PHILADELPHIA — Everything that is epitomizing what is going so right with the Philadelphia 76ers at the moment collided with the worst-case scenario for the team on Wednesday night.
Specifically, they butted heads at the top of the three-point arc in the second quarter.
What we should have been talking about in this space after the Sixers’ 118-101 victory over the New York Knicks is the stellar play of a team that has its first eight-game winning streak in 15 years. That will eventually come a few paragraphs further down, as the entire city of Philadelphia continues to hold its breath after center Joel Embiid, while trying to secure possession of a pass on the first play of the second quarter, was run into by rookie Markelle Fultz, a head-to-head collision that saw Embiid spin to the floor and stay on the ground for a few minutes while the Sixers medical staff examined the über-talented, yet oft-injured center.
Embiid was seen hunched over in the hallway as he walked towards the locker room, though the Sixers reported after the game that he passed concussion protocol and was taken to a local hospital as a precaution. At the moment of the incident, thousands of fans at Wells Fargo Center saw their spirits sink.
“My heart dropped, really, because I knew he hit me,” said Fultz when describing his initial reaction to the play and seeing Embiid on the floor. “[Embiid’s] a tough guy and I know he’s going to be OK. All I can do is pray for him.”
On the court, Philadelphia had to adjust, something it has been so used to doing with Embiid, along with many other players, missing a number of games due to injury. Many of those man games lost to injury belonged to Fultz, who just came back from shoulder rehab on Monday and, tonight, recorded seven assists and five rebounds to go with his three points. Dario Saric, who moved to the center spot, responded by scoring a game-high 26 points and grabbing 14 rebounds.
Late in the second quarter, Saric provided the play of the game, diving for a loose ball at halfcourt and, in the same motion, tapped the ball ahead to teammate Ben Simmons, who was all alone for a one-handed jam for a 64-61 lead with 57.3 seconds in the first half.
“Maybe I had a little more space,” said Saric describing how the game changed for him once Embiid exited the game. “Maybe I took a little more responsibility when Joel left. Obviously, I think all players share the responsibility…I know these guys…four, five, six months I know how they find their shots and try to play a game like that.”
Another big for the Sixers who stepped up in Embiid’s place was Richaun Holmes, as he had 15 points and seven rebounds in just under 22 minutes off the bench.
Philadelphia’s win extended its winning streak to eight, its longest since a nine-game winning streak in Feb. and Mar. of 2003, Larry Brown’s last season as head coach of the Sixers. And, like a number of Brown’s teams, it was defense that sealed the win for the Sixers, allowing just 38 points in the second half after the Sixers gave up 63 points in the first half and went into the locker room at halftime only up by four.
“I mean, the message has been consistent for whatever period of time, we’ve been coming out of okay first halves, but to their credit, they are coming out to mean it in third periods,” said Sixers head coach Brett Brown. “And you start going through the areas that we didn’t feel so good about in relation to our defense and trying to arrest those, with fouling too much as an example. I thought the guys locked in, the 38 points in the second half like you say confirms that as does the 17-point third period [by the Knicks]. We needed to have that mindset because individually, they really have capable scorers.”
New York, now one more loss away from its fourth consecutive 50-loss season, was led by Michael Beasley and reserve Emmanuel Mudiay, both scoring 22 points.
“The guys are playing hard, we just have to continue and execute and try to get after it defensively,” said Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek. “We have some home games, and we can win a few games. We’ve played well the six games prior to this, we won three of them, two of them we had chances to win at the end. The guys are playing hard. We have a lot of young guys giving us some minutes and just keep going at it.”