Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons finally faced off Wednesday night at the Wells Fargo Center.
Embiid’s Sixers prevailed in a chaotic, offense-centric affair over Simmons’ Nets, extending their winning streak to six games and improving to 31-16 with a 137-133 win.
Embiid, who had been listed as questionable heading into the game with left foot soreness, posted 26 points on 6-for-18 shooting and 10 rebounds. He appeared to struggle physically on several occasions.
Simmons had 12 points, five assists and five rebounds.
Tyrese Maxey scored 27 points and James Harden added 23.
Seth Curry (32 points) and Kyrie Irving (30 points) were the Nets’ top scorers. Nic Claxton had 25 points on 11-for-12 shooting and 11 boards.
Brooklyn star Kevin Durant is out with an MCL sprain in his right knee. Furkan Korkmaz (right shoulder soreness) and Jaden Springer (non-COVID illness) were out for the Sixers, who have now won 19 of their last 23 games.
The Sixers play the Nuggets in Philadelphia on Saturday. Here are observations from their win over Brooklyn:
Embiid, Simmons amid error-filled start
The crowd let out a legitimate roar when they saw Simmons switch to Embiid about a minute into the game. Embiid missed a leaner and subsequent tip-in attempt, but PJ Tucker missed an offensive rebound and was fouled.
The Sixers (and the home fans) continued to like the look of that game. Offenses also became an early problem for Brooklyn. Embiid sealed Simmons in the paint and fouled him at the 9:07 mark of the first quarter. Brooklyn head coach Jacques Vaughn expressed displeasure that his team was called for the first four fouls of the night and was assessed a technical.
Simmons tried to foul Harden about 35 feet from the hoop, but was whistled for his second foul with 5:20 left in the first. The 26-year-old made a minimal impact in his initial run. Simmons was peripheral in Brooklyn’s half-court offense, and the Sixers allowed the Nets few true fast-break chances. His only first-half shot of any kind was a close-range right hook with about 4:30 left in the second quarter. He left it short, and Embiid scored inside on the ensuing possession.
Irving actually forced the Sixers’ first turnover, intercepting a Harden inbounds pass to Embiid and then assisting on a Joe Harris three-pointer in transition. The seven-time All-Star was the focal point of the Nets’ highly efficient offense. Brooklyn started 9 for 10 from the floor and erased an early nine-point deficit when Curry sank a corner three on its first possession.
Officiating was often in the spotlight during a physical, strange, high-scoring first period. The Sixers made all 13 of their first quarter free throws, while the Nets went 9 for 12. Harden had a strange, hard technique when he threw the ball into the basket after a Claxton foul. Embiid and Claxton didn’t seem to start the night on particularly friendly terms, both picking up technical fouls late in the first. The jam-packed quarter ended with nil difference between the teams – 41-all after 12 minutes.
Maxey gives the bench greater lift
Using Maxey off the bench again helped the Sixers avoid a steep offensive drop-off while Embiid and Harden sat.
Shake Milton also played an integral role in the Sixers’ success late in the first and early in the second quarter with an all-bench lineup. Milton attacked in transition, drove into the paint regularly and made it clear that Maxey wasn’t the Sixers’ only real scoring threat in the second unit. He even grabbed an offensive board before setting up a Maxey triple that fell off an extremely generous bounce.
Maxey then shook Edmond Sumner and created space to make another three, putting the Sixers up 59-52. That shot gave him 16 points on 6-for-8 shooting in just 10 minutes of playing time. If you’re looking for instant insult, he’s an excellent candidate to provide it. Curry is clearly quite strong as a scorer off the bench as well. He fired seven three-pointers in the first half and made five of them. A couple of those looks were unforgivably open, but Curry also made a three off a Maxey foul and burned Tobias Harris with his pump fake before draining another.
Matisse Thybulle gave the Sixers some good possessions against Irving and hit an open three-pointer. While his natural, gamble-heavy style doesn’t lend itself to flawless basketball, the idea of Thybulle as a player who could help in the playoffs rests on him playing disruptive, high-level defense against opposing stars. He checked that box Wednesday as he poured in 10 points in his 12 minutes.
Sixers squeak by in shootout
The Sixers had an unfocused start to the third quarter. Harden plowed over Simmons for an offensive foul and Embiid was whistled for two quick fouls against Claxton.
Of course, Embiid being Embiid, he also drew three fouls on Claxton early in the third and helped ensure the Sixers’ offense didn’t lose any serious steam. Claxton played an impressive game on both ends of the floor, though he wasn’t in Embiid’s league in terms of physical strength.
However, there was little to hold on to for the Nets defensively through three quarters. They turned to a zone early in the third quarter, which was reasonable given how well the Sixers were in turnovers. De’Anthony Melton (19 points, three blocks) drove up the middle and converted a slick finger roll. On the Sixers’ next possession, Harden found Tobias Harris in the high post and he made an easy jumper. Regardless of scheme, the Sixers looked capable of exploiting soft spots or favorable matchups on nearly every possession.
They also made plenty of tough shots. Harden extended the Sixers’ advantage to 15 points when he tallied Claxton and drilled a contested step-back jumper. Embiid pulled out his emphatic, hip-thrusting, pro-wrestling-inspired celebration after an and-one layup.
As for Simmons, he increased his offensive aggression in the third quarter, making a right hook and two free throws. Before Wednesday, Simmons had gone 23 for 53 (43.4 percent) at the foul line this season. He went 2 for 3 in the game before sitting out the final 8:57.
The Sixers’ bench couldn’t repeat its first-half performance. Thybulle and Milton missed corner threes in the Brooklyn zone, and a long jumper from Yuta Watanabe cut the Nets’ deficit to 102-94. However, Thybulle had an important answer and made another open three. He also slammed in a dunk after cutting along the baseline and catching a Maxey lob.
As Embiid watched on the bench, Georges Niang created some drama with Simmons. After Simmons was called for traveling under close defense by Niang, the sharpshooter got the Sixers in Simmons’ face, prompting a shove back that the officials deemed worthy of a technical.
While that moment likely felt like a personal victory for Niang, the Nets kept scoring at a high rate and trimmed the Sixers’ lead to six points on a Markieff Morris jumper over Harden. Tobias Harris eased that immediate concern by scoring five straight points (a hard jumper and a one-and-one layup) against Watanabe and Maxey sank a three … but Brooklyn then responded with an 8-0 run of its own. Stops were generally sparse for both teams.
The Sixers aided the Nets’ comeback effort by having frequent defensive breakdowns and becoming intentional offensively. Brooklyn’s zone didn’t affect the Sixers deeply, but it contributed to the team’s reliance on jumpers and playing at an unnecessarily reduced pace. Curry’s seventh three-pointer erased a Nets deficit as high as 17 points, tying the contest at 120-all. Harden then passed a catch-and-shoot look and was whistled for travel. The Sixers appeared to be on the verge of collapse.
At that point, the game essentially turned into a shootout. Harden made two consecutive threes, Irving scored a spectacular late layup and offense continued to rule the night. The Sixers ultimately got the win thanks to a couple of plays unrelated to shotmaking. Harris played strong isolation defense on Curry to force an aerial ball, then ran the floor hard and scored in transition by tipping his own miss. Melton grabbed an offensive board before kicking the ball out to Maxey for a three that put the Sixers ahead 131-124.
Despite allowing the Nets to shoot 64.5 percent from the floor and 53.8 percent from three-point range, the Sixers won.