HOUSTON — Joel Embiid was irate when he pulled up for an early jumper against the Rockets. No matter that the shot dropped through the rim. The 76ers’ All-Star center believed he was fouled and let everybody know with a yell.
There would be plenty more opportunities for Embiid to feast at the line. He went 13-of-13 from the stripe as part of a 31-point effort in 26 minutes, helping the Sixers cruise to a 111-91 win Monday night at the Toyota Center to sweep the two-game regular-season series against the Rockets.
It was Embiid’s seventh consecutive performance scoring at least 30 points, which coincides with his team’s current winning streak that has improved its record to 23-16. And though Embiid could not repeat the triple-double he racked up when he faced the Rockets one week ago, he was efficient (9-of-16 from the floor) and dominant as the centerpiece of a team playing without its three primary ballhandlers. He finished with eight rebounds and six assists, and paced a Sixers team that scored 56 points in the paint and 21 second-chance points thanks to a 48-38 rebounding advantage.
“Joel really set the tone for the whole team,” coach Doc Rivers said. " ... On a night like tonight, you have a lot of guys out; you’re playing a team that’s struggling right now; you can’t come in here and mess around. I thought Jo was very serious to start the game.”
The Sixers needed to lean on their MVP candidate on a night they did not run much pick-and-roll or multiple-action plays because of that lack of guard depth. Embiid scored 17 of his points in the first quarter, matching a season-high for a single period. Nine of those points came at the free-throw line. He posted up a lot more than normal, with backup big man Andre Drummond jokingly estimating that they ran a singular play “like 60 times.”
With less than six minutes to play in the game, Embiid leaned back in his chair on the bench, legs crossed, as a fan behind him hollered, “I love you, Joel!” because his work was done for the night.
“I really wanted this to be a three-quarter game,” Embiid said. “And by doing that you got to set the tone early and get off to a good start [and] build the lead. ... Every single night, that’s what I have to do. Whether we have a bunch of guys out or playing, I’ve got to set the tone and be aggressive.”
The Sixers’ lead ballooned to 20 points in the first half. But they could not fully shake Houston until late in the third quarter, when an Isaiah Joe three-pointer pushed the Sixers’ advantage to 83-66 with less than two minutes remaining in the period.
Point Furk and Point Powell
Furkan Korkmaz said Sunday that he is getting more comfortable as a point guard, a role he has needed to play more recently with Tyrese Maxey (health and safety protocols) and Shake Milton (back contusion) out of the lineup. Then, Seth Curry was a late scratch Monday because of left ankle soreness.
Initiating the offense Monday often led to the ball coming back to Korkmaz for good looks early. He scored all 12 of his points in his first 13 minutes with a mix of three-pointers and finishes at the basket, a skill that Rivers said before the game that he did not realize Korkmaz had until he began coaching him.
Korkmaz made five of his first six shots and also totaled five of his six rebounds in that initial 13-minute outburst. He missed his final four shot attempts after that.
Two-way rookie Myles Powell was the backup point guard, compiling 6 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists and 3 turnovers in a season-high 20 minutes.
“They kept us organized,” Rivers said of Korkmaz and Powell. “That’s all we ask. We literally ran one action the whole night for them, because I can’t expect them to run anything else.”
Rivers also highlighted the times Embiid, Tobias Harris and Georges Niang brought the ball up, because “that’s what we had to do.”
Following Friday’s win against San Antonio, Rivers said playing Danny Green and Matisse Thybulle at the same time “ain’t gonna happen a lot.”
But it was a necessity Monday, when the Sixers’ backcourt became even more shorthanded because of Curry’s injury.
The length of that lineup was present early, when Green and Thybulle got a block and deflection, respectively, in the same sequence against Jae’Sean Tate.
“We were talking at halftime just at halftime just about how many deflections we had gotten in the first quarter, and I think that had quite a bit to do with it,” Thybulle said of his pairing with Green. “Just two guys very defensively-minded trying to shut down our assignment.”
Thybulle caught fire offensively in the third quarter, totaling all 10 of his points including a corner three-pointer and one-handed dunk to open the period. Green finished with five points and four rebounds. His first-quarter fast-break three-pointer gave the Sixers their first double-digit lead of the game and his put-back at the second-quarter buzzer pushed their advantage back to 12 at the break.
Because of that depleted roster, Rivers went with an all-bench lineup of Powell, Joe, Drummond, Niang and Charlie Brown for a stretch that spanned the first and second quarters. The coach used a similar group to start the fourth, but replaced Powell with Korkmaz.
During a season when lineups have constantly shifted with players cycling in and out of health and safety protocols, Rivers believes this winning streak demonstrates the Sixers have “finally found a way to play no matter who’s on the floor.”
“We were the first ‘COVID team,’” said Rivers, referencing the Sixers’ four-player outbreak in November. “The second bout of this, maybe we’re more adjusted to it. It’s also nice that our best player is playing dominating basketball right now.”
When Embiid got his rest, Drummond was a more-than-suitable substitute. He finished with 13 points on 6-of-8 shooting, 11 rebounds, and 3 assists in 17 minutes for his sixth double-double of the season. His tip-in with less than a minute to play in the third quarter gave the Sixers a 91-72 lead heading to the final period.
“It’s so good to see,” Rivers said. “You look at this guy last year, he couldn’t get on the floor. Now you watch him play, he’s happy, he’s playing hard. He’s been really good, and great in the locker room, too. Just a great addition for us.”
The one misstep for Drummond, in Rivers’ view, came when he attempted to bring the ball up the floor, “which was a disaster,” the coach quipped.