CHARLOTTE – This game definitely had a survive-and-move-on-to-play-the-Boston-Celtics feel.
The 76ers did just enough Tuesday night to defeat the Charlotte Hornets, 118-114, at the Spectrum Center. The outcome wasn’t decided until Tobias Harris hit a pair of foul shots with 0.8 second left to give the Sixers their margin of victory.
The squads played through 22 lead changes and 15 ties in their fourth and final series meeting. They Sixers got a little breathing room when James Ennis III hit a corner three-pointer to them up, 115-111, with 18.4 seconds left. But the reserve forward fouled Jeremy Lamb while the Hornets swingman was attempting a three-pointer 6.3 ticks later. Lamb converted all three attempts to close the gap to one point.
On the ensuing possession, Harris made just one of two foul shots to give the Sixers a 116-114 lead with 8.2 seconds left. Lamb’s driving layup attempt rimmed out with 2.0 seconds remaining. Harris grabbed the rebound and got fouled. The power forward made two foul shots with 0.8 seconds left to give the Sixers their four-point win.
JJ Redick was two assists shy of a triple-double, finishing with 27 points, a career-high 10 rebounds and season-high eight assists. He made 7 of 14 three-pointers.
“I don’t think I had 10 rebounds in a game since AAU, high school,” said Redick, a former 2002 McDonald’s All-American at Cave Springs High School in Roanoke, Va. “It’s been a long time.”
But by the time the Eastern Conference’s third-place team put the finishing touches on Charlotte, the Sixers’ attention turned to Wednesday night’s showdown with Boston at the Wells Fargo Center. Joel Embiid, who missed Tuesday’s contest for load management, will return to action.
The contest between Atlantic Division rivals could help give a better picture of the Sixers’ ability to hold on to their seeding. They are 46-25 with 11 games remaining. The fourth-place Indiana Pacers are two games back after Tuesday night’s 115-109 loss the Los Angeles Clippers. Meanwhile, the fifth-place Celtics (43-28) are three games behind the Sixers.
“I can’t wait,” coach Brett Brown said of facing the Celtics. “We can’t wait. I just got off FaceTime with Joel and we’re excited. It’s getting closer [to the conclusion of the season].”
A rare win over Boston would boost the Sixers’ confidence. That’s because the Celtics have been the Philly’s kryptonite and everyone knows it. Since the start of the 2014-15 season, the Sixers are 3-21 against Boston, including a five-game Eastern Conference semifinal series setback in May.
“I thought tonight, even without having Joel, there are some positives we can take from it, obviously some things we can get better at,” Harris said. “But tomorrow we’ve got to get locked in and ready to play against a great team that’s had our number for a while now.”
The recent struggles are part of the reason why securing the third seed is vital for the Sixers. It would enable them to avoid a 4-5 seed matchup in the first round of the playoffs. The top four seeds get homecourt advantage in the first round.
The Celtics are currently 3-0 against the Sixers, and would hold the tiebreaker if both teams finish with the same record.
The Sixers extended their winning streak to a season-best five games by beating the Hornets (31-39), losers of 13 of their last 18 games.
Philly won the game in large part because of a balanced attack.
Ben Simmons finished with a game-high 28 points, along with eight rebounds and five assists. Redick scored 22 of his points in the first half on 5-for-8 three-point shooting. Jimmy Butler had 23 points and nine assists. Harris, who was under the weather, had 22 points and 11 rebounds.
Ennis, who had 14 points, was the only Sixers reserve to score.
Amir Johnson finished with four points while starting in place of Embiid, who recently overcame left knee tendinitis.
Brown said the Sixers started Johnson over Boban Marjanovic in place of Embiid to keep symmetry with the rotation. Marjanovic, T.J. McConnell and Mike Scott are the first three players off the bench and come in together at the first substitution.
“Try to keep people in for the same type of lane with Jo, without Jo, and the pairings to me matter in that regard,” Brown said. “I decided to go with Amir for that reason and more.”
However, Johnson played only 4 minutes, 6 seconds of action in the second half -- all in the third quarter. Marjanovic didn’t see any action after intermission.
“It was just about mobility,” Brown said his decision play Jonah Bolden instead of the other centers. “Amir got hit in the head, and we decided to come in and go a little bit smaller. I thought we actually matched up a little bit better, but we was more for that reason than anything.”
Embiid has not been cleared to play on back-to-back nights. So he opted to miss the game vs. the Hornets, because the Celtics are a tougher opponent.
The biggest question Tuesday night was how many points Kemba Walker would score against the Sixers. He was limited to 5:54 minutes and four points in the first half after picking up three fouls. Walker finished with 21, while Lamb had 26.
Walker, a three-time All-Star point guard, averaged 40.2 points in the teams’ first three meetings. Walker set a franchise-record 60 points in a 122-119 overtime loss to Philly here on Nov. 17.
Hornets reserve forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist left the game in the third quarter after bumping heads in Johnson. The South Jersey native, who was evaluated for a concussion, did not return.
Following the game, the Sixers boarded a plane back to Philly, trying to rest up for the much-anticipated matchup with Boston. They’ll have a well-rested Embiid back for the showdown.
The teams’ previous meeting, the Celtics prevailed, 112-109, on Feb 12 at the Wells Fargo Center.
Al Horford, once again, proved to be a matchup problem for Embiid. The Celtics center was 9-for-16 from the field, including going 3-for-5 on three-pointers en route to finishing with 23 points. He also had eight rebounds and four steals. Embiid scored his 23 points on 9-for-22 shooting. He went 2 of 8 from long range. He did post a double-double by also producing a game-high 14 rebounds to go with two blocks. Fifteen of Embiid’s points came in the fourth quarter.
Afterward, he voiced his frustration over not getting the foul calls he deserved, especially on key plays late in that game. Following his news conference, Embiid leaned into the microphone and said “the referees [bleeping] suck."
The Celtics were without six-time All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving, and Redick and Harris had a subpar game. Harris finished with 10 points on 4-for-14 shooting, including missing all six of his three-pointers.
But that was five days and the third game after Philly acquired him, Marjanovic, Mike Scott, Ennis, and Jonathon Simmons at the trade deadline. So it was hard to get a read on the Sixers that night.
Wednesday night will be different.