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Joel Embiid, Sixers earn 123-117 victory as Nets play without several stars in showdown

The Sixers hold the tiebreaker and will get the higher playoff seed if the teams finish with the same record.

Joel Embiid of the Sixers raises his arms to the crowd after a traditional three-point play against the Nets.
Joel Embiid of the Sixers raises his arms to the crowd after a traditional three-point play against the Nets.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

So much for Wednesday night’s game serving as a barometer on if the 76ers are legitimate NBA championship contenders.

All it basically determined was that the Sixers can hold off Kyrie Irving and a bunch of Brooklyn Nets role players. That’s who the Sixers defeated, 123-117, in a much-anticipated Eastern Conference first-place showdown.

The Sixers (38-17) have sole possession of first place with 17 games remaining. The victory also enabled them to win two of this season’s three meetings against the Nets (37-18). As a result, the Sixers hold the tiebreaker and will get the higher playoff seed if the teams finish with the same record.

Joel Embiid, once again, put up MVP numbers.

The Sixers center finished with 39 points, 13 rebounds, and two blocks in just 33 minutes, 18 seconds. Tobias Harris added 26 points and two blocks, while Ben Simmons had 17 points, nine assists, and three steals.

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Irving paced Brooklyn with 37 points and nine assists even though the Nets subbed him out for good with 8:39 remaining.

With Irving on the bench, Brooklyn gave the Sixers a scare.

The Nets battled back from a 22-point, fourth-quarter deficit to pull within three points (118-115) on a pair of foul shots by former Sixer Landry Shamet with 1:16 left.

Simmons and Embiid thought their work was done for the night after the third quarter. However, they both had to check back in with 4:41 remaining because the Sixers were blowing the lead.

“It is tough,” Simmons said of having to come back into the game. “And we’ve got to be better at closing out games.

“But I mean, you’ve got to stay ready at the same time. It is very hard when you are sitting down for a while and you are thinking it’s time to sit down and watch. But at the end of the day, we got the win. It is what it is. We’ve just got to be better at closing out games.”

After Shamet’s foul shots, Embiid and Danny Green both hit a pair of foul shots to push the lead back to seven points (122-115). Following a Nets basket, Simmons made a free throw and the Sixers held on for their six-point victory.

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“It happens,” Doc Rivers said of Brooklyn battling back without Irving. “It’s a long season. I don’t over do this kind of stuff. We knew who was on the floor, too, just like we knew who was off, if you know what I mean.

“So it was a letdown. We kind of let up. It happens. But we won the game.”

Harris, who has been dealing with right knee soreness, was subbed out of the game with 3:37 left because he was limping. He said aching in his knee limited him in the fourth quarter, where he had seven points on 2-for-5 shooting.

“So it’s just kind of a day-by-day thing,” Harris said, “and give myself as much rest and taking proper care of my knee treatment-wise so I can feel better.

“So, even going into today’s game, is pretty much 50-50 if I was going to be able to go.”

The game lacked the overall star power that was expected weeks ago.

The Nets had a Who’s Who of standout players sidelined: Kevin Durant (left hamstring management), James Harden (right hamstring strain), LaMarcus Aldridge (illness), Blake Griffin (left knee management), Chris Chiozza (fractured right hand), Tyler Johnson (right knee soreness), and Spencer Dinwiddle (partially torn ACL in right knee).

Dinwiddle is out for the rest season. Chiozza is out until the postseason. Johnson is expected to be out until April 23. Harden and Aldridge could return Friday against the Charlotte Hornets. And the Sixers were without backup center Dwight Howard, who was sidelined by a sore left knee and missed his first game of the season.

But Durant, who worked out before the game, and Griffin basically just had the night off. The Sixers’ home crowd let Durant hear it late in the fourth quarter, chanting “K.D. [stinks]! ... K.D. [stinks]!”

Harden, Durant, and Irving are Brooklyn’s big three, while Aldridge and Griffin were marquee acquisitions via the buyout market.

Durant missed all three contests against the Sixers. Irving missed the first two. Harden only faced the Sixers once since being acquired from the Houston Rockets in January. It was the first game between the two teams since the Nets signed both Aldridge and Griffin.

Green acknowledged that it’s “very tough” to see how the Sixers match up against the Nets with their standouts not playing.

“It might be a strategic thing for them,” said Green, who spent eight of his 13 NBA seasons with the San Antonio Spurs. “I know in San Antonio some games we didn’t play everybody so that teams don’t know how to guard us, how to play us.

“I just think, for them, it’s unfortunate that they had some injuries and some guys with some family issues. So that [stinks]. But they are a tough matchup ... if they have everybody or nobody. They have guys that can play. But like I said, for the future ... we don’t know how, if we meet them in the playoffs, how we match up.”

Brooklyn head coach Steve Nash downplayed the fact that his squad might have a tactical advantage down the road by not showing what it can do with its standout players.

“I think that’s one of the things you can overthink it, you know, how can we get an advantage?” he said. “So much will change and we’ll both be in a different place if we’re fortunate to be in the playoffs.”

Nash said the Nets didn’t think that deeply about not showing their hand to the Sixers. He said stuff like that backfires most of the time.

“So for us, James wasn’t going to play,” he said. “We were sure about Chi. LaMarcus has been out. We don’t have a full squad anyways. So it wasn’t strategic. It was this was the availability we had.

“That’s simply what happened.”

Despite that, this was more competitive than expected.

Irving had 23 points and seven of his assists the first half to keep the Nets within 65-58 lead at the break. Embiid and Harris were doing their part to keep distance between the Sixers and the Nets. Embiid had 21 points and six rebounds, while Harris added 17 points on 8-for-10 shooting through two quarters.