Try as he might, Joel Embiid could not carry the 76ers to a victory on Friday night.
Once again the Sixers were tested by one of the East’s top teams and again fell short, losing to the Indiana Pacers, who passed them for third place in the Eastern Conference standings, 113-101. The Sixers now are in fifth place behind the Boston Celtics.
Even on a night when Embiid finished with 40 points and 21 rebounds, becoming the first Sixer to notch 30 points and 20 rebounds since Charles Barkley did it on Dec. 7, 1990, the Sixers didn’t have enough and fell to 19-11.
“It wasn’t enough. I guess next time I’ve got to get 50 and 25,” Embiid said after the game. “It doesn’t matter what I had or whatever, at the end of the day we didn’t come up with the win.”
The Pacers came into the game on a five-game win streak, just a half-game behind the Sixers despite having played 11 consecutive games without their leading scorer, Victor Oladipo. It was just Oladipo’s second game back after being out for three weeks with a sore right knee.
Even though Oladipo was back in the Pacers' rotation, it was Thaddeus Young leading the way for Indiana, finishing the night with 26 points in the Sixers' third home loss of the season.
“He’s elusive,” Brett Brown said of Young, who played for the Sixers in Brown’s first year at the helm, 2013-14. “His quickness to the ball and his tenacity when he is close to it, he comes up with things in traffic.”
Embiid put the Sixers completely on his back in the first half, scoring 28 points and grabbing 14 rebounds, but he lost steam at the end of the third and early minutes of the fourth quarter.
Brown said Embiid looked tired in the second half and that he plays with the weight of the team on his shoulders both mentally and physically.
The first two periods were a showcase for why the Sixers' 7-foot-2 center has been in the conversation for this season’s MVP award. Embiid hit from everywhere on the floor with pull-ups from mid-range and beyond the arc, dunks, layups, put-backs, and went 9-of-12 from the free throw line.
And the Sixers needed all they could get from their All-Star center. After jumping out to an early 10-0 lead with JJ Redick getting hot from mid-range, the Sixers couldn’t buy a bucket, going 5-of-19 from three-point range through the first half.
Redick started the night hitting a string of jumpers but didn’t let his continuing three-point shooting slump deter him, finishing the night with 22 points in the loss. In the three games leading up to Friday, Redick was a combined 13-for-45 from three and went 4-for-12 against Indiana.
“It’s a little puzzling, to be honest,” Redick said of his shooting woes. “Even tonight, there were three or four where you shoot them and you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s delicious,’ and it turns out the bite was a little sour.”
Instead of coming out of the intermission and expanding their 59-49 lead, the Sixers watched it dwindle. The Pacers outscored the home team 31-18 in the third with Bojan Bogdanovic getting hot for 11 third-quarter points as the Sixers stayed cold, going 1-of-8 from deep.
“Defensively in the second half, we needed more and we didn’t get it,” Brown said. “We needed more from our perimeter people defensively and we just didn’t get it. It sure would help offensively if we made some of those shots.”
Young kept things going for the Pacers in the final stanza, punishing the Sixers at every opportunity as the Pacers improved to 19-10 on the season.
Despite the fall in the standings, the offensive struggles, and the lack of defense in the second half on Friday, Embiid noted that the Sixers are heading into a rematch with a struggling Cleveland team that handed them their first home loss of the season Nov. 23, and he is looking forward to righting the ship Sunday on the Cavaliers' home court.
“We’ll be fine,” he said. “We’re not on red alert. ... We’re going to want to punch them in the mouth 'cause we lost against them, which shouldn’t have happened. That’s going to be a good game.”
The Sixers' newest All-Star addition missed a second consecutive game with a groin strain, but he could be returning Sunday.
Before Friday’s game, Brown said Jimmy Butler was making progress on rehabbing from the injury suffered in the first quarter of Monday’s home win over the Detroit Pistons, but the head coach wants to make sure that Butler is completely healthy before he returns to action.
“There was a legitimate chance he could have played tonight,” he said. “I want to get on top of it and get him where he is 100 percent confident and comfortable. We are not there yet. It came with a little bit of a conversation, but it is trending and moving in a way that we hope to see him really soon. We’ll have a practice tomorrow and get on a plane for Cleveland and maybe we’ll get a chance to see him in Cleveland.”