In Review | Collective Second Half Effort Keys Mile High Victory
The mission for the 76ers in the final days of an uneven month has been to focus on arresting costly runs mounted by the opposition. Difficulty doing so, specifically in second halves, has formed the basis of the club’s achilles heel lately.
5,280 feet above sea level Saturday, the Sixers were forced to confront their bugaboo head on, again.
This time, they stared the challenge right in the face, stiffened, reversed course, and emerged from Pepsi Center with an impressive 107-102 victory over the Denver Nuggets.
On a night they were without Joel Embiid (rest; load management), the Sixers turned in a balanced “team” effort. Six players reached double-figures, as the Sixers managed to overcome a 14-point third-quarter deficit by piecing together a massive 33-8 tear that turned Saturday’s tilt in their favor.
Dario Saric paced the Sixers with 20 points (6-15 fg, 3-7 3fg, 5-5 ft), and was instrumental in keying the game-changing second-half surge. It was Jerryd Bayless, though, who rose to the occasion as the big run reached its peak.
The veteran guard scored all 14 of his points in a furious four-minute flurry that linked the third and fourth periods, including the first 8 points of the final frame. He capped his unconscious burst with a 3-pointer that gave the Sixers a 91-80 edge, and made their bumpy start to Saturday’s second stanza seem like a distant memory.
“It was sort of done with an unlikely crew, and that’s the reason you have a team,” Brown said of Saturday’s successful comeback, which yielded the Sixers’ second win in three tries.
In addition to Saric and Bayless, there were a few other players who turned in key performances. T.J. McConnell was masterful off the bench, posting 10 points (5-9 fg, 0-2 3fg) and 8 assists in 25 minutes. His fingerprints were all over the Sixers’ third-quarter outburst, with 6 of his helpers coming during that stretch.
Richaun Holmes came off the bench to provide 14 points (6-12 fg) in 19 minutes, while Robert Covington, with 15 points (6-11 fg, 1-6 3fg) and 10 boards, notched his third double-double of the season.
Covington’s clutch free throws with 19.5 seconds to play, followed moments later by a transition dunk with 4.2 seconds left, ensured that the Sixers would leave the Rockies with a coveted triumph in hand.
Also leaving a lasting impression Saturday was the Sixers’ late-game defense. They held Denver to 28.6 percent shooting in the second half, after the Nuggets hit 52.2 percent of their first-half shots, and were especially punishing inside, to the tune of 38 points.
That the Sixers shored things up defensively - namely on the interior - was vital to Saturday’s turnaround, according to Brown.
“I thought that we responded,” said the fifth-year head coach. “I think our defense was elite. I think that we came down and we played decent offensive basketball, but I feel like our defense ultimately was the thing that put us in the shape we needed to be put in.”
Four and a half minutes into the third quarter, the Sixers found themselves in undesirable yet familiar territory. There was the opponent, in this instance Denver, working on a significant second-half run. The Nuggets rattled off 11 points to start the stanza, en route to opening up a 72-58 advantage.
Sensing that the Sixers were in a precarious spot, and in need of a spark, Brown made a series of substitutions. In came back-ups Bayless, Holmes, and McConnell, followed not too much later by Saric.
Saric quickly got to the foul line for two free throws, and proceeded to score the Sixers’ next seven points. Shortly after Saric’s spurt, which laid the groundwork for the Sixers’ third-quarter barrage, it was Bayless’ turn to step into the spotlight.
His alley-oop lay-up with just under three minutes to play in the third cut Denver’s lead to 76-75. Following a pair of missed free throws from Nuggets big man Miles Plumlee, Bayless nailed a go-ahead 19-footer. The Sixers fouled Plumlee again, and he again went 0 for 2 from the stripe.
The Sixers went back down the floor, and McConnell fed Bayless for a cutting lay-up. All of a sudden, the Sixers were in front three, 79-76.
The size of the margin would remain the same, 83-80, heading into Saturday’s fourth quarter, which Bayless began by sinking a 3-pointer. He then intercepted a Denver pass, and scored on a 10-foot fadeaway. The Nuggets came up empty on their ensuing possession, which set the stage for Bayless’ second triple in under 60 seconds.
Remarkably, the scoreboard showed Sixers 91, Denver 80.
The Nuggets called a timeout, and Bayless bounded back to the Sixers’ sideline full of energy.
“It was the right opportunity at the right time,” said Bayless, all business.
“That group in the third quarter just changed the game,” said JJ Redick, who notched 18 points (8-15 fg, 2-4 3fg).
A late push from Denver got the hosts back within three twice in the last minute, but the Sixers maintained their poise.
With the Sixers leading 105-102, it was Bayless who helped break backcourt pressure, his crosscourt pass to Saric paving the way for the Croatian to make a long outlet toss to Covington for the slam that punctuated a positive evening.
“It’s everybody stepping up,” said Ben Simmons, who finished with 6 points (3-9 fg), 6 rebounds, and 6 assists. “Everybody played a role, and that’s how we got to play.”
The Sixers were ahead, 31-29, after Saturday’s first quarter, before Denver’s steady attacks on the basket shifted momentum, and the score, in the Nuggets’ direction.
Helpful to the Sixers’ cause in the Mile High City was that they kept their turnovers down. The team’s 13 giveaways represented its lowest total in the month of December.
Now, the challenge becomes backing up Saturday’s performance with more steady play Sunday in Phoenix, in the finale of a five-game road trip.
“We are doing well right now,” said Saric. “I hope it continues in our next game.”
Key parteth, Ben Simmons pulverizeth. This powerful right-handed finish, of which Denver’s defenders appeared to want absolutely no part, came late in Saturday’s second quarter.
Ben. Jammin. pic.twitter.com/LG6e8m9gMV
— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) December 31, 2017
The Sixers’ final contest of 2017 will come in the Valley of the Sun, where Sunday they’ll aim to avenge a December 4th 115-101 home loss to the Phoenix Suns that, in hindsight, proved to the precursor for an up and down month. Third-year guard Devin Booker went off that night, erupting for 46 points, the second-highest output of his career. Several days later, the Kentucky product was diagnosed with a groin injury, but returned to action two games ago. Since then, he’s racked up 58 total points.