OKLAHOMA CITY -- The 76ers don’t need their top two centers.
OK, maybe that’s the most inaccurate statement of the NBA season. But their 19-game series losing streak to the Oklahoma City Thunder came to an end on a night the Sixers were without Joel Embiid and Boban Marjanovic. Dominating mostly from start to finish, the Sixers prevailed, 108-104, Thursday night at the Chesapeake Energy Arena.
The victory improved the Sixers to 40-22 and marked their first win over the Thunder since Nov. 15, 2008, in Philadelphia. It was the teams’ first meeting after the SuperSonics changed their name and relocated in Oklahoma City that year from Seattle.
The Sixers had been 0-9 against the Thunder (38-23) in Oklahoma City.
Coach Brett Brown said he wasn’t aware of the skid until hearing about it, recently,
He attributed several of those losses to Thunder being really good in his first three seasons as the Sixers coach while his squad “really wasn’t.”
“It’s almost that simple,” the sixth-year coach said. “Then we lost some tough games, some overtime games or so shots at the buzzer with [ Paul George’s] shot last time we played them. …
“I think the thing that’s most on my mind right now is we came in and got a win and look forward to going home."
On this night, Tobias Harris, once again, showed why he was the headliner of the Sixes’ multiple-player trade with the Los Angeles Clippers before the Feb. 7 trade deadline. The power forward finished with 32 points, his highest scoring total in his eight games as a Sixer. Three nights earlier, he scored 29 points in the Sixers’ victory over the Pelicans in New Orleans.
On Thursday, he made 5-of-7 three-pointers and 11-of-19 shots overall. His best stretch of the night was an 8-0 run after the Thunder knotted the score at 93. He sandwiched two three-pointers around an eight-foot turnaround jumper.
“The 8-0 run came at a time where you felt like you needed something,” Brown said. "His ability to rise up and shoot and make threes, and his athleticism and his quickness when they come up too fa out, he’s able to do.
“More importantly was the mind-set and mentality that he wanted that situation. He embraces those situations."
And the Sixers needed all of that.
They also needed the big performances from Ben Simmons and Jimmy Butler.
Butler added 20 points, eight rebounds and eight assists. He was the Sixers’ postgame bell ringer. Simmons had 11 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists for his ninth triple-double of the season. He also did a solid job of guarding Russell Westbrook. The Thunder All-Star point guard finished with 23 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists for a triple-double. However, he shot just 8-for-24 from the field, including going 1-for-9 on three-pointers, as Simmons sagged off him to take away his driving lanes.
“Knowing Russ and the way he plays, he’s great downhill,” Simmons said. “I’d rather give that up — him shooting jumpers — than attacking me and driving through the lane.”
Meanwhile, Jonah Bolden finished with a career-high tying 14 points.
The Sixers had a commanding 16-point lead in the second quarter. But Westbrook knotted the score at 91 on a layup with 4 minutes, 5 seconds left. Harris responded with an 8-0 run to put the Sixers up, 101-93. Then Butler added a dunk to put the Sixers up 10 with 1:52 left.
“We knew that had a size difference on the matchups,” he said. “So we were able to get some good actions in different positions to get us going.”
But that didn’t last long, as the Thunder responded with a 7-0 run to get back into the game. Then Westbrook hit a pair of foul shots to close gap to two points (106-104) with 28 seconds left.
JJ Redick hit a pair of foul shots with 1.5 seconds left to give the Sixers their four-point margin of victory.
Bolden got the start over Amir Johnson at center for the Sixers. This marked his second consecutive start and fifth of the season. The team was without two-time All-Star Embiid and his backup Marjanovic.
Embiid missed his fourth game due to tendinitis in his left knee. On Wednesday, Brown said he hopes Thursday’s absence will be Embiid’s final game on the sidelined. However, the coach had a different take before Thursday’s game. Asked about Embiid’s reevaluation, Brown said “We’re still learning more.”
“In relation to will he play on Saturday against Golden State, we don’t know that,” Brown said, “and the fans should hear that. It'’s still completely up in the air."
The coach said they will learn more in the “next short period of time.”
“There’s nothing further to what we already said,” Brown said. “It’s just the maintenance of some tendinitis.”
Meanwhile, this marked the first of at least two games Marjanovic will miss with a bone bruise and mild sprain in his right knee. He suffered the injury in the fourth quarter of Monday’s victory over the Pelicans in New Orleans. Marjanovic said before Thursday’s game that he feels lucky that it wasn’t something serious.
He thinks his work on and off the court and the way he treats his body paid off.
Marjanovic is already doing rehabilitation exercises.
“That’s good, but I’m bored right now," he said. “I want to play. But It’s a couple of days. Hopefully, everything will be all right when I come back and everything will be perfect.”
With Embiid and Marjanovic sidelined, reserve center Justin Patton was called up from the Sixers’ NBA G-League team, the Delaware Blue Coats and dressed for Thursday’s game.
For the most part, Bolden and Johnson split time guarding Thunder starting center Steven Adams. Meanwhile, 6-foot-10 point guard Ben Simmons and reserve power forward Mike Scott flip flopped as the team’s small-ball centers when Oklahoma backup center Nerlens Noel, a former Sixer, was in the game.
However, Johnson checked-in when Noel subbed out Adams with 4 minutes, 50 seconds left in the first quarter. Then Scott guarded Adams at the start of the second quarter.
But Brown can’t wait to welcome Embiid back on the court
“We are a different team with him,” the coach said.
Oklahoma City was without All-Star swingman George, who scored the game-winning four-point play in the teams’ Jan. 19 matchup. The 28-year-old missed first game of the season with right shoulder soreness.
On Thursday, the Sixers made 10 of their first 12 shots to take a 24-13 lead. At that time, Harris had eight points, while Redick had five. Butler came in with three assists.