The 76ers had a lot going on Monday night.
Joel Embiid missed the matchup against the Portland Trail Blazers because of a scheduled rest day. Tobias Harris was also out because he was placed in the NBA COVID-19 health and safety protocols just 40 minutes before the game. Then Danny Green left in the third quarter with left hamstring tightness. And it was a matchup that featured Portland’s Damian Lillard, who’s on top of the Sixers’ wish list in a potential trade for disgruntled point guard Ben Simmons.
In the end, the Sixers prevailed, 113-103, at the Wells Fargo Center. With the win, the Sixers (5-2) extended their winning streak to three games. The Blazers (3-4) lost their second straight.
“It was great. I was joking with [Sixers co-owner] Michael Rubin, I said, ‘You only had 105 million [dollars] not in the game tonight,’” Doc Rivers said of the combined salaries of Harris, Embiid, and Simmons. “It was a just a good team effort.
“We went with some crazy lineups. A lot of small-ball.”
The undermanned Sixers were still in good hands thanks in large part to Andre Drummond and Georges Niang, this summer’s free-agent additions.
Drummond finished with a double-double while starting in place of Embiid. He had season highs of 14 points, seven assists, and five steals to go with a game-high 15 rebounds and a block. Meanwhile, Niang finished with a season-high 21 points as the sixth man. Sixteen of his points came after intermission.
In all, the Sixers had seven double-digit scorers. Joining Niang and Drummond were Seth Curry, who had a game-high 23 points; Furkan Korkmaz, who had 15 starting in place of Harris; Green with 11 before he departed, and point guards Tyrese Maxey and Shake Milton had 10 each.
“Drum was fantastic in his role,” Rivers said. “It was one of the games that I thought every single guy did something to help us win the game.”
The Sixers had 34 assists on 43 made baskets with five players with at least five assists.
Lillard had 20 points, 10 assists, and seven assists, but had another rough shooting night (7-for-20). Despite his poor shooting, it was obvious that he was fan favorite of the sellout crowd of 20,115.
“City of Brotherly Love,” Lillard said, “They showed a brother some love.”
Drummond and Niang big nights
The Sixers signed the 6-foot-10, 280-pound Drummond to a one-year veteran minimum salary contract in August. They knew that was a steal and Rivers noted the two-time All-Star was far from a minimum-salary talent.
It didn’t take long for Drummond to show that against the Blazers.
Dominating the glass, he collected eight of his rebounds in the first quarter. He ended up recording his first double-double since finishing with 15 points and 12 rebounds with the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 2 of last season’s first-round playoff series against the Phoenix Suns. It also marked his first game scoring in double digits as a Sixer.
But he did much more than just rebound the ball, contributing also with his assists and steals.
Embiid “hit me with the okey-dokey today,” Drummond said of learning he would start. “Usually, he’ll take a couple of plays off at shootaround just to rest. So I didn’t know what was going on till I got here. So I [saw] the alert on Twitter and said, ‘Oh [shoot], I’m starting today.’”
Meanwhile, Niang kept making timely plays.
Two of his biggest came after the Blazers tied the score at 86 early in the fourth quarter. The power forward responded by scoring on a layup while being fouled by Anfernee Simons on the ensuing possession. Niang then hit the foul shot on a three-point play to give the Sixers a three-point cushion with 10 minutes, 46 seconds left.
Twenty-four seconds later, Niang grabbed a defensive rebound, dribbled up court and assisted on Milton’s layup to make it a 91-86 game.
Niang made 5 of 8 shots in the second half after shooting just 2 of 8 in the first half.
“Obviously, sometimes shots are not going to go in,” Niang said of the first half. “But you’ve still got to go out and be aggressive. So I definitely wanted to do that going into the second half. A couple of them fell. Sometimes you get lucky when some shots fall.”
He finished the game with season highs of five rebounds and five assists. Sixers fans chanted “MVP! ... MVP! ... MVP!” when Niang made a pair of foul shots to give the Sixers a 104-96 lead with 5:15 left.
“Joel told me to never let that happen, again,” Niang joked of the chants that Embiid often receives. “The fans here have been great and have welcomed me with open arms. I’m super thankful.”
Niang was not the only player who received positive chants while at the foul line in the fourth quarter.
Some of the Sixers fans chanted, “We want Lillard! ... We want Lillard!” as the Blazers point guard converted a three-point play to close the gap to 104-101 with 4:01 left.
The crowd showed him love from the beginning. He received a loud ovation during the Blazers’ introductions. One fan yelled “Dame, we love you” several times in the third quarter.
“I know what it is and what it’s about,” Lillard said of why the Sixers fans are supportive. “I’m a Trail Blazer. I appreciate the love. I appreciate the respect they showed, the desire or whatever.”
But Lillard stressed that he’s a Blazer. He has expressed his desire to remain in Portland, where he’s under contract through the 2024-25 season.
Lillard has struggled this season from three-point range. This game was no exception, as he shot 2-for-9 from three.
“My job is to score points and make shots,” he said. “I’m playing good basketball game after good basketball game. But who I am, it requires playing the game, but making more shots.”
Teammate CJ McCollum finished with 20 points and four rebounds.
Like Lillard, McCollum has been mentioned as a potential target in a Simmons trade. But on this night, the Sixers handed the Portland stars a loss.
“They’re tough,” Rivers said of Lillard and McCollum. “They’re really good. They’re smart. They’re savvy. They can play with their eyes closed with each other. They just know how to play with each other by now.
“They’re not only scorers, but they’re playmakers as well. Both of them.”
The four-game homestand concludes Wednesday against the Chicago Bulls before the Sixers travel to Detroit to face the Pistons on Thursday. The Sixers will conclude a two-game road trip on Saturday vs. the Bulls at the United Center.