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.

Sixers-Clippers 5 things: Big men, minus Joel Embiid, in the spotlight

Sixers-Clippers 5 things: Big men, minus Joel Embiid, in the spotlight

The Sixers (15-27) on Tuesday night open their latest back-to-back set against the LA Clippers (30-16) at the Wells Fargo Center (7 p.m./CSN, CSNPhilly.com and streaming live on the NBC Sports app).

Let's take a closer look at the matchup:

1. Missing in action
The Sixers are used to Joel Embiid missing at least one game of back-to-back sets. However, they will have to forge ahead without him in both contests coming up on consecutive days.

Embiid will miss the Sixers' games on Tuesday and Wednesday after suffering a left knee contusion in the team's 93-92 win over the Portland Trail Blazers on Friday. The matchups will mark three straight absences for the Eastern Conference Player of the Week after he was sidelined for the Sixers' blowout loss in Atlanta to the Hawks on Saturday night.

The Sixers haven't exactly been able to survive without Embiid's production this season. They are 2-10 minus the Rookie of the Year frontrunner and have allowed 106.5 points in those games.

Brett Brown challenged his team to perform better — particularly on defense — during this upcoming stint without Embiid.

“It’s still about our defense, it’s still about running, it’s still about sharing the ball,” Brown said after practice Monday. “I think you go with Jahlil (Okafor) and Nerlens (Noel) and challenge them in relation to rim protection and what Joel provides us. The group around them also has got to perform at a higher level when you don’t have Joel. I think that second group that we have been playing, led by Nerlens, really can take on a far greater defensive identity than it has recently, and Nerlens will be the captain of that.”

2. The Blake Show is back
While the Sixers will be without their star big man in Tuesday's tilt, the Clippers are expected to get one of theirs back in their lineup.

Blake Griffin is likely to return to action against the Sixers after missing 18 games following right knee surgery.

Griffin was averaging 21.2 points and 8.8 rebounds this season as the Clippers jumped out to a 20-6 record. Griffin underwent an arthroscopic procedure to remove loose bodies from the knee on Dec. 19, and the Clips have recorded just a 10-8 mark since.

With fellow superstar Chris Paul now sidelined with an injured thumb, getting the five-time All-Star Griffin back should be a major boost for the Clippers.

3. Take care
The Clippers may not be the force they once were in the open court (15th in the NBA with 12.7 fastbreak points per game this season), but that doesn't mean they still can't revert to their Lob City ways in the blink of an eye.

That could be the case on Tuesday if the Sixers continue to turn the ball over at such an alarming rate.

The Sixers, who are last in the league with 17.1 turnovers per game, have somehow been even worse during this recent string of success. They have committed 19.4 turnovers a night over the last five games and 17.8 during the last 10 contests.

The Sixers have been able to survive thanks to their active defense creating opportunities on offense and some clutch shooting. However, with Embiid sidelined and facing a Clippers team that ranks in the top five in field-goal and three-point percentage, those miscues may come back to haunt the Sixers.

4. Injuries
Okafor (knee) is probable. Embiid (knee), Ben Simmons (foot) and Jerryd Bayless (wrist) are out for the Sixers.

Griffin (knee) is probable. Paul (thumb) and Brice Johnson (back) are out for the Clippers.

5. This and that
• The Sixers have lost nine straight games to the Clippers.

• Ersan Ilyasova is averaging 17.4 points and 4.6 rebounds per game during January.

• DeAndre Jordan has averaged a double-double of 11.3 points and 12.8 rebounds against the Sixers during his career.

Scouting reports: Villanova-Marquette and St. Joe's-St. Bonaventure

Scouting reports: Villanova-Marquette and St. Joe's-St. Bonaventure

Two City 6 schools are in action Tuesday night. Let’s take a closer look at the matchups.

No. 1 Villanova (19-1, 7-1 Big East) at Marquette (13-6, 4-3 Big East) 
8 p.m. at BMO Harris Bradley Center on FOX Sports 1

Last time out
Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins combined for 44 points, as No. 1 Villanova won its fifth straight game Saturday afternoon, dispatching Providence, 78-68, at the Wells Fargo Center in a game that four Wildcats scored 10 or more points, three or more assists and three or more rebounds. After the game, Villanova head coach Jay Wright opened up about the Wildcats’ “constant challenge” of a national championship hangover and how ‘Nova has overcome it (see story).

Marquette is coming off a 102-94 upset win Saturday over No. 7 Creighton in the second game of a difficult three-game stretch against top-25 teams. Last Monday, the Golden Eagles fell, 88-80, to No. 13 Butler, and tonight, they tip off against the top team in the nation.

Scouting report
While Wright admitted the Wildcats are fighting through a championship hangover, it might not seem that way if you take a look at the scores during their current five-game winning streak.

Villanova won by an average of 18 points during the streak, including a 25-point win over then-No. 15 Xavier and a 30-point win over Seton Hall. Jenkins has scored over 15 points and shot 50 percent or better from three in four out of the five games.

Marquette started off the year 10-3, but has seen a drop-off since. Entering tonight, the Golden Eagles have lost three of their last six games, including one to Villanova on Jan. 7.

The Golden Eagles rank second in the Big East in points per game at 84.6, and lead the conference in three-point percentage at 41. They have five players averaging double digits, with Jajuan Johnson leading the way with 13 points per game and Markus Howard at 12.8 ppg.

What it means
With a victory, Villanova would extend its win streak before its matchup with No. 12 Virginia on Sunday afternoon.

A win for Marquette would help its résumé for the NCAA Tournament. It currently has an RPI ranking of 53, and a victory over ‘Nova would give its profile a significant boost.

History
This will be the second of two meetings between the two schools this season, as Villanova beat Marquette back on Jan. 7 in its first game after its first loss of the season — a 66-58 defeat to then-No. 18 Butler on Jan. 4. The Wildcats shot a season-best 60 percent from three against Marquette in the victory, with Jenkins shooting 6 of 9 from downtown and scoring a game-high 23 points.

What’s next
Villanova takes on No. 12 Virginia at 1 p.m. Sunday on FOX. 

Marquette will face Providence at home Saturday.

St. Joe's (9-9, 2-4 A-10) at St. Bonaventure (12-6, 4-2 A-10)
7 p.m. at the Reilly Center on TCN

Scouting report
The Hawks have lost four of their last six games entering tonight, and with Shavar Newkirk out for the season with a torn ACL, Lamarr Kimble and James Demery have become St. Joe’s primary scorers, averaging 14.7 and 14.9 points, respectively.

Charlie Brown is coming off a stretch that earned him A-10 Rookie of the Week honors for the second time this season. The freshman is averaging 15 points and 7.5 rebounds over his previous two games, and scored a career-high 19 points against Penn last Saturday. 

But, the Hawks will have their hands full with St. Bonaventure's backcourt. For the Bonnies, Jaylen Adams averages 21.8 points, while Matt Mobley averages 19.9 points. St. Bonaventure also leads the A-10 in scoring, averaging 81.6 points.

History
The Hawks fell to St. Bonaventure, 98-90, last season at the Reilly Center. St. Joe’s had five players in double figures but it wasn’t enough, as Marcus Posley put up a game-high 47 points. 

But, the Hawks will be without four of those five players that put up double figures last March. DeAndre’ Bembry declared for the NBA draft, Isaiah Miles and Aaron Brown both graduated and Newkirk tore his ACL in December. The Hawks will need to count on Kimble, the one player the Hawks have who scored double figures against St. Bonaventure last season.

What’s next
St. Joe’s will take on La Salle in a Big 5 matchup at Hagan Arena on Saturday.

St. Bonaventure plays Rhode Island Saturday afternoon.