KISSIMMEE, Fla. — It could have been worse ... much worse.
The already banged-up 76ers were expected to lose Tuesday on a day they rested their best players against the hottest squad in the bubble.
- Joel Embiid ‘mad at the whole world’ to start the season: ’I was not myself'
- Ben Simmons to be re-evaluated in two weeks after Monday’s surgery; Joel Embiid, Josh Richardson to miss Suns game
- Observations from Sixers-Suns: Thybulle’s defense on Devin Booker, Alec Burks’ explosion, Kyle O’Quinn’s presence
The Phoenix Suns pulled away midway through the fourth quarter to take a 130-117 victory at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports complex. The Sixers dropped to 42-29 in a game in which all five of their starters from the season opener sat out.
Joel Embiid was sidelined with a twisted left ankle. Josh Richardson missed the game to rest. Tobias Harris didn’t play due to a sore right ankle, while Al Horford was out with a sore left knee. Ben Simmons, who was already sidelined, was in Philadelphia, where he had left knee surgery on Monday.
Simmons had moved to power forward at the NBA restart. As a result, Shake Milton had assumed the starting point guard duties. That led to Horford being the reserve power forward for the first three seeding games before going back into the starting lineup after Simmons was hurt.
So on Tuesday, the Sixers had a starting lineup of Matisse Thybulle, Mike Scott, Kyle O’Quinn, Alec Burks, and Milton.
Burks led Philly with 23 points, while Raul Neto added 22 off the bench. Scott had 17 points, with nine coming in the first quarter. Glenn Robinson III added 15 points and seven rebounds.
O’Quinn had 9 points, 10 rebounds, and 11 assists, one point shy of a triple-double.
“When I came to the bench, some of my teammates had told me how close I was,” he said. “Then it was kind of like ‘Dang!’ But you know, it is what it is.
“I can’t celebrate on going for a triple-double with we are down 13 [points]. That’s the ultimate selfish look, and I’m not that guy.”
They lost by 13 points thanks in large part to Devin Booker finishing with a game-high 35 points to keep the Suns’ play-in hopes alive. As a result, this marked the All-Star’s third straight and fourth time in five games with a 35-point performance.
The Suns needed a victory to remain in the race for the play-in tournament for the Western Conference’s eighth seed. In addition to remaining undefeated through seven seeding games, Phoenix improved to 33-39 with one game remaining.
They moved into a tie with the Memphis Grizzlies for ninth place in the Western Conference, a half-game behind eighth-place Portland (34-39).
“We know we’re not totally in control of our fate but we put ourselves in a good position,” said coach Monty Williams, a former Sixers assistant.. “No one would have guessed the Phoenix Suns would be in this position before all of this started.”
The play-in tournament will include the eighth- and ninth-place teams at the conclusion of the seeding games. The team that finishes eighth will need to win just one game in this weekend’s play-in tournament. The ninth seed will need to win two games in a row.
The Sixers are sixth in the Eastern Conference with two games remaining and will likely meet the Celtics in the opening round of the playoffs. Coach Brett Brown wanted to see his available players display something that could have a carryover into a first-round matchup against the Celtics or Miami Heat.
“I think that we did that tonight,” Brown said.
The game also enabled to Sixers coaching staff to give another evaluation for some players in regard to the nine-man playoff rotation.
Brown’s decision to rest his core players wasn’t surprising. He said that he would weigh building cohesion vs. avoiding injuries in the final three seeding games.
“If you went to any coach in the NBA, you are going to get that,” Brown said of resting players leading into the playoffs.
But without Simmons, the Sixers’ slim chances to win a title will have a lot to do with Embiid, Harris, Horford, and Richardson being healthy and playing at a high level.
Booker took advantage of the shorthanded Sixers, shooting 11-for-24 from the field. He also made 11 of 12 foul shots to go with nine rebounds and seven assists. Twenty-one of his points came after intermission.
Meanwhile, Mikal Bridges gave the Sixers a glimpse of what they could have had. Philly drafted the Villanova and Great Valley High product 10th overall in the 2018 draft and traded him to the Suns for Zhaire Smith, whom Phoenix selected 16th.
Smith’s tenure in Philly has been marred by bad luck, as he failed to remain healthy and live up to expectations. He suffered a bone bruise in his left knee in May and didn’t travel here with the Sixers for the 22-team resumption of the season.
Meanwhile, Bridges is emerging as one of the league’s top Three-and-D players. He and Miami’s Jimmy Butler are the only players to shut down Indiana Pacers forward T.J. Warren in the bubble.
On Tuesday, the second-year forward finished with 24 points, 2 steals, and 2 blocks.