CHICAGO — Doc Rivers continues to insist that the 76ers do not talk about the “clutter,” from the ongoing Ben Simmons saga to the growing list of players in health and safety protocols.
And they keep proving their coach’s point with their resilient play. The Eastern Conference-leading Sixers amassed their sixth consecutive win by holding off the Chicago Bulls, 114-105, Saturday night at the United Center.
“Wins like tonight are why you coach, when you’re just piecemealing it together and the guys are pulling it together,” said Rivers, who had just been doused in ice water after becoming the 10th coach in NBA history to record 1,000 career wins. ”It’s not analytical right now, I’ll tell you that.”
Philly picked up this victory without Tobias Harris and Isaiah Joe, who remain in health and safety protocols after testing positive for COVID-19 earlier this week; Matisse Thybulle, who joined them in protocols Friday because of contact tracing; and Danny Green, who continues to nurse hamstring tightness.
The Sixers (8-2) used a 15-0 second-quarter run to build a double-digit lead and withstood multiple second-half Bulls runs — their second furious late rally in four days.
After Zach LaVine gave Chicago a 97-96 lead with less than six minutes to play, Joel Embiid calmly sank a corner three-pointer. Embiid later followed a Derrick Jones Jr. game-tying putback with a jumper, before Furkan Korkmaz nailed a three-pointer to put the Sixers up by two possessions.
When a DeMar DeRozan jumper cut that lead to 106-104 with less than two minutes remaining, Georges Niang answered with a three-pointer. Another corner three by Embiid put the game away with 15.5 seconds to play, capping the big man’s terrific 30-point, 15-rebound effort.
“What’s great is, everybody down the stretch, our execution,” Rivers said. “The ball went to the right player every single time the last 2 1/2 minutes. That’s [how you get] team wins.”
The Sixers’ challenges continue this week when they host the New York Knicks and defending-champion Milwaukee Bucks in back-to-back games on Monday and Tuesday.
Embiid finds his touch
Embiid’s 30-point, 18-rebound effort in a closer-than-it-should-have-been win against the Detroit Pistons was his best statistical performance of an early season that has been disappointing by Embiid’s MVP-contender standards. But Saturday’s outing was more impressive given the competition level, roster status, and venue.
“It was about time I found my touch,” Embiid said. “It still wasn’t good enough to me. Way too many turnovers [six]. I can do a way better job. There’s a few shots that I took that I didn’t hold my follow through. A few that I missed. I just got to keep going. ...
“This year, the way they’re guarding me, I’m not even allowed to dribble the ball. [Defenders] just come on the catch, and it forces me to give it up.”
When Embiid missed four of his first six shots, it appeared his early-season offensive struggles might continue. But he snapped out of the slump in a massive way.
He made all five of his shots in the second period, including a three-pointer that capped a 15-0 Sixers run, an and-one finish, and a step-back three-pointer in the final minute of the quarter. As that last shot went in, Andre Drummond waved a towel over his head from the Sixers’ bench in approval. At the half, Embiid already had 20 points and 10 rebounds.
Embiid’s frustrations with the turnovers also led to him picking up a technical foul in the second quarter. After fumbling the ball out of bounds, Embiid swung his arm and, as he turned around, inadvertently made contact with Lonzo Ball’s face. The officials reviewed the call and upheld the technical, but no other punishment was handed down and Ball missed the free throw.
“I’m sorry for that,” Embiid said. “I would never do that. I’m not a dirty player. I just got mad at myself.”
The 2021-22 sample size remains small, but Embiid entered Saturday shooting a career-worst 41.2% from the floor and averaging 20.4 points per game, his lowest average since his rookie season. Yet, he is anchoring the NBA’s most efficient offense through 10 games (115.4 points per 100 possessions) by drawing defenders and averaging more than four assists per game by playing “point center.”
“They’re not allowing me to put the ball on the floor, so I’ve got to get rid of it,” Embiid said. “I’ve got to find my guys. Part of the reason we’re the best offensive team in the league is because we move the ball so well and we’ve got a bunch of shooters all over the place. At times, that’s what I have to do.”
Welcome back, Furk
When asked about what would determine if Furkan Korkmaz could return from a one-game absence because of a wrist injury, coach Doc Rivers quipped that “if he can shoot with that hand, he’s fine.”
Korkmaz totaled 25 points on 9-of-13 shooting, including a blistering 7-of-9 from three-point range. He is now in position to have plays run for him, and Rivers trusts he’s going to fire away.
“There’s something good about that, if you know what I’m saying,” Rivers said. “If we can get him air, he’s gonna let it go, and that’s actually what you want him to do.”
Added Korkmaz: “They trust me more. They give me more confidence.”
Korkmaz buried his first five shots, including three three-pointers, in his first minutes of game action. Later, he hit a tough transition shot beyond the arc to give the Sixers a 42-38 lead in the second quarter and followed that by hitting a floater.
He later hit another shot from beyond the arc to open the fourth quarter to extend the Sixers’ lead to 87-77, a tough layup to push the advantage back to double digits. Later, when a four-point play by DeMar DeRozan got the Bulls within 93-87 with 9 minutes, 14 seconds to play, Korkmaz drained another three. When he let the shot go that gave the Sixers a late two-possession lead, the bench was already celebrating before it went through the net.
“That stretch where he made the threes saved us,” Rivers said, “because they were making a run.”
BBall Paul with the start
Second-year big man Paul Reed was the beneficiary of the slew of Sixers absences, getting his first career NBA start and finishing with 10 points and five rebounds. Even though Reed had never really played power forward alongside Embiid before, Rivers said he liked the size he brought while guarding DeRozan, who dropped 37 points and 10 rebounds on the Sixers in their first meeting.
“We just did it,” Rivers said. “ ... I knew he was going to get into some foul trouble and he wasn’t going to play perfect ball, but I thought his energy was phenomenal.”
Reed said he found out at shootaround that he would be starting and acknowledged “there were a couple of times out on the court that guys had to direct me.” His highlight moments included a reverse layup in the first quarter and an emphatic putback dunk in the second. He collected another putback dunk early in the third to push the Sixers’ lead back up to 63-51. Soon after, he tracked down a loose ball, put it on the floor and finished at the rim to give the Sixers a 65-51 advantage.
Yet Reed was clearly learning on the fly. When he exited the game in the first quarter, staffers pulled out a tablet to immediately review video. DeRozan drew two fouls on him in the third quarter, including an and-one that helped ignite the Bulls’ rally to trim a 14-point deficit to six in the fourth. He later fouled DeRozan on a made three-pointer.
“You look at that first game, he killed us in that short corner area,” Rivers said of DeRozan. “He didn’t get that tonight, and I thought a lot of that was because Paul Reed was on him. ... We knew at some point he would go for the DeRozan pump fake. He was crushed by that and we were laughing like, ‘He does it to everybody. You’re just part of that. Just be fine with that.’”
Putting Reed in the starting lineup allowed Korkmaz and Georges Niang to anchor the second unit. Niang, who was excellent earlier in the week, missed seven of his first eight shots and picked up five fouls before drilling one of the game’s biggest buckets when his top-of-the-key three gave the Sixers a 109-104 advantage with 1:21 to play.
Rivers also said the Sixers were prepared to deploy a lineup with Embiid and Drummond on the floor at the same time, but that they did not need it during the game.