Doc Rivers was asked about guarding against a letdown that would come from looking past Wednesday night’s game against the Washington Wizards.
As the NBA’s top team, the Sixers’ matchup against the two-win Wizards was, on paper, nothing more than a tuneup for a competitive stretch that begins Thursday night against the Nets at the Barclays Center.
“Well, we shouldn’t be thinking ahead anyway,” Rivers said before the Sixers’ 141-136 victory at the Wells Fargo Center. “We haven’t earned that right yet. So we should be thinking with the team right in front of us.”
The Sixers (7-1) headed into the game as the NBA leaders in field-goal percentage defense, blocked shots, and defensive rating. They were second in the league in scoring defense. However, they have committed the fifth-most turnovers and were 18th in three-point percentage. And they need better bench production.
Perhaps that’s why Rivers said the Sixers still have a lot to do in regard to improving as a team.
“I mean if this is as good as we are, then it’s not good enough,” he said. “So we have to understand that and we have to keep getting better.”
That was obvious against the Wizards (2-6).
The Sixers looked unstoppable in the first half. However, they blew a 21-point lead and had a tough time defending Bradley Beal, who scored a career-high 60 (32 in the first half). All that led to a closer-than-expected five-point victory.
With the score knotted at 131, Joel Embiid went on an 8-0 run to give the Sixers a little cushion.
The three-time All-Star center scored a layup and was fouled by Thomas Bryant with 3 minutes, 16 seconds to play. The Sixers led 134-131 after his converted the three-point play. Embiid later added a pair of foul shots before burying a three-pointer to make it a 139-131 game with 1:55 remaining.
“They pay me to take over the game, and they pay me to dominate,” said Embiid, who’s making $29.5 million this season. “The situation was where these guys have a lot of trust in me. So that’s my job. So I just did my job.”
Embiid also gave credit for his teammates for making the right passes.
Then after Russell Westbrook pulled the Wizards within four points, Ben Simmons’ layup made it a 141-135 game with 33.8 seconds left.
Embiid scored a season-high 38 points while going 13-for-13 from the foul line. He also finished with eight rebounds, five assists, three steals, and three blocks.
Seth Curry had 28 points, with 20 coming before intermission. Tobias Harris added 19 points and has 10,000 for his career.
Beal didn’t take any satisfaction with scoring 60 points.
“You know me, you know I’m pissed off and mad,” said the shooting guard, who had three points on 1-for-6 shooting in the fourth quarter. “I don’t count any of my career highs. They’ve been losses. So I don’t give a [dang]. You throw it right out the window with the other two or three I had.
“I just want to win.”
There was a thought that this game was over at halftime.
That’s when the Sixers built a commanding 82-67 lead. This marked their sixth-highest output in a half in franchise history. The 49 points they scored in the second quarter was the Sixers’ highest-scoring quarter since they put up 49 in the third quarter against the Nets on Feb. 14, 1990.
A lot of that had to do with the Sixers’ hot shooting.
They made 66.7% (30 of 45) of their shots, including 80% (12 of 15) of their three-pointers in the first half. Curry made all six of his three-point attempts before intermission. This marked the third time he’s scored 20-plus points in a half during his career.
But the Wizards battled back from a 21-point deficit and took a 119-117 lead on former Sixer Raul Neto’s nine-foot jumper with 8:18 remaining.
The Sixers were able to pull it out thanks to Embiid.
Now, the Sixers can turn their attention to what should be a more competitive stretch.
After facing the Nets, they entertain the Denver Nuggets on Saturday. Then they’ll have an away and home back-to-back with the Atlanta Hawks and Miami Heat on Monday and Tuesday. The Heat will remain in town to face the Sixers, again, on Thursday. The Sixers next nine games after that will be highlighted by a two-game home series against the Boston Celtics (Jan. 20 and 22), a home game against the Los Angeles Lakers (Jan. 27) and a road game against the Indiana Pacers (Jan. 31).
“I want to see how we react and how we do against top teams,” Embiid said. “The teams we played, they are good teams. They are great teams.
“But when you talk about about teams that are contenders, you know you are talking about the Lakers, you are talking about the Clippers, those type of teams, Milwaukee. We haven’t played any of those teams.”
The Sixers won’t play the Clippers or Bucks until the second half of the season. But these other teams will be good barometers for them.
“So I’m excited to see how we go out there,” Embiid said. “We definitely have to do a better job than we did tonight.”
On Thursday, the Sixers will face a Nets squad that was favored to contend for an NBA title. However, Brooklyn (4-4) will be shorthanded.
Kevin Durant is out while quarantining due to contact tracing/exposure to COVID-19. Meanwhile, Spencer Dinwiddie had reconstructive surgery on his partially torn anterior cruciate ligament on Monday.