In Review | Undermanned, Simmons, Frontcourt Rotation Fight On

by Brian Seltzer
Sixers.com Reporter

Snapshot:

NEW ORLEANS, LA - On the second day of a gruelling back-to-back, a thousand miles away from where they played the night before, and another thousand from where they’d be headed immediately afterwards, the 76ers initially thought they’d have their leading scorer and rebounder back in the mix.

Moments before tip-off, it was announced Joel Embiid was unavailable, due to tightness in his back. This development was, of course, noteworthy, but even moreso because of the opponent the Sixers were playing.

The New Orleans Pelicans boast Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins, a pair of All-Star big men currently ranked among the NBA’s top 10 in both scoring and rebounding.

To the credit of the frontcourt personnel the Sixers had at their disposal Sunday, and their high-impact rookie, they were able to battle New Orleans toe-to-toe. It wasn’t until the home stretch of the fourth quarter that the Pels tightened their grip, thanks to a tandem of backcourt vets.

With Rajon Rondo (13 pts, 18 ast) at the controls, and Jrue Holiday (34 pts, 5-8 3fg) scoring inside and out, New Orleans pulled away for a 131-124 victory at Smoothie King Center. They got plenty of help from Davis and Cousins, who went for 29 points and 8 rebounds, and 23 points and 9 boards, respectively.

Brett Brown was proud that his team didn’t roll over, as he put it. It was a group that, in addition to Embiid, was missing Robert Covington and T.J. McConnell as well.  

“You got to fight, you really got to fight,” said the fifth-year head coach. “I thought we fought the night before in Cleveland, I thought we came out tonight and fought. We got ourselves back in it. But closing out games on the road is always difficult. It’s especially difficult with DeMarcus, Anthony Davis, and Jrue.”

Back in the state where he played his college ball, Ben Simmons matched the second-highest output of his career, with 27 points (10-16 fg, 7-9 ft). A steady slam-dunking force for which New Orleans had no response, the Aussie also handed out 10 assists, for his third consecutive double-double, and 15th overall this year. He pulled down 5 rebounds, too.

The Pelicans’ 44-point fourth quarter, fueled by Holiday catching fire late, resulted in the Sixers’ fourth straight loss.

“It’s tough, but we got to just come together as a team to get through it,” Simmons said.

At the half Sunday, the Sixers were in a difficult spot. New Orleans had summoned up a swift 11-2 blitz to take a then game-high 11-point lead into the locker room.

Not too long after the third quarter began, the visitors found themselves suddenly reinvigorated, due largely to the contributions that came from a front line absent Embiid.

Amir Johnson, who started in place of the Cameroonian, lit the fuse for the resurgent spurt, at one point muscling out 8 points in a row. Just like that, the Sixers were back in it. Johnson felt that Dario Saric, the Sixers’ other frontcourt starter Sunday, was responsible for getting him going. 

“Dario was making great passes on the [defensive] switches, when they went to double-team,” Johnson said. “I was able to just find open spots. I was able to keep shots alive, and get some tip-ins.”

A deep, 30-plus foot straightaway three from JJ Redick, who posted a team-best 28 points (8-14 fg, 3-7 3fg, 9-9 ft), vaulted the Sixers in front, 71-70. From there, back-up bigs Trevor Booker and Richaun Holmes took the baton, helping stake their squad to a 95-87 advantage entering the fourth.

Booker, in just his second outing since being acquired Thursday in a trade with the Brooklyn Nets, again offered a physical, active presence around the rim, on each on the court, much like he did the previous evening in Cleveland.

Upon subbing in with five minutes to go in the third quarter, and the Sixers down two, Booker snapped off 7 points in a row. The 30-year old ended the night with 16 points (5-9 fg, 0-1 3fg, 6-7 ft), and 9 caroms in 24 minutes.

Holmes, meanwhile, pumped out 12 points (6-11 fg), and grabbed 9 rebounds of his own.

“I think we had great ball movement,” Booker said, as he looked back on a third quarter the Sixers won convincingly, 40-21. “We got stops on defense, and that led to some easy baskets that got us going. [We] got our confidence up, and we just took off.”

“I thought that they were fantastic,” Brown said, referring to the rotations of Saric and Booker at the four position, and Johnson and Holmes at the five. “I thought they played with tremendous spirit, and tremendous energy. We were able to spin them around quite well.”

The Sixers were ahead 103-96 early in the fourth, after Redick drew a foul from behind the arc, and sunk all his free throws. Then, Holiday seized the moment.

The former Sixer scored 5 points in a row to force a 103-103 tie, before giving New Orleans the lead for good on a 3-pointer at 108-105. He followed that up by sandwiching two more treys around an Anthony Davis 3-pointer. The Pelican’s pad stood at 125-114 with three minutes to go. There wasn’t enough time left.

Holiday went for 19 points in the fourth quarter, connecting on 5 of 6 3-point heaves. New Orleans sunk 16 of its 21 attempts in the frame, while going 8 for 10 from distance.

“The end result was a massive fourth period after a pretty good third period by us, trying to fight back in it,” said Brown.

Saric routinely injects the Sixers with such a spirit, and on Sunday, provided a productive two-way showing of his own. He finished with 13 points and 11 rebounds for his fifth double-double, and was critical to the Sixers’ sound collecting rebounding performance.

The Sixers outdid New Orleans on the glass, 47-33, leading to 16 extra shots. The Sixers also established edges of 60-44 in points in the paint, and 20-7 in second-chance points.

With a roster Sunday supremely undermanned, rookie Furkan Korkmaz was thrust into extended duty. He logged 19 minutes, his highest total in now six NBA appearances. His 5 points consisted of a 3-pointer, and a nice runout reverse jam.

Sixers Social:

It was especially the time Sunday for Furkan Korkmaz to be thrust into an expanded bench role, given how undermanned the Sixers were. The 20-year old rookie swing man held his own, even getting a chance in the third quarter to show off his athleticism in the open court.

Up Next:

After a brief stop in the Big Easy, the Sixers head north along the Mississippi River corridor to Minneapolis, where their demanding 4-day, 3-game road trip comes to a close Tuesday against the Minnesota Timberwolves. Having endured 12 consecutive losing seasons, Minnesota has enjoyed an encouraging start to the year, sporting a 15-11 record entering Sunday’s pairing with the Dallas Mavericks. In his first campaign with the Timberwolves, three-time All-Star Jimmy Butler is averaging 18.9 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 4.8 assists per game.