– by Adesina O. Koiki
A Lot of Sports Talk editor-in-chief
PHILADELPHIA — Lamenting a move that he did not want to make during what turned out to be yet another home-court victory, 76ers head coach Brett Brown resisted as long as he possibly could from reinserting Joel Embiid outside of his normal reentry point in the fourth quarter, succumbing to the pressure the Charlotte Hornets were exerting with each passing second in making Philadelphia’s once sizable lead completely disappear.
As it turned out, Brown’s decision came just in the nick of time; Embiid helped right the ship for the Sixers, scoring 16 fourth-quarter points, including twice tying the game in the final 35 seconds, on his way to 42 points as Philadelphia went on to secure a 133-132 overtime victory over Charlotte, the Sixers’ 17th-consecutive regular season home win dating back to March of last season.
“Last year, in the last-minute situations, I struggled a lot and I feel like this year I’ve been doing a better job,” said Embiid, who recorded his second 40-point game of this season and third of his career. “I still got a lot to show and still got a lot to improve on, so I’m excited.”
There was no struggling when the game was in the balance. Embiid also had 18 rebounds, four assists and four blocks, but most of his damage tonight came from the foul line, hitting 19 of 22 free throws, including two free throws with 25.9 seconds left in the fourth to force overtime. Before the free throws, Embiid drained a straight-away three-pointer to tie the game at 117.
Who knows if the Sixers would have come away from the game without egg on their faces if Brown decided to stick to his guns and put Embiid in one minute later, as the Hornets had already made a 21-point first-half deficit evaporate, taking a 105-104 lead with just over six minutes left in the fourth.
“I brought him back probably 45 seconds, maybe a minute earlier than I would normally, in that fourth period,” said Brown. “Then, you know, you get into overtime and you do what we do. But no, I wish I didn’t have to play him that many minutes.”
In the overtime, both Embiid and Ben Simmons scored five points, with a couple of finishes inside by Simmons off drives to the basket keeping the Hornets at bay.
“I think we’ve been in situations like that multiple times, the five we had out there had been in that situation, so we don’t really stress too much,” said Simmons, who finished 22 points, 13 assists and eight rebounds. “Don’t panic, stay calm and take care of the ball and play our game.”
Panic could have been an accurate description of what the Sixers were experiencing as Hornets guard Kemba Walker, one of the best late-game performers in the league, took over the game and almost singlehandedly carried the Hornets to victory, scoring 19 fourth-quarter points as he continually drove to the basket for layups or set up long-range jump shots with elusive crossover moves.
“I’m just playing the game. Like I said I’m just a competitor, and that’s it,” said Walker, who finished 30 points and nine assists. “My teammates looked to me a lot of the times, to make plays, and that’s just what I was trying to do down the stretch.”
Walker had a chance to win the game in regulation, but his runner in the lane came up nothing but air with less than a second remaining.
Along with the awakening of Walker, who missed part of the first half with back tightness, the Sixers allowed the Hornets back into the game when it went over five minutes in the fourth quarter without a field goal. Worse yet, Philadelphia’s 16 turnovers in regulation led to 30 points off of those turnovers for Charlotte.
“If you look at the 35-point third period [for the Hornets], I think they had six or seven threes in that period,” Brown said. “When we spoke at the start of the game, we all came in and said,’What is it?’ It’s the three-point line, some offensive rebounding and Kemba. They put points up, they are hard to guard, and he’s really hard to guard.”
Brown’s dilemma putting in Embiid in the fourth when he did also stemmed from the fact that tonight is the first of a back-to-back, with the Sixers playing in Memphis tomorrow evening. Rarely playing in both games of a back-to-back last season after being nursed back from multiple injuries, Embiid almost implored that those limitations need not apply to this season.
“We waited two and a half years for this. I’m excited. I love it,” Embiid said. “If these guys ever tell me to take a game off I might kill them. I love it. I mean, this situation, I worked hard for it. The whole summer was about basketball, improving and working on my body. I’m still not right there, the conditioning is still getting better, but I still got a lot to give.”