Despite going 1-3 on their recent four-game road trip, the world isn’t falling apart for the 76ers. They lost to three quality teams — Portland, Phoenix, and Utah — and were in all three games.
Plus, all the Sixers had to do was look across the court at Wednesday’s opponent, the Houston Rockets, to see a team that had real problems.
It didn’t take the Sixers long to exploit the Rockets’ lack of depth. But after coasting to a 69-43 halftime lead, they had to hold off a furious fourth-quarter rally sparked by Houston’s John Wall in a 118-113 win at the Wells Fargo Center.
Houston, which trailed by as many as 29 points early in the third quarter, cut the margin to 110-106 on a John Wall free throw with 1:28 left. Embiid then hit a jumper, Eric Gordon missed a driving layup and Tobias Harris made one of two free throws, making it 113-106 with 43.6 seconds to go.
The Rockets cut the margin to 115-111 with 13.9 seconds left on a Jae’Sean Tate three-point play, but Joel Embiid settled things at the free-throw line.
“We just got sloppy,” coach Doc Rivers said. “It happens, we had a big lead, probably didn’t have a lot left in the tank.”
The Sixers had 23 turnovers that led to 36 Houston points.
“In the second half, they began making shots, but I thought our offense, like the turnovers and things, is the only way the game became a game,” Rivers said.
Embiid, who missed Monday’s 134-123 loss at Utah with back tightness, returned to the lineup but looked to be laboring during parts of the first half. He was limited to eight points on 3-for-9 shooting in the first half.
“It was pretty tight,” Embiid said about his back. “I just wanted to make sure we got the win and that is all that matters.”
Embiid did start the second half and was aggressive offensively with 12 third-quarter points. He finished with 31 points, 11 rebounds, and 9 assists.
With the Sixers up by 26 at the half, he was asked if he considered sitting out the rest of the game.
“I wanted to give it a shot for five more minutes,” he said. “I had to adjust to it but that first half, I meant the whole game it was pretty tight, but I will be fine.”
No doubt, monitoring his back issues will likely be a season-long endeavor.
Harris had 24 points, 15 rebounds, and 5 assists; Seth Curry had 25 points and 5 assists. Wall totaled 28 points on 11-of-23 shooting from the field, and 7 assists.
The Sixers (19-10) played without Ben Simmons, who was out due to an illness. Rivers said before the game that he thought it was a stomach flu and later added that it wasn’t COVID-related.
Simmons has been more aggressive offensively lately, even well before Monday’s career-high 42 points against Utah.
In his last seven games, Simmons has averaged 21.3 points and is shooting 63.8% from the field.
The Sixers were also without Shake Milton, who missed his fourth straight game with a sprained left ankle.
Matisse Thybulle made his first start of the season for the Sixers and he was a typical defensive menace. The Sixers played more zone than usual in the first half. Whether playing zone or man, Thybulle was active, either deflecting passes or stealing them. He ended with four steals.
Embiid said that Thybulle was the key to the zone.
“When you have Matisse in the game, that is our best defense,” Embiid said. “He gets his hands on everything.”
Then Embiid added matter-of-factly, “I think he (Thybulle) has the potential to be the best defender in the league. Just the way he moves and the way he (plays) on defense, he has great hands. He is one of the reasons why we do it.”
While the Sixers were without Simmons and Milton, Houston had its own injury issues. Christian Wood (22 ppg) missed his seventh consecutive game with a right ankle sprain.
It’s not a coincidence that the Rockets haven’t won since he went down.
Also out was defensive standout P.J. Tucker (left quad contusion), Victor Oladipo (left foot strain), Dante Exum (right calf strain), and Ray Spalding (right Achilles injury).
Despite their recent struggles, the Rockets had other concerns.
The winter storms in Texas have caused approximately 2.3 million outages statewide and Houston has been hit hard.
This is the final of a three-game road trip for the Rockets, and before the game first-year coach Stephen Silas talked about the situation in Houston.
“We are monitoring what’s going on in Houston and the roads and the availability of water and electricity at everybody’s home,” he said.
The Sixers came out firing in this game and the Rockets had no answers. A 38-24 first-quarter lead expanded to a 26-point advantage at halftime. The Sixers went 11-for-18 from beyond the arc in the first half.
That was quite a departure from last game, when the Sixers had just eight three-pointers, a total matched by Utah’s Jordan Clarkson during his 40-point explosion.
Three-point shooting has been a concern for the Sixers. They entered the game 28th in the NBA in three-pointers per game, averaging 10.4 and 28th in three-point attempts per game (28.9). At the half, Danny Green was 4-for-5 while Curry was 3-for-5.
The Rockets, to their credit, kept fighting and cut nine points off the Sixers’ halftime lead. Still, the Sixers led 96-79 after three quarters and then held off the Rockets’ fourth-quarter surge.