The 76ers might be just fine during this three-game stretch without Joel Embiid.
Boban Marjanovic showed Thursday night that he can be a solid replacement for the NBA’s best center during short stretches. Meanwhile, the Sixers’ small-ball lineup of T.J. McConnell, JJ Redick, Jimmy Butler, Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris showed it’s scrappy enough to also pick up some of the slack for Embiid, sidelined with tendinitis in his left knee. Simmons was at center in the lineup.
That unit and Marjanovic enabled the Sixers to take a 106-102 victory over the Miami Heat on Thursday night at the Wells Fargo Center.
Marjanovic hit a pair of foul shots to give the Sixers a 100-99 lead with 1 minute, 36 seconds remaining. Thirty-two seconds later, Redick drained a three-pointer to put Philly up four points. Then, Marjanovic came back with another foul shot to make it a 104-99 game with 38 seconds to play. Jonathon Simmons put the Sixers up six points with a foul shot with 10.2 ticks left.
The victory improved the Sixers to 38-21 and snapped a three-game losing streak in games without Embiid. They are 2-3 in games with their best player this season.
“It’s always great to maintain and get a [win] when [Joel] is not our there on the floor,” Butler said. “It’s a little bit different. It’s a little more difficult, but as long as you got guys out there that hoop and play hard, we’ll figure it out.”
Marjanovic finished with a season-high tying 19 points and 12 rebounds and one block. Eleven of his points came in the first quarter on 4-for-4 shooting. Meanwhile, Harris finished with a game-high 23 points to go with 11 rebounds, while Simmons added 21.
Dwyane Wade had 19 points off the bench for the Heat (26-31) in what was his final regular-season game at the Wells Fargo Center. The future Hall of Famer is retiring at the end of the season. The Sixers honored the 13-time All-Star in a video before he checked into the game at the 6-minute, 32-second mark of the first quarter.
He and Simmons exchanged jerseys after the game. The contest also observed Australian Heritage Night. Simmons, an Australian, wore a yellow and green sneaker to signify his heritage.
However, he was elated to trade jerseys with the Chicago product.
“For me growing up — I mean it was just cool to play against Dwyane,” Simmons said. “I remember my first season. He hit a big shot against me and they won the game, but just to be on the floor with a legend like that.”
Growing up, the All-Star point guard used to wear Wade’s footwear while he was sponsored by Converse.
“I think it’s just an amazing feeling to be out there with a legend like that,” he said.
This marked the first of three games the Sixers are expected to play without Embiid. They will entertain the Portland Trail Blazers at 1 p.m. Saturday at home. Then, the Sixers travel to New Orleans to face the Pelicans on Monday night at the Smoothie King Arena. Embiid will be reevaluated next week and could return in time for Thursday’s much-anticipated game against the Thunder at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City.
But this night was all about Marjanovic.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for us to see what we have in Boban,” coach Brett Brown said before the game.
He was eager to see what happened when Miami power forward Kelly Olynyk pulled Marjanovic out to defend in the perimeter.
“What’s the defensive punishment versus the offensive game,” Brown said.
However, Marjanovic had his best game as a Sixers while being paired up against Hassan Whiteside — not Olynyk.
The Serbian scored his team’s first five points and seven of their first 13. He went on to make all six of his first-half shots on an array of layups, dunks and jump shots.
“He’s a bucket, man,” Butler said. “All you have to do is throw it to him. He doesn’t have to jump. He makes jump shots. I think Coach should let him shoot threes.”
He missed his lone second-half shot attempt on a cutting layup with 8:55 left in the third quarter. All three of his second-half points came from the foul line. Marjanovic was not available for comment following the game as he was receiving treatment.
Brown is evaluating how he’ll use backup center for the playoffs in the three games that Embiid is sidelined.
This marked just his 15th career start in 169 career games over four seasons with four teams. Nine of those starts came this season with the Los Angeles Clippers before being traded to the Sixers on Feb. 7.
Jonah Bolden also made his first appearance since the trade due to Embiid’s absence. The reserve center missed his only shot attempt and grabbed four rebounds in 14:44 of action.
Down five points with 9:18 left, Brown subbed Marjanovic out for Harris. One minute, 16 seconds later, he replaced Mike Scott with Simmons. The lineup of Simmons, Harris, Redick, McConnell, and Butler went on to outscore the Heat, 12-4, taking a 96-90 cushion.
“I think it’s easier for us to move in terms of just that matchups especially against a team like that,” Simmons said of the small lineup. "But we lose the rim protection, which is a big loss for us. At the same time, it’s one of the things we use to our advantage.
The Heat responded with a 5-0 run, prompting Brown to put Marjanovic back in the game to close things out for the final 3:39.
Before the game, Brown, once again, defended Embiid’s playing in Sunday’s All-Star Game. The coach said the team knew about his knee soreness for some time.
“He and I have talked freely about it,” Brown said. "If you went to anybody in my locker room, you’d find something that has a similar type of answer. Was there anything irresponsible that was going on previously? Or did the All-Star Game exacerbate it? No.
“It’s part of being a pro player. Oftentimes players have soreness.”
However, Embiid has drawn criticism for playing in the game and enjoying himself during All-Star weekend only to be sidelined coming out of the All-Star break.
“I get the optics side of [it looking bad],” Brown said of Embiid playing in the All-Star Game. Embiid declined to speak to reporters before the game.
This game was a homecoming for South Philly’s Dion Waiters and Chester’s Derrick Jones Jr.