Sixers move into cloudy offseason after finale win

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Sixers move into cloudy offseason after finale win

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INDIANAPOLIS -- Doug Collins spent what was likely his last night as coach of the 76ers sitting quietly on the bench. Aside from timeouts, Collins did not race up and down the sidelines, nor did he protest the officials’ calls.

There was no need with the Sixers rolling to a decisive 105-95 victory over the Indiana Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Wednesday night (see Instant Replay). The Sixers led by as many as 26 points during the second half and saw that whittled down to just six points in the last minute of the fourth quarter.

Through it all, Collins remained calm and seated. For a coach who is often drenched with sweat after most games, the restraint was uncanny.

“I thanked them for the hard work,” Collins said. “They stayed together and once we got things squared away and guys knew where they were going to be, [we played well].”

Though multiple sources say Collins has coached his last game for the Sixers, the coach did not reveal his plans for the future after the game. The team will hold exit interviews starting at 8:30 a.m. on Thursday morning and Collins is expected to address the issue of his future then.

Until then, Collins remained mum.

“I don’t know, we’ll see,” Collins said. “I’m the coach.”

The season ended as Collins’ worst as a coach in the NBA. With a 34-48 record, the Sixers were expected to challenge the Heat in the East. Instead, the big moves never worked out. Andrew Bynum never played a second, Jason Richardson got injured and the players the Sixers traded away blossomed.

Who can blame Collins for ending his coaching tenure on that note?

And though the season ended with three victories in the last four games, there was an undertone of disappointment in the Sixers’ locker room afterwards. Players seemed to understand that changes were on the way.

Lots of changes.

“Any time you get done, you prepare for it more when you’re not going to the playoffs,” said Spencer Hawes, who appeared in all 82 games this season. “It’s always tough at the end of the year. For as much as you can relax and breathe a sigh of relief, we spent the last seven or eight months with these guys and it’s a cliché, but you see these guys more than your family. Some of the guys, if not most of them, you’re never going to have that relationship again. That’s one of the parts you don’t look forward to.”

As for the coach, the players still have not been informed one way or the other if Collins will return. When asked a yes or no question if he wanted Collins to return, Evan Turner didn’t exactly give a ringing endorsement.

Turner didn’t say he did not want Collins back, but he didn’t say that he did, either.

“Last I heard, it was his decision. Whatever he wants to do that makes him happy,” Turner said. “To go through that type of year, it’s strenuous. He has a lot of options and whatever is the best decision for him. He can go back to commentating and his son is coaching Northwestern.”

So it was a bittersweet win for the Sixers. The team had some tough times, but usually played with a strong effort. For whatever reason, it just wasn’t meant to be for the Sixers this season.

“It’s tough when you’re losing, especially with the high expectations others had and we had for ourselves,” Hawes said. “We aimed high and didn’t reach it.”

Turner added: “It’s definitely disappointing. We came into the season as one of the better teams in the East. We didn’t meet our expectations.”

As the book closed on the disappointing season, Collins told his players -- one last time -- to take a look around the room because it may be the last time most of them are together.

“Before every last game I always say the same thing. Get your hands together, look around this room -- the essence of the NBA is that the room always changes,” Collins said. “Look each other in the eye and appreciate what you’ve done this season and how hard each other worked. You’ll always be teammates and bonded.”

Robert Covington, Sixers show 'swagger' without Joel Embiid in comeback win

Robert Covington, Sixers show 'swagger' without Joel Embiid in comeback win

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The Sixers began the season looking lost without Joel Embiid. Now they are finding ways to win when he is not on the court. 

Embiid suffered a left knee contusion in the second half of Friday’s 93-92 win over the Trail Blazers (see story). He was sidelined for the decisive 8:50 of the game (see Instant Replay).

The Sixers trailed, 81-78, when he subbed out for the second time because of the injury, and outscored the Trail Blazers, 15-11, from that point on.

So how was this team that battled with inconsistency and reliance on Embiid able to pull out a comeback win punctuated in the final seconds? Ask the Sixers and they’ll give varying answers, a sign they are getting the job done in multiple ways and aren’t relying on just one key to success.

The most glaring difference was the hero of the game. Robert Covington drained two three-pointers in the final 40 seconds. His trey from Dario Saric with 38.2 remaining cut the Trail Blazers' lead to just one, 91-90. With 4.5 to go, he nailed the game-winning three from T.J. McConnell to give the Sixers their eighth victory in 10 games (see feature highlight).

“That’s resilient Cov,” Nerlens Noel said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a good shot or a bad shot; he’ll pull it in your face. That’s the confidence he has and that’s the confidence we need him to have. He steps up and makes two big shots like that, that’s enough said. He won us that game.”

Critics have called out Covington’s up-and-down performance from three all season. (They’ve made their feelings known with loud boos at home games.) Covington shot 5 for 12 behind the arc on the night but his 2 for 3 performance in the fourth was what mattered most. 

“I am a fighter, that’s what I have been my whole life,” he said. “Just because fans are booing me at one point doesn't mean anything. I just keep working. I am not going to let that deteriorate my game. It goes in one ear and out the other.”

Without Embiid in the game, the Sixers had to rely on a total team effort. After he went to the bench, the final points were scored by a combination of Covington, Gerald Henderson, Noel, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and McConnell.

“Ball movement,” head coach Brett Brown said. “We had 25 assists out of 36 made baskets. It’s not like we’re going to give the ball to Damian Lillard (guard for the Blazers). That’s not who we are. Whatever we do, it has to be done by committee, by a group, by a team. It’s even more exposed when Joel isn’t in the game. They did that. Unlikely people ended up with the ball sometimes in unlikely spots. … You have to move the ball. That’s what the team has learned without Joel.” 

Several of the players on the court in critical moments were from the second unit. Since Brown locked in on his rotation, the reserves don’t have a drop-off in confidence from the starters. 

“It’s the mentality,” Covington said. “Everybody has that swagger about us right now because once Joel comes out, the next person steps in and fills that void. It’s a matter of that contagious feeling that trickles into the second unit that’s making us that much more valuable.”

Then there's always defense, the foundation of any solid NBA team and a focal point for the Sixers. Noel saw that as the difference-maker when subbing in and out. The Trail Blazers scored just two points in the final 1:56. 

"The second unit goes there and does a great job guarding the yard, not letting up easy baskets," Noel said. "The offensive side is fluid motion. Guys get shots, pick-and-roll, it opens up open threes for guys, driving lines, pump fakes, it’s a great unity."

Embiid liked what he saw from a distance. He will not travel with the team to their game on Saturday against the Hawks in Atlanta. 

"I’m just happy we’ve been closing out games, and the main thing I’m really happy [about] is they’ve been able to do it without me," he said. "That’s going to give us a lot of confidence when I’m missing back-to-backs. My teammates are going to have more confidence to come in and play the same way."

Joel Embiid feels 'great' after injury scare to left knee

Joel Embiid feels 'great' after injury scare to left knee

Of the nearly 20,000 people in the Wells Fargo Center on Friday night, Joel Embiid was seemingly the least concerned when he came down and injured his left knee. 

Fans held their breath and the Sixers looked on anxiously as the standout big man got up in visible discomfort and limped off the court (see highlights). Embiid, however, wasn’t worried. 

“I knew it was OK. I just landed the wrong way,” he said after the Sixers' 93-92 win over the Trail Blazers (see Instant Replay). “I’m great. The knee’s fine. They did an MRI and stuff, everything looked good.”

Embiid ran off the court on his own, was diagnosed with a left knee contusion and was cleared to return to the game. He aggravated his knee again driving to the basket and this time, the team held him out to be careful.

“The review is that he hyperextended his left knee,” head coach Brett Brown said. “There was a minor tweak again, and for precautionary reasons only, the doctors did not allow him to return. There will be more information given as we know it. But quickly, that's what we know.”

Embiid understood the team’s decision to sideline him for the final 8:50 while the Sixers went on a comeback run (see feature highlight). He still finished the game with an 18-point, 10-rebound double-double, five assists and four blocks in only 22 minutes.

“Obviously those guys, the front office, they care about my future, so they just shut it down,” Embiid said. “But I was fine.”

Embiid will not travel to Atlanta for Saturday’s game against the Hawks (pre-scheduled rest). He expects to be available for Tuesday’s home matchup against the Clippers. 

"You know how tough he is," Nerlens Noel said. "If it isn’t anything serious, he’ll be right back. At the end of the game, he was telling me was he was feeling great and there was no pain. He wanted to come back in the game … he’s a trooper. He always gives it his all and always plays hard."

Injuries to any player are worrisome, especially a franchise centerpiece with two years of rehab (foot) behind him. The Sixers have been methodical and cautious with his playing time. Embiid is on a 28-minute restriction and can play in only one game of a back-to-back series. 

The same player who is so closely watched, though, also plays with sky-high energy that doesn’t have a brake pedal. 

“You're concerned,” Brown said of seeing Embiid get injured. “It's clear to all of us that he plays with such reckless abandon. I think that we're all going to be seeing this and feeling this regularly. From flying into stands to stalking somebody in the open court to block a shot to the collision he often is in trying to draw fouls. That's just who he is. 

“I think that as he just plays more basketball and continues to grow, to not necessarily avoid those situations, just to perhaps manage them a little bit more. Right now, he's just a young guy that's just playing that doesn't know what he doesn't know and has a fearless approach underneath all that attitude.”

Fearless is an accurate description considering Embiid's trouble-free reaction to the awkward way his leg bent (he hadn’t seen a replay). 

“I kind of had that in college, too,” he said. “I think I’m flexible, so it’s supposed to happen.”