MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The ice bucket where his feet were chilling, the ice bags on both knees, the tired, almost resigned look on his face — and the very full stat line — were proof positive that Ersan Ilyasova gave it everything he had, and then some, Tuesday night for the Sixers.
Yet in the end — again — it was not enough to keep Memphis' All-Star bigs, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, from pummeling their way to a ninth straight win over the Sixers, 96-91, before 13,521 at FedEx Forum (see Instant Replay).
Both teams were in the second game of back-to-backs. Both benches were severely depleted by injuries and illness. Randolph had not played since a double-overtime win in Philadelphia Nov. 23, just hours before his mother suddenly died. Star point guard Mike Conley is out with two fractured vertebra, leaving the point to a pair of rookies.
On the Sixers’ side, rookie star Joel Embiid was tethered to the bench for mandatory rest in the second game of a back-to-back. Jahlil Okafor (illness), Nerlens Noel (knee), Jerryd Bayless (wrist) and, of course, Ben Simmons (foot) were all out.
The Sixers had lost seven straight since that first meeting with the Grizzlies this season at the Wells Fargo Center.
Ilyasova did his part that night with season highs of 22 points and 12 rebounds. Thin up front on Tuesday, Brown relied on Ilyasova’s tenacity inside along with the ability of the veteran and Dario Saric to hit the three and drive to the hoop. Ilyasova, a pending free agent from Turkey, stepped up again with 23 points, including four threes, 17 boards, four assists and two blocks.
“That’s the only way we’re going to win,” Ilyasova said. “Come out with more energy and give it 110 percent. That, and play smart.”
Sixers head coach Brett Brown said, “There is a toughness to him. He’s an acquired assassin. He goes about his business. He does it without emotion.”
Saric added 17 points, including the trey that helped give the Sixers a 77-76 lead after three quarters and the bucket that put them up, 91-89, with less than two minutes to play.
Gasol, coming off a triple-double with 28 points, 11 rebounds and as many assists in a double-OT win at New Orlenas Monday, had 26 points and 12 boards. Randolph struggled until the fourth quarter. He parked down low for eight of his 12 points in the frame. Randolph also finished with 14 rebounds and had a loving crowd wanting to give him a giant bear hug.
“He rebounds in his sleep,” Brown said of Z-Bo. “Any 50-50 balls that are close to the rim … he’s done that his whole life. … Zach and Marc are obviously NBA veterans very capable of closing out games.”
The Sixers, who stayed in the game by hitting 14 of 41 three-point tries, had two of their 16 turnovers in the final 1:06. They also hit just 13 of 26 free throws, were outrebounded, 53-45, and outscored in the paint, 52-34.
“We’ve got to play smarter and take care of little things like free throws and the glass,” Ilyasova said.
Still, Randolph left the door open. With the Grizzlies up 94-91, he missed two free throws with nine seconds left. The Sixers set up Nik Stauskas (12 points) for a left-wing three. But he missed the shot and was 1 of 8 from distance on the night.
“I got a really good look, it just didn’t fall,” Stauskas said. “That’s been the theme the last two years. We fight, we fight and things just don’t go our way. We make a few mistakes and teams capitalize.”
The Grizzlies came through again in “clutch time” and are now 11-0 in games decided by five points or less or that reached overtime.
The Sixers are 4-18 for the season and losers of eight straight going into Thursday’s game at New Orleans.
Brown said he told his team after the loss that the group “showed tremendous character. Fourth game in five nights. We came down with nine guys, are playing a tough, playoff, hard Memphis team. We had a chance to win the game and I was proud of their effort.”
Still, Stauskas said effort without results “gets old. It really gets old.”