You knew the 76ers were going to have a moving tribute for Kobe Bryant, the late Lower Merion High School and Los Angeles Lakers great.
You also knew they would follow that up with a victory over the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday night at the Wells Fargo Center.
Things were closer than expected against the struggling Warriors, but the Sixers eventually pulled things out.
One out of two isn’t too bad, especially when the team was still victorious.
But the Sixers had a closer-than-expected 115-104 decision on a night they honored Bryant and welcomed back Joel Embiid. The three-time All-Star starter had missed the previous nine games after tearing a ligament in his left ring finger.
He finished with a team-high 24 points and 10 rebounds while coincidentally wearing No. 24 in honor of Bryant, one of nine people who died in a helicopter crash Sunday outside of Los Angeles. Bryant wore No. 24 and No. 8 for the Lakers. Both numbers being retired by the team on Dec. 18, 2017.
Bryant is the reason why Embiid plays basketball. Embiid never watched the sport until seeing Bryant play in the 2010 NBA Finals. At that point, he wanted to be like Bryant, who was just added to Hall of Fame Class of 2020.
Embiid’s 24 points matched one of Bryant’s numbers, and his eight defensive rebounds matched the other one.
“That was cool,” he said. “And I didn’t know it was actually the 24th point on a shot that was a fade-away [on his last basket]. That was what he was about. I actually yelled ‘Kobe.’ A lot of us, since I started playing basketball, that’s how we’ve always done it. You shoot something in the trash, and you just go ‘Kobe.’ "
For that shot to give him 24 points meant a lot to Embiid.
The Sixers (31-17, 22-2 home) moved up one spot to fifth place in the Eastern Conference standings a half game ahead of the idle Indiana Pacers. The Warriors dropped to 10-38 (3-21 on the road).
Embiid played with a protecting splint on his left hand. He received permission from Sixers legend Bobby Jones to wear the retired No. 24.
“I’m really grateful that he let me have this opportunity to wear this number," Embiid said of Jones. “ It’s a tough decision. But you know he was all for it, and I’m really thankful. Then it was set up by Scottie Rego, our equipment manager.”
Meanwhile, Zhaire Smith has chosen to no longer wear No. 8 in order to honor the legacy of Bryant. The Sixers second-year guard wore No. 7 against the Warriors. He plans to move on to No. 5 afterward. Smith initially wore No. 8 because it was Bryant’s number.
Before the game, the arena was somber as both teams took the floor for the first time since the accident.
The Sixers wore either a No. 8 or a No. 24 during warmups and through the pregame ceremony to pay tribute to Bryant. There was a framed No. 33 Lower Merion jersey at center court, and nine spotlights to acknowledge all of the victims. The Sixers sounded nine bell rings to honor those who had perished.
Following a video tribute, the Sixers took an eight-second violation to start the game. The Warriors followed that up with a 24-second violation on the ensuing possession.
Tobias Harris, who wears Kobe’s signature shoe, had a white pair of shoes with gold trim and purple swoosh on the back for the Lakers color. He wrote "Rest in Peace GiGi" on one shoe for Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, who was among the victims. "Rest in Peace Kobe" was written on the other shoe.
Meanwhile, Ben Simmons had “8, 24” and “Mamba Forever” written on his sneakers.
“It was tough,” Embiid said of his emotion during the ceremony. "Kobe meant something different than anybody else. It was tough, but I know just looking at his career and what he was about, that Mamba mentality, it was about outworking your opponent, outworking everybody else.
“I know he would want everybody to compete hard, play the game and try to win. ... That’s how you honor him.”
Simmons had 17 points, while Harris added 14 points and seven rebounds. Sixers reserve point guard Raul Neto finished with a season-high 19 points. All of his points came in the first half.
Al Horford had 12 points, 11 rebounds, and eight assists, while Shake Milton had 11 points in his second straight start.
Warriors point guard D’Angelo Russell finished with a game-high 28 points and seven assists. The game marked the first time in Russell’s career that he has scored 25 or more points in five straight games.
But in Embiid, the Sixers got their franchise player back. The Cameroonian had been sidelined suffering the injury on Jan. 6 against the Oklahoma City Thunder. He had surgery to repair the ligament on Jan. 10. The injury usually sidelines people for a month to two months.