The 76ers made a statement.
While Doc Rivers downplayed the contest, Wednesday’s game against the Los Angeles Lakers was a barometer for the Sixers.
Their 107-106 victory over the league’s best team showed their success wasn’t just a byproduct of having an easy schedule.
But the victory did have some intrigue. The Sixers blew a 12-point lead with 3 minutes, 7 seconds remaining before pulling out the one-point victory.
Anthony Davis scored a layup to give the Lakers a 106-105 lead with 11.2 seconds remaining. The Sixers called a timeout to call a multiple-option play that Danny Green read perfectly.
The first option was a pin-down with Seth Curry for Joel Embiid. The second option was for Curry to find Harris, who would slip into a pick-and-roll while the Lakers were switching on defense. Harris would be at the middle of the free-throw line regardless of who was on him.
They went with the latter, and Harris buried a 15-footer with 3 seconds left to give the Sixers a one-point edge. They avoided a collapse after David missed a 35-footer at the buzzer.
“For me, I just wanted to win,” Harris said. “I know we let them back in it. I was a little frustrated. But I wanted to just, you know, be calm, be relaxed in that moment and get my shot off and live with the result. And I was able to do that.”
The Sixers have the Eastern Conference’s best record (13-6). But before Wednesday, the only team with a winning record they defeated was the Boston Celtics. And last week’s two victories over the Celtics (10-7) came against a lineup missing their best player, third-team All-NBA forward Jayson Tatum.
This victory “says we’re a good team,” Rivers said. “But for me, it says that we’re really good, but we still have a lot of work to do.”
The Lakers went on a 13-0 run while the Sixers missed three shots and committed two turnovers before Harris’ basket.
In regards to the big picture, Rivers looked at the near squandering the game over the end result and Harris’ clutch basket.
“Not taking anything from them, but I thought it was more self-inflicted,” Rivers said of the Lakers getting back into the game. “There’s games that you lose when the other team plays well. You don’t make shots. They take you out of stuff. Tonight wasn’t one of those nights.”
LeBron James threw a corner pass where the Sixers had two guys defending, but wasn’t ready for it. The Sixers also went over the play where Davis scored on with 11 seconds left. They covered him, but didn’t execute it well.
“So there’s a lot of things from a coaching standpoint that you will look at a know that you can do better,” Rivers said.
Yet on this night, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons showed why they are Sixers’ cornerstones. Harris also displayed why he’s looked upon as the team’s third star, while Danny Green gave the Lakers (14-5) a glimpse of what they could have kept.
Embiid finished with 28 points, six rebounds, and two blocks. Simmons had 17 points, 11 rebounds, and 10 assists for his third triple-double of the season and 31st of his career. Harris added 24 points and seven rebounds. Green scored 14 points against the team that traded him to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Nov. 18. The Sixers acquired him in a trade with the Thunder on Dec. 8.
“Anytime somebody can play against their former team and get a win, especially former champions, you want to play well,” Green said.
James finished with a game-high 34 points, while Davis added 23 points, eight rebounds, and two blocks.
New Lakers center Marc Gasol had been the kryptonite to Embiid’s Superman in their previous head-to-head meetings while Gasol was with the Toronto Raptors and Memphis Grizzlies.
The Sixers’ three-time All-Star failed to score a point while missing all 11 shots and going 0-for-3 from the foul line in 32 minutes in the 101-96 loss to Gasol and the Raptors on Nov. 25, 2019. In all, Embiid has shot just 30% in eight regular-season contests against Gasol.
Rivers was asked before the game if there was anything he had seen in the past to help Embiid for Wednesday’s matchup.
“No, I’m very comfortable with Joel going up against anyone,” Rivers said. “Obviously, a lot of that was Toronto did a lot of trapping, and Lakers may do that as well.”
Rivers thought the way the Sixers spread the floor they will get great shots if the Lakers trap Embiid.
“I’ll take Joel one-one-one on the post against anyone with zero concern,” Rivers said.
It didn’t take long to realize why the coach felt that way.
Embiid scored 13 of his points in the first quarter on 4-for-5 shooting and making 5-of-6 foul shots. Following his lead, the Sixers had a 34-24 lead after one quarter. However, he only scored three points in the second quarter while missing all three shot attempts.
Embiid added seven points in the third where he had an injury scare.
The big man was pushed in the center of the chest by James while defending Embiid’s dunk attempt with 5:44 left in the quarter. Embiid, who is dealing with back tightness, landed flat on his back and stayed there for a couple of minutes. He got up gingerly before making a pair of foul shots to give the Sixers a 70-63 lead. James was given a Flagrant Foul 1.
“Well first of all you look at it, that’s a very dangerous play,” said Embiid, who was later called for a Flagrant Foul 1 on Davis. “I guarantee you that if that was me, I would probably been ejected from the game, which has happened in the past with me getting flagrant fouls really for nothing.
“So when compare that to the one that I got which I thought I really didn’t him. ... If you compare those two, those are tough plays and I just thought that should have been a Flagrant 2.”
He said hopefully his back is fine, and that test will be when he wakes up Thursday morning to see how it feels.
“I think he’s fine, but that was a hard fall,” Rivers said. “First of all, LeBron is not a dirty player. It was just a physical play and they had to call the flagrant I guess, all of the flagrant [fouls] tonight. You know .. you can get a flagrant easy these days.
“But that fall was hard. There was some concern there for sure.”
Embiid later grimaced after his three-pointer gave the Sixers a 77-68 lead with 3:04 left in the third quarter. The 26-year-old replaced his saturated jersey while out of the game at the start of the fourth quarter. Embiid had what appeared to be a heating pad on his back once he sat in his chair behind the basket.
He returned to the game with 7:49 remaining and assisted on Simmons’ layup 18 seconds later. The Sixers’ next basket came on Embiid’s 10-foot jumper to put them up 94-81 with 7:01 left. Then after a James three-pointer, Simmons scored on a put-back of his missed shot to make it a 96-84 game at the 6:32 mark.
Simmons played against his mentor and the guy many people compare him to in James.
Like the 6-foot-9, 250-pound James, the 6-10, 240-pound Simmons is a multifaceted player blessed with size and speed.
In addition to winning an NBA title with James last season in Los Angeles, Green played with him during the 2009-10 season with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“I see why there’s a comparison,” Green following Wednesday’s shootaround. “Obviously, LeBron is one of the greatest to ever do it and Ben has the potential given the size, ability, and speed. But it’s unfair.
“It’s unfair to compare anybody to LeBron or anybody to Michael Jordan, especially at a young age.”
James is one of the game’s all-time greats.
The 36-year-old is a four-time league MVP and a 16-time All-NBA selection. Not only is James a four-time NBA champion, he’s a four-time NBA Finals MVP and the 2004 rookie of the year. He also ranks third on the all-time scoring list with 34,694 points heading into Wednesday’s game. And in his 18th season, James was averaging 25.2 points, 7.9 rebounds, and 7.4 assists heading into the contest with the Sixers.
Meanwhile, Simmons is a two-time All-Star, a 2020 first-team All-Defensive performer, 2020 third-team All-NBA selection, and the 2018 rookie of the year. He averaged 12.8 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 7.9 assists.
“Ben is still learning the game, and he’s still very good,” Green said. “But he still has a long way to go if he wants to be in that realm.
“This is an unfair comparison for anybody, let alone Ben. Ben has the tools and the potential to be that.”
Before the game, Rivers took time to pay respect for Sekou Smith, a longtime NBA reporter and analyst, who died Tuesday of complications from COVID-19.
“It was a really sad day yesterday,” Rivers said to the media. “When you factor in the [the anniversary of Kobe Bryant’s death], Sekou’s passing, just from me to his and to all his friends; you guys were probably closer to him than I was. I just want to say, I’m thinking about all of you. That was a tough one.”
Green also commented on Smith’s passing.
“Rest in peace Sekou Smith,” he said. “We lost a lot of greats. This COVID thing is no joke.
“You can’t do much more than urge people to take this serious, wear your mask, wash your hands, be safe, keep getting tested.”