No surprise here, well maybe there was in the end.
The 76ers faced a New Orleans Pelicans squad that was without five of its top eight players. Of course, they did.
Facing undermanned teams is now the norm for the Sixers. They defeated the Pelicans, 109-107, in what was their seventh consecutive game against a team missing several key players.
But this was closer than expected. The Sixers blew a 17-point, second-quarter lead and trailed by three points with 1 minute, 47 seconds left.
Joel Embiid pulled the Sixers within one point, 107-106, on a pair of free throws eight seconds later. Then Tobias Harris drained a three-pointer with 1:10 to put the Sixers up, 109-107.
Things got interesting down the stretch.
The Sixers were called for an eight-second violation with 10.7 seconds remaining, giving the Pelicans the ball. But Eric Bledsoe drove the lane and turned the ball over to Embiid as the Sixers escaped with the win.
Embiid finished with 37 points and 13 rebounds. Harris added 17 points.
The Sixers (46-21) had a tough time scoring when the Pelicans went to a zone defense.
“I’ve been playing against zone since I was 11 years old,” said Australian-born Ben Simmons, who had eight points, nine rebounds and 10 assists. “And one thing I noticed coming to the states, a lot of the American players panic a little bit. When they see a zone they freak out, but we got to keep playing through it, get to our spots.”
The Sixers have won all seven of the games against undermanned foes to post their longest winning streak of the season. The Eastern Conference’s first-place team now has a three-game cushion over the second-place Milwaukee Bucks with five games left.
However, Philly’s backups blew leads in three of the four games, forcing the starters to close out those games. The Sixers also appeared to go through the motions at times during this winning streak.
Asked to assess how the Sixers are performing lately, Danny Green said, “Not well.”
“Not our type of basketball,” he said. “We’re getting wins. But I don’t like the way we are getting them.”
One would have thought the Pelicans (30-36) never had a legitimate chance after the team confirmed Friday that Zion Williamson was out indefinitely with a fractured left finger.
Teammates Steven Adams (right first MTP sprain), former Villanova standout Josh Hart (right thumb surgery), Nickeil Alexander-Walker (left high ankle sprain), and Brandon Ingram (left ankle sprain) were also sidelined.
That left New Orleans with just two regular starters in Lonzo Ball and Bledsoe, and nine available players.
The Sixers didn’t have to contend with the 6-foot-7, 284-pound Williamson, who was unstoppable against them back on April 4. He finished with 37 points, 15 rebounds and eight assists to lead New Orleans to 101-94 victory.
While it’s unclear when Williamson suffered the injury, Pelicans general manager David Griffin has an idea how it happened.
“Quite frankly, he’s injured because of the open season that there’s been on Zion Williamson in the paint,” Griffin said. “He has been absolutely mauled in the paint on a regular basis to the point where other players have said to him ‘I’m going to keep doing this to you because they don’t call it.
“There is more violence encouraged in the paint than any player I’ve seen since Shaq. It was egregious and horrific then. The same is true now.”
Pelicans coach Stan Van Gundy agreed with Griffin.
He noted that Williamson takes a lot of hits and that the team has been on the referees hard.
“I get the response, ‘How many free throws has he shot?’ My response is always ‘Not enough. Not enough.’ ” Van Gundy said. “The guy gets hit all the time.”
The Pelicans have had communication with the league.
“We sent stuff in, but I don’t think they really care to be honest,” Van Gundy said. “When people send stuff in, I don’t think they really care. It’s looked at. I think it’s just, obviously, you have a vested interest like we do, and it’s looked at as whining.”
The Sixers took advantage of Williamson’s absence. Now they’re three wins away from clinching the No. 1 seed provided the Bucks (43-24) and third-place Brooklyn Nets win all their remaining games.
The Sixers host the Detroit Pistons on Saturday followed by two road games against the Indiana Pacers (Tuesday) and Miami Heat (Thursday). The Sixers finish out the regular season with games against the Orlando Magic next Friday and May 16.
Some have questioned if the standings give a true depiction of the league pecking order due to all the injuries. Coach Doc Rivers thinks they give an accurate assessment.
“Every year, there’s injuries,” Rivers said. “Usually the teams that are on the top are usually the right teams. I would say the Lakers right now would be the only exception with all the injuries they have and being the defending champions. You give them their due.
“But other than that, no I think it is what it is.”
The Sixers had a commanding 17-point lead in the second quarter. However, the Pelicans took their first lead of the game (89-88) on Kira Lewis Jr.’s three-pointer with 22.7 seconds left in the third quarter. That was part of a personal 6-0 run by Lewis that gave New Orleans a 91-88 lead heading into the fourth.
A lot of the damage came against the Sixers’ bench.
With the Pelicans up, 95-91, Simmons was inserted back into the game with 9:30 left. Then Harris came back in 14 seconds later, and Embiid, Seth Curry and Green joined them with the Sixers down, 101-94, with 7:50 remaining. Green drained a corner three-pointer seven seconds later. Harris hit on the ensuing possession to pull the Sixers within one point, 101-100. Then Harris’ four-foot jumper gave the Sixers a 102-101 lead with 6:27 remaining.
“It definitely felt good to get that back,” Simmons said of the lead. “But at the same time, we got to do better. When we have the lead, we got to hold it. Everyone needs to hold each other accountable on that end.
“We got to play better defense.”
Rivers said he’s not concerned about the Sixers’ bench blowing leads in three of the last four games.
“I go all 66 games,” he said. “They’ve been pretty good, overall. We went through stretches this year if you remember the starters weren’t playing well. It’s just ebbs and flows of a long season.
“I’ve learned long ago if you overreact, you get yourself in trouble. I’m not that concerned at all.”