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Sixers survive late charge to beat Bulls for fourth consecutive win

Seth Curry's 22 points help the Sixers hold off the Bulls, who came back from an 18-point deficit to tie the game in the fourth quarter.

Joel Embiid secures the ball against Javonte Green in the first half..
Joel Embiid secures the ball against Javonte Green in the first half..Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

DeMar DeRozen had dipped into his midrange bag, willing the Chicago Bulls back from a double-digit deficit to tie the Sixers with less than seven minutes to play. When the game appeared out of reach again, DeRozan kept charging, hitting a fadeaway jumper that got the Bulls within two with less than 30 seconds remaining.

But then the Sixers answered, as they had all night after building an early advantage.

Seth Curry hit big shots, including the pull-up in the lane that pushed the Sixers’ lead to four with 10.7 seconds to play. A struggling Joel Embiid came through when it mattered most, with an emphatic and-1 finish that launched the home crowd into “MVP!” chants and a game-saving block on a DeRozan dunk attempt on the other end. And the Sixers eventually clinched a 103-98 victory over the Bulls Wednesday night at the Wells Fargo Center.

“This was a defensive win,” said coach Doc Rivers. “It really was. ... Throughout the game, we were phenomenal.”

It was an impressive finish to a 4-0 home stand for the Sixers (6-2), who played Wednesday without veteran starters Tobias Harris (health and safety protocols) and Danny Green (hamstring tightness). But it came with late-game drama after the Bulls clawed all the way back from an 18-point first-half deficit, got 37 points from DeRozan and somehow were within one possession with less than 30 seconds to play.

The Bulls came to Philly as one of the NBA’s early success stories, but struggled to slow the shorthanded Sixers for much of Wednesday night. The Sixers shot 49.4 % from the floor and 12-of-28 from three-to build and hold a double-digit lead and hold off every Bulls rally attempt.

After the Sixers face the Pistons in Detroit on Thursday, these teams will meet again in Chicago Saturday night.

Curry, Niang stay hot

That Curry had the ball in his hands on the Sixers’ most important offensive possession illustrated his importance on this team — especially right now. On that final play, Curry got a pass from Maxey near the top of the key, split two defenders, pump-faked in the lane and drilled the night’s biggest shot.

“He had it going,” Rivers said. “He’s our best shooter. We had our best player [Embiid] in the action with him. They’re gonna give you one of the two. They’re gonna trap him, and Joel’s gonna get a shot. Or, Seth’s gonna get a shot … We felt like they would go help, they did, that’s why the second time [we ran that play], Seth got open.”

That shot capped Curry’s latest stellar early-season performance. He scored a team-high 22 points on 9-of-14 shooting and added five rebounds and three assists. Without Harris, Curry took the big perimeter shots down the stretch to complement Embiid’s presence down low.

Through eight games, he is shooting a blistering 61.2% from the field on more than 10 attempt per game and 53.7% from beyond the arc on more than five attempts per game. He said he is playing “plain and simple basketball” by attacking when he’s open and moving the ball when he is doubled. But Rivers sees a more aggressive Curry so far this season.

“Everyone knows who he is now,” the coach said. “Last year I thought, if they got physical with him, they could take him off the ball and deny the catches. Now, he’s being relentless in getting open. And once he gets open with Joel coming, it’s a tough cover for anyone.”

Niang, meanwhile, is the other role player who continues to step up. After scoring 21 points in Monday’s win, he finished with 18 points on 4-of-8 shooting from three-point range against the Bulls. He was particuarly lethal during a critical 15-0 second-quarter run, making both three-pointers, hitting a jumper, and sinking two free throws.

Niang also remained self-deprecating while passing the praise following in his postgame remarks. When asked about his jubilant reaction to Curry’s big shot, he said, “I definitely wanted to embrace that and let him know he was a bad dude.” Then when asked about his vantage point for his Embiid’s game-saving block, he said, “I don’t know if you saw, DeMar drove right past me.”

“I didn’t want to give up a 3, so I tried to send him to the rim,” Niang added. “I could have been a little closer, but Joel’s a competitor. I think it’s huge when your best player really wants to win that bad and is willing to go up there and sacrifice a knee to the groin or an elbow to the face and make a winning play.

“That doesn’t happen everywhere, so Joel’s special for getting out there and making a winning play.”

Strong start, strong responses

The Sixers built a 13-point lead in the first quarter, primarily by burying five of their 10 three-point attempts while holding the Bulls to 1-of-7 from distance. Then, they survived four significant Chicago pushes, punctuated by that final shot from Curry after the Bulls had scored seven consecutive points in less than two minutes to make it a one-possession game with 29.9 seconds remaining.

That was the Sixers’ second response of the final quarter. Earlier in the period, DeRozan hit a baseline jumper, Ayo Dosunmu nailed a three, and DeRozan buried another textbook midrange pull-up to cut the Sixers’ lead to 87-85 with less than seven minutes to play.

But Curry answered with a jumper to break the tie, then another one to extend the lead to 92-89. Then came Embiid’s and-1 putback, another two free throws from the big man and a Tyrese Maxey driving fingerroll to push the lead back up to 96-89 with less than five minutes remaining.

In the first half, when Chicago staged a 16-6 run to get within 35-32 with about eight to play in the second period, a Furkan Korkmaz dunk sparked 15 consecutive points for Philly to seize a 50-32 lead with about five minutes to play before the break. Georges Niang hit two three-pointers during that stretch, while he, Embiid, and Maxey all got to the free-throw line.

Then in the third, when a LaVine three-pointer sliced Philly’s lead to 76-69 with less than three to play in the period, the Sixers quickly answered with an 8-0 spurt to extend the lead back to 15 points.

» READ MORE: Matisse Thybulle, Furkan Korkmaz move into starting lineup vs. Bulls in place of Tobias Harris, Danny Green

New starting lineup

With Harris and Green out, Korkmaz and Matisse Thybulle moved into the starting lineup.

Korkmaz started an efficient 4-of-5 from the floor and finished with 11 points and five rebounds. Thybulle was the primary defender on Bulls All-Star Zach LaVine, totaling three steals and two blocks to go with eight points and four rebounds.

Embiid, meanwhile, initially struggled from the floor in his return from a one-game absence due to scheduled rest. He missed 10 of his first 15 shots, but contributed nine rebounds and a team-high seven assists. His sharp feed to Thybulle for a dunk that gave the Sixers a 100-91 helped build the cushion they needed to withstand the Bulls’ final flurry.

Embiid said he is still not fully comfortable with the new ball the NBA introduced this season but, “I work hard and I make those shots in practice.” Because his scoring is “nowhere close to where it should be,” Embiid said the defensive end has been an early focus.

His highlight-worthy block was initially called a foul, before being overturned following a coach’s challenge by Rivers.

“I love when bigs go after dunks,” Rivers said. “Half these guys in the league won’t go after it because they’re worried about [what they’ll look like] if they get dunked on. I love the Alonzo Mourning approach. Going after DeRozan, that’s a big play. It’s a game-saving play.”