PHILADELPHIA,PA - JANUARY 3 : Ben Simmons #25 of the Philadelphia 76ers dribbles up court against the San Antonio Spurs at Wells Fargo Center on January 3, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

In Review | Key Factors Combine to Break Long Streak vs Spurs

by Brian Seltzer Reporter


PHILADELPHIA, PA - In their first appearance of the new year, the 76ers were presented with an opportunity to start fresh, and that’s precisely what they did.

With their dynamic rookie point man turning in another strong finish, and dominant 7-footer summoning up a “gutsy” showing, the Sixers wiped the slate clean Wednesday, and knocked off the San Antonio Spurs for the first time in 13 tries.

Netting 11 of his team-best 26 points (8-18 fg, 10-15 ft) in the fourth quarter, Ben Simmons helped guide the Sixers to their third consecutive victory, 112-106, and fourth in their last five games. The Aussie was tested from the foul line late, and stepped up to sink four of his final five attempts, all crucial to keeping the Spurs at bay.

Joel Embiid, meanwhile, was thought not to be available up until about a half hour before tip-off. The center sustained a sprained right hand Sunday in Phoenix, and was officially listed as doubtful for Wednesday’s match-up with perennial Western Conference power San Antonio.

Following his pre-game warm-up routine, Embiid reported he felt good enough to play, and so he did. As has most often been the case the past two years, when the Cameroonian is on the court, he makes his presence felt. Wednesday was no different.

By the end of the first quarter, Embiid had blocked four shots. He finished with 21 points (6-12 fg, 0-2 3fg, 9-11 ft), 11 rebounds, 4 assists, and a plus-19 rating.

The extent of his involvement and impact seemed to surprise his head coach.

“It was completely unexpected,” said Brett Brown, when asked during his post-game press conference about whether he thought Embiid would play Wednesday. “I give him a lot of credit for playing through complete pain, and trying to play in front of the Philadelphia fans, and help his teammates.”

There was another, noteworthy motivating factor at work, too, apparently.

Embiid said, yes, he loves his team, and didn’t want “to quit on them.” But then he added this:

“I also wanted to give Coach his first win against his former team, and we did that for him.”

As part of the Sixers’ organizational losing streak to the Spurs, Brown had come up empty in eight previous meetings with the franchise that employed him as an assistant prior to his move to Philadelphia. Brown spent 12 seasons under Gregg Popovich, and enjoyed three championship campaigns during that stretch.

With a big picture perspective in mind, Popovich even sounded like he could live with Wednesday’s outcome, given its context, with a good friend on the opposite side.

“You like to win,” said Popovich, “but the loss doesn’t hurt as much. You’re kind of happy for the other guy. It was good to see him.”

Would the Sixers have been able to hold on versus San Antonio had it not been for Simmons’ late-game contributions? Hard to say for sure, but what was obvious was that after LaMarcus Aldridge (24 pts, 14 reb) tapped in a put-back to give the Spurs a 103-101 advantage, Simmons rose to the occasion.

He sunk two free throws to even the ledger at 103-103, then drew a foul and was awarded a basket on a goaltending call. The successful 3-point play vaulted the Sixers back ahead, 106-103, with 100 seconds left.

On the heels of JJ Redick’s timely 20-foot jumper making the score 108-104, the Sixers situated Simmons for his, and perhaps the team’s, signature play of the night. Out of a timeout, he passed the ball to Robert Covington in the mid-post, then peeled around to the top of the key, before cutting hard to the hoop.

Covington timed the ensuing feed perfectly, and Simmons unleashed punishment on the rim.

Brown was particularly impressed with Simmons’ performance at the foul line when the stakes were at their highest. The Louisiana State product converted each of his last three shots.

“That in itself is a huge win for me when he gets back to the line,” said Brown, noting Simmons averaged almost double-digit free throw attempts in college. “It’s a mentality more than it is a skill, and that mentality of him attacking the basket, and going to the free throw line, then growing the confidence...that’s a hell of a package.”

Two of the trips Simmons took to the line resulted from deliberate fouls committed by San Antonio. Simmons thoughts?

“Free shots,” he said matter-of-factly. “That’s about it.”

For as much of a lasting imprint as Simmons left in Wednesday’s win, he was also responsible for setting the tone for the contest, and catalyzing the Sixers’ spirited start. Amidst a 9-0 blitz that staked the club to a quick 15-6 advantage, Simmons deposited a pair of driving lay-ups, and added an assist, steal, and block.

The Sixers’ momentum carried into the second period, thanks to a spurt of 8 straight points that widened the gap to double-figures. Helping the Sixers’ cause in the first half was that their defense forced the Spurs into 10 turnovers by the break. Off those miscues, the Sixers scored 15 points, en route to a 60-49 edge.

Up a game-high 16 points two minutes into the second half, the Sixers watched the lay of the land change. San Antonio cut the deficit to 88-84 after three quarters, thanks to a flurry from Patty Mills (26 pts, 4 3fgm), and later managed to jump in front down the stretch behind a push fueled by Aldridge.

In the end, Embiid’s steadiness on an evening he wasn’t at 100 percent, and Simmons’ second straight 11-point fourth quarter positioned the Sixers, and Brown, for a nice triumph over a respected opponent.

“It’s a program I have tremendous fondness and respect for,” Brown said of San Antonio. “I still communicate with those guys. It’s a team that didn’t have their full strength roster, but in my eyes, it’s still the San Antonio Spurs. The system moves through the league...the system wins games in the regular season. You can put in whoever you want - they’re still going to play, compete, and be organized. From that perspective, the win is satisfying.”

Wednesday, the Spurs were without Rudy Gay (right heel bursitis), Manu Ginobili (rest), Danny Green (tightness, left groin), Kawhi Leonard (return from injury management) and Tony Parker (return from injury management).

Sixers Social:

Amidst a career-first stretch during which he registered three straight 20-point games heading into Wednesday’s pairing with San Antonio, Dario Saric understandably was getting a lot of attention for his scoring. This second quarter sequence against the Spurs offered a reminder that the second-year Croatian’s game has a lot to offer.

Up Next:

The Sixers will continue their current stretch of four consecutive home games Friday with a date against the Detroit Pistons. Halfway through their four-game season series with Detroit, the Sixers have had the Pistons’ number, having posted victories of 97-86 and 108-103 on October 23rd and December 2nd, respectively. As of Wednesday, Detroit held the fourth-place spot in the Eastern Conference standings. Stan Van Gundy’s group has won six of its last eight contests, a solid recovery following a season-long seven-game losing streak.