CHICAGO — This was a statement win for the 76ers.
They came into the United Center Thursday night without their two best players, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, and still exited with a 127-105 victory.
The Sixers improved to 25-12 and stayed a half-game ahead of the Brooklyn Nets atop the Eastern Conference standings.
Beating the Bulls (16-19) under normal circumstances wouldn’t be considered a statement since the Sixers are one of the league’s elite teams. But on this night, All-Stars Embiid and Simmons were both sidelined due to contact tracing for the coronavirus.
“I don’t know if it was the best [win of the season], because I don’t rate them,” Doc Rivers said, “but definitely one of the big ones. I think going into this game, even at the All-Star break, listening to all the other guys saying, ‘Man, you guys are going to be in trouble your first two [games].’
“Well, we were not, and we played great.”
Without Embiid, seldom-used center Tony Bradley got his second start of the season. Shooting guard Seth Curry moved to point guard, while Matisse Thybulle got the start at the two. Danny Green and Tobias Harris started at their normal forward spots.
As the team’s best available player, one would think Harris would have to have a huge game for the Sixers to win. Rivers even joked in pregame that it would be nice to get a 50-point performance out of him.
The Sixers did call more sets for him. However, they didn’t want him to force things and feel like he had to win the game by himself. The Sixers were focused on winning as a team, playing the same way they normally do.
Harris still showed why he should have been an All-Star, finishing with 24 points on 8-for-15 shooting to go with four assists in three quarters of action. Eleven of his points came on 5-for-6 shooting in the third quarter. With the game in hand, Harris sat out the fourth.
Dwight Howard had 18 points and 12 rebounds. Bradley added a season-high 14 points on 7-for-7 shooting to go with a season-high three blocks. He’s down to 245 pounds after shedding 25 pounds this season and moved noticeably better on the court than in the beginning of the season.
Impressed with Bradley’s performance, Embiid tweeted “That’s it!!! I’ve seen enough. Build around Tony Bradley.”
“It felt good,” Bradley said of his shooting performance. “I wasn’t planning on doing that, I guess. I just wanted from the jump to bring energy and effort. So it felt good, I don’t know what else to say.”
Thybulle had 13 points on 5-for-5 shooting, including three three-pointers, to go with five steals. He scored 11 of his points, while making all three of three-pointers, in the third.
Curry (12 points) and reserves Shake Milton (10) and Furkan Korkmaz (16) were the Sixers’ other double-digit scorers.
The Sixers balanced scoring was the key.
“We talked about it andwe felt just from our scouts that we could do that to be successful,” Rivers said of maintaining a balanced attack. “But we had to get into it, and our guys kept getting into it. They kept trusting the pass. That’s how you should play every night.”
Lauri Markkanen paced the Bulls with 23 points, while All-Star Zach LaVine had 19. Coby White added 18.
Embiid and Simmons came in contact with a barber who tested positive for COVID-19 and are quarantining for seven days following their last exposure with him. Embiid can return for Friday’s road game against the Washington Wizards if he continues to test negative. Simmons will be cleared to rejoin the team on Saturday if he continues to test negative.
“I think we’ll have one back tomorrow, which would be Joel and the other one back after that. But that’s all we have right now,” Rivers said. “You know they are not cleared to work out or do anything other than work out on their own.
“So I think we are all doing that. But other than that, they feel great. I guess that’s the most important thing.”
There’s no denying that the Sixers are a different team without their two cornerstones. That’s because they are heavily involved in what the teams does.
“Ben is so important in the fact that he creates so much offense for us with his attacks,” Rivers said. “I think he leads the league or had been leading the league in creating threes. Not having him obviously hurt us, and he’s our point guard.”
Embiid’s void is just as big if not bigger. The 7-foot-2 center averages 30.2 points (second in the league) and 11.6 rebounds (sixth). He had 50 points, 17 rebounds and four blocks when the Sixers defeated the Bulls, 112-105, at the Wells Fargo Center on Feb. 19.
“Joel gives us the scoring, but he also creates offense with double-teams,” Rivers said. “And we ain’t even talking about the other end [on defense]. The other end may be more important.
“I think when we are all healthy and playing, I think we are the best defensive team in the league. When you take two of top five defenders off the court in the whole league, it changes your defense.”
It turns out that Rivers’ had nothing to be concerned about.
Harris struggled to make shots in the first quarter, scoring three points while missing all five of his attempts. However, Bradley had eight points on 4-for-4 shooting, and the Sixers led, 30-23, after one quarter. They led, 64-57, at intermission and built a 15-point cushion (86-71) midway through the third quarter. The Sixers went on to lead by as many as 26 points in the fourth quarter.
“What [this win says] is we understand that those two weren’t playing tonight, so we have to play,” Bradley said. “We have to continue to play and find a way to win. I think tonight was a great example.
“Getting a chance to start, I just knew from the jump, me personally, I got to bring energy. I felt like everybody played with that same energy just from the jump.”
Markkanen and Bulls teammate Otto Porter Jr. both returned from injury Thursday night. Markkanen missed the Bulls’ last 13 games with right shoulder pain. Porter tweaked his back on Jan. 8 against the Los Angeles Lakers and had missed the last 15 games to rehab back spasms.
For Rivers, this game was a homecoming for the Chicago native, who played at Proviso East High School in nearby Maywood. Rivers was unable to visit family members and friends on this trip while being under the weather. He even missed Wednesday’s practice here while trying to get well.