “That shouldn’t surprise any of us.”
Philly extended its lead to 16 points (104-88) with 2:04 to play after baskets by Simmons and Harris.