Phew: Sixers Win Game They Absolutely Had To, Take Care of Limping Celtics

Phew: Sixers Win Game They Absolutely Had To, Take Care of Limping Celtics

There was no real getting around it: This was as close to a Must-Win
game for the Sixers as they were likely to have this regular season. The
Sixers have been struggling so mightily to find their groove recently
that if they couldn't do it at home, on National TV, against a division
rival missing a handful of key rotation guys...you'd have to start doing
a whole lot of wondering about this team in general. And from the first
two quarters, it looked like the New York game all over again—struggles
scoring out of the gate, inability to get momentum-building stops,
Spike Lee yammering from the sidelines
. (Maybe not the last one.) But
the second half saw the Sixers born anew, and they rattled off 37 points
in the third to put the C's firmly in their rearview, winning 99-86.

And wow, was that third quarter something. It was a reminder—our first
in a few weeks, at least—that when this team is sharing the rock and
playing free-flowing, up-tempo basketball, it can be one of the most
exciting and dangerous teams in the league. Elton Brand gets a lot of the
credit for being the team's primary finisher in the quarter—he scored 12
in the third alone, ending with a team-high 20 for the game—and just
about everyone got into the act before the end of the quarter, Evan
Turner was making last-second dishes to Thaddeus Young under the
basket for easy twos, and even Lou Williams was finding an open Spence
for a jumper or two. (Williams provided the capper with an alley-oop
slam off a 'Dre lob—forgot the Sour Patch could get up that high.)

[VIDEOS: watch Will Smith congratulate Doug Collins on his 400th win | watch Mickael Pietrus' brutal fall, get carted off on stretcher]

For me, though the lion's share of the credit goes to Spencer Hawes,
whose ability and willingness to make the extra pass spread through this
team like a virus in the second half. He only ended with three assists
for the game, but he made at least three more brilliant passes to find
cutters and open men. I had forgotten what a luxury it was to be able to
run the offense through Hawes when he was healthy during the first
third of the season, and to have that weapon back at our disposal for
the last third could prove invaluable for Philly. Having Spence for more
minutes helps, as well—he played nearly 28 tonight after playing
between 19-24 in his first four games back from injury. (No Nik Vucevic
tonight, which resulted in an interesting amount of Tony Battie, a trend
we all hope not to continue.) 

It's far from the Sixers' most impressive win of the season—as
previously mentioned, the Celtics were undermanned to begin with,
missing starting two-guard Ray Allen and losing defensive ace Mickael
Pietrus to a terrifying head injury partway through the game, along with
all their other season-ending tragedies (Jeff Green, Chris Wilcox,
Jermaine O'Neal). But from a practical standpoint, it was one of their
most important—it keeps the C's at bay, with a one-and-a-half game
cushion in the Atlantic, and it also pushes the Sixers to four games up
on the Knicks, who lost tonight to the lowly Raptors. Almost as
importantly, it means that Philly wins the season series (and thus the
Atlantic tiebreaker) against Boston, a key buffer for the Sixers in a
potentially close division race.

The other reason getting a win was so key tonight? Next up, the Sixers
head south to San Antonio for what might be their toughest non-Miami
matchup of the season against the 30-14 Spurs. Not that they can or
should dump that one now, but winning tonight takes a little of the
pressure off them for Sunday, and maybe even gives them a little
confidence and momentum (assuming both are real things and not just
inventions of Kenny Smith) going into the game. At the very least, The
Sixers can rest easy tonight knowing that one way or the other, they
will finish the weekend once more as princes of the Atlantic. Go team.

Nerlens Noel to get one-on-one experience while Sixers on road

Nerlens Noel to get one-on-one experience while Sixers on road

Being immersed in the team is important for Nerlens Noel, and so is continuing his rehab. 

While the Sixers are on the road for three days to play the Grizzlies and Pelicans, Noel will remain in Philadelphia to work out at the training complex in Camden, New Jersey. The team is not scheduled to practice in between games, so staying back allows Noel another day to get on the court.

“[I want him to] just start playing more and have a ball in his hands, get hit, physical, feel people, play one-on-one,” head coach Brett Brown said.

Noel has yet to play this season because of elective arthroscopic left knee surgery in October. He rejoined the Sixers after completing the first phase of his rehab in Birmingham, Alabama. There still is no timetable for his return. 

Brown has said there is a “classroom” element to Noel’s return. He has to learn a roster with new players and schemes. 

The on-the-court side of it is a reacclimation to the intensity of the league. Regardless of how many games Noel already has played in the NBA, there is an adjustment period getting back into the grind of the competition. Brown believes the time in the gym this week will help Noel prepare for the level of intensity he will face in his return. 

“It’s such fool’s gold to think somebody’s going to jump back into NBA basketball after you haven’t played for so long. I don’t care how athletic he is,” Brown said. “It’s a man’s world, this league, and there’s a physicality and there’s a real-time reaction you have to have to play in the game. You can’t make that up in practice, you can’t make that up playing one-on-one, but you can better position him instead of just going out to get shots. I want him to feel a body, get hit, hit back, play one-on-one, those types of things.”

Noel had been assigned to the Sixers’ Development League affiliate, the Delaware 87ers, to get in practice time when the Sixers had a game. The Sixers may forego another assignment and keep Noel at their facility as the Sevens also have two games in the next three days. 

Joel Embiid finally struggles in Sixers' loss to Nuggets

Joel Embiid finally struggles in Sixers' loss to Nuggets

BOX SCORE

Joel Embiid has been making the NBA look easy. Rookie of the Month honors, five double-doubles in 13 games, seven performances of 20 points or more … all having missed the last two years rehabbing from foot injuries.

Embiid, though, still is a player learning the league. Night’s like Monday’s lackluster showing are going to happen, even if it seemed unexpected against the struggling Denver Nuggets. 

“We’ve been used to seeing Jo have superhuman nights,” Brett Brown said after the Sixers’ 106-98 loss (see Instant Replay). “I thought Joel was down tonight.” 

Embiid tallied a total 16 points (5 for 15 from the field, 1 for 3 from three, 5 for 6 from the line) with four rebounds, one assist, a career-high five blocks, three turnovers and three fouls in 25:32. 

He had a quiet first half with six points (2 for 5 from the field) and one rebound in 9:21. The biggest struggle came in the third quarter. Embiid scored a single point off a free throw and shot 0 for 6 from the floor. By the end of three, he was shooting 18.2 percent. 

The big man said he needed to be better at passing out of the double team. He committed two turnovers in the third. 

“I wasn’t getting to my spot and I wasn’t getting what I’m used to getting,” Embiid said of the first three quarters. “I’m going to go back and watch the tape and see what I did wrong.” 

Embiid bounced back for another Embiid-like offensive effort in the fourth. He dropped nine points off an efficient 3 for 4 shooting in 7:31. Still, it wasn’t enough. 

“I made a couple shots,” Embiid said. “It didn’t help us win, so I don’t think it matters.”

Brown noticed Embiid rushing his game. He also thought Embiid’s balance was off, something the big man has been dealing with all season as he continues to find his legs. 

Embiid will not play in Tuesday's game against the Grizzlies. It is part of his workload management in which he does not play both games of a back-to-back. Expect him to hone in on game film until his next matchup, and get back on the roller coaster that can be a first year in the NBA. 

“It's just part of a young man's growth,” Brown said. “It just happens. I don't think we need to read too deeply into it. I think, in many ways, to expect from time to time not as good of a performance as we have been used to is fair enough.”