Sixers must start fast vs. vengeful Thunder

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Sixers must start fast vs. vengeful Thunder

OKLAHOMA CITY -- The Sixers are not exactly catching the Thunder at an ideal time. The Northwest Division leaders had their 12-game home winning streak snapped two nights ago when Brooklyn beat them at Chesapeake Arena by 17. It was only their second opponent all season that shot 50 percent or better against them.

The Sixers know OKC will be looking to make amends.

They are going to want to come out here and bury us from the beginning, Jason Richardson said. We have to be ready for their first wave of attack. Those guys are going to be aggressive, because they are very tough here to beat. The fans here are great. They are loud. They are passionate about basketball, so it is going to be one of those games where we have to be mentally prepared and physically as well, because they are going to come out and hit us with the first punch.

The Thunder won just 23 games in their first season in Oklahoma City, 2008-09. But in the four seasons that followed, they've lost a combined 35 games on their home floor.

Oh, they are going to be ready," said Royal Ivey, who spent the last two seasons with the Thunder. "They dont lose two in a row at home, that doesnt happen. They are going to be ready because they are competitors. They are going to come with their hard hats and we have to be ready that first quarter, those first five minutes -- that is going to be key because this building is going to be on fire."

In Iveys tenure with the Thunder, the team never lost back-to-back home games. In fact, the Thunder have not done that since the 2009-10 season when they dropped consecutive home games twice before Christmas.

A great home court and a commitment to winning has made Oklahoma City a target destination for free agents, and that is in spite of the city being the 45th-largest market in the United States.

It is like a college environment, Ivey said. When new guys come in, like rookies, they are like freshmen. I was considered a senior. It is a college environment -- its like a family from top to bottom. First tier, the way they run their organization from the players to the front office to how they treat everybody. My time here was great.

Said Richardson: When free agents hear around the league that an organization is all about winning, taking care of their guys, a first class organization, guys are attracted to that. Because when you have that kind of atmosphere and commitment from the front office that is when you start talking about championships.

The Thunder have rubbed elbows with that championship feeling, losing in the NBA finals last spring to the Miami Heat in five games. Currently, they have the highest winning percentage in the NBA.

They have two of the top seven scorers in the NBA helping them average the second-most points per game at 106. In an earlier meeting this season, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook combined to score 67 points in an overtime victory for the Thunder -- unsurprisingly, that duo is the top scoring tandem in the league.

Ivey vividly remembers battling Westbrook daily in practice. The practice court, he says, is where Westbrook became an All-Star.

He is definitely a competitor, Ivey said of Westbrook. He is fierce. Everybody downplays his attitude, but that makes him good. He is a competitor. He hates to lose. He hates when he turns over the ball. He is hard on himself and he brings it every day in practice and it shows on the court because in practice he is always competing, always trying to outdo somebody.

Ivey went from guarding Westbrook every day in practice to playing against another UCLA product daily: Jrue Holiday.

Jrue is similar, but he is just quiet, Ivey compared. Russell is more vocal and more animated. Jrue is more reserved, but Jrue has that same competitive nature and he gets after it. They are similar pit bulls -- one is a blue-nose, one is a red-nose pit bull.

Dog lovers know that blue-nosed or red, neither is better -- just different.

Holiday, who Wednesday had his second career triple-double, has a right groin strain but is expected to play.

E-mail Dei Lynam at dlynam@comcastsportsnet.com

Sixers-Hawks 5 things: Looking to keep win streak alive without Joel Embiid

Sixers-Hawks 5 things: Looking to keep win streak alive without Joel Embiid

Sixers (15-26) at Hawks (25-18)
7 p.m. on CSN, CSNPhilly.com and the NBC Sports App; Pregame Live at 6:30

Coming off a thrilling comeback win over the Trail Blazers on Friday, the Sixers travel to Atlanta to take on the Hawks at Phillips Arena in the second game of a back-to-back. 

1. Going streaking
It's been a long time since the Sixers have had anything resembling a winning streak. No longer is that the case, as the Sixers have won three straight games, with Friday's win capping their fifth-straight home win. 

The Sixers have also won eight of their last 10 games — with only the Warriors posting a better record during that span — and are playing with a confidence and energy that hasn't been seen in Philly for years. 

One streak they'll try to end, however, is their recent losing streak to the Hawks, as the Sixers haven't beaten Atlanta in six straight matchups.

2. Injury scare
Fans at the Wells Fargo Center held their breath Friday night as Joel Embiid came down awkwardly on his left knee and came up limping. 

Embiid ran to the locker room on his own and was cleared to return to the game, though he never did. He was diagnosed with a left knee contusion and said after the game that everything was fine.

"I'm great," he said. "The knee's fine. They did an MRI and stuff, and everything looked good."

Despite not having Embiid for the final minutes of Friday's game, the Sixers were able to pull together and rally for a 93-92 win over the Blazers. 

Embiid won't travel with the Sixers to Atlanta, as he is scheduled to miss the game against the Hawks for a day of rest. 

3. Playoffs?
Hey, crazier things have happened, so let's not rule this one out. 

With the Sixers in the midst of their hottest strech in recent years, Embiid has the team and city thinking playoffs. After notching yet another win Friday night, the Sixers are just 4½ games back from the eighth seed in the East. 

"I look at it every day," Embiid said Friday. "We’re coming for those playoff spots. We’re going to keep on getting better, keep working and winning games."

If the wins actually do keep coming, this might be something to keep an eye on as we get deeper into the season. 

4. Tall task 
With Embiid scheduled to miss Saturday's game against the Hawks, the Sixers will lean on Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel to carry the load in place of their superstar center. 

A night after facing a dynamic backcourt featuring Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, the Sixers will turn their attention to the dominant frontcourt duo of Paul Millsap and Dwight Howard. 

Millsap comes in averaging 17.8 points and 8.1 rebounds, while Howard averages 13.7 points and an incredible 13 rebounds per game. Without Embiid, the Sixers might have a hard time stopping Millsap and Howard from having their way in the paint. 
 
5. This and that
• The Sixers have made three go-ahead field goals in the final five seconds of the fourth quarter/OT this season — the most in the NBA.

• The Sixers have 15 wins at the halfway point of the season. They had just 10 wins total all of last season. 

• Jahlil Okafor last played on Jan. 14 against the Wizards, posting 26 points, going 10 of 16 from the floor. 

• The Sixers are 13-17 with Embiid, but just 2-9 without him. 

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

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

BOX SCORE

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."