PHILADELPHIA — Though the Philadelphia 76ers fans were almost at a fever pitch from the start of the game, and the team responded by building a double-digit lead early in the game, it seemed like, through certain patches of the game, the team was going through the motions against an undermanned Utah Jazz side that they felt like they could beat handily. It’s a good thing then that the Sixers’ bench came out swinging from the second those players came on the court to preserve Philadelphia’s near wire-to-wire victory.
Showing off the team’s incredible depth, big man Amir Johnson had eight points and 13 rebounds while guard T.J. McConnell played admirably at the point when Ben Simmons got into early foul trouble to help the Sixers build an 11-point halftime lead before defeating the Jazz 107-86 at Wells Fargo Center. At the very end, Philadelphia’s stars were just that: Simmons had 27 points – 22 of those in the second half – along with 10 rebounds and four steals while Joel Embiid had another double-double with 15 points, 11 rebounds, three assists and two blocks, while also playing a lead role in a late-game skirmish. (More on that later.)
However, it was Johnson and McConnell who set up those heroics while coming off the bench. Johnson, in less than 10 minutes of floor time in the first half, had six points and nine rebounds, making the absence of the minutes-limited Embiid minimal while helping the Sixers’ continuity on offense.
“We have a tradition we’re trying to grow here, we have a bell in the back there, a liberty bell, and every time we win somebody’s going to go ring the bell and Amir [Johnson] was the bell ringer today,” said Sixers head coach Brett Brown. “He was great. I thought his rim protection and with Joel on sort of a limited type of role, we were unsure if [Embiid] was going to play. [Johnson] was great, but to your point, the bench really helped us tonight.”
McConnell’s contributions to the game were harder to predict coming in, especially since another Sixers point guard, Jerryd Bayless, was active for the first time after missing six games due to a wrist injury. When Simmons picked up two fouls in the first five minutes of the contest, Brown went with McConnell, and all he did was score eight first-quarter points. In the first half, the Sixers were a plus-16 in the 16:51 of action McConnell had on the floor.
“We’re always in a decision, especially now that we have Jerryd back,” Brown said to A Lot of Sports Talk when describing the rotation decisions now that McConnell and Bayless are both on the bench as options. “I felt way more flexible than I did last game with eight [players]. Nine players makes a world of difference. But then you get to the rhythm beat of T.J. Ben could go to a four, because T.J. was doing so well. Then it’s like do you want Jerryd Bayless or T.J.? And I think because Jerryd hasn’t played for so long, we opted to go with T.J., and his performance in the first half, especially, made that decision a lot more clear.”
What also was clear was the game plan for the Sixers at the outset: penetrate to the basket and use post-ups to take advantage of the absence of All-NBA defender and Jazz center Rudy Gobert, out with a leg contusion. Though the Sixers won two weeks ago in Salt Lake City, and did so without the services of Embiid, Gobert was able to patrol the lane with 16 points, 15 rebounds (six offensive), three blocked shots and two steals. Without Gobert, and with Embiid back in the lineup, it was a no-brainer for Philadelphia to establish itself in the paint.
“First off we didn’t have Jo [Embiid] when we played them,” said Simmons. “He’s a great player, he can make shots and rebound the ball. Obviously with him out, it makes it easy for us to go inside.”
Simmons did just that during his 22-point second half, and, in the fourth quarter, he scored three quick baskets in succession on either post-ups or drives to the basket to stretch the Sixers’ lead out again after the Jazz had made an 18-9 run to end the third quarter.
“Staying aggressive and finishing around the rim, we had to go in there and try and score,” Simmons said.
Simmons provided the finishing touch, but it was Embiid who brought the house down with a monster block on a drive to the basket by Jazz rookie guard Donovan Mitchell late in the fourth, sending Mitchell to the floor. Embiid directed some choice words at Mitchell while he was on the floor after the block, then Mitchell, after getting up, shoved Embiid down, drawing a technical foul.
Embiid, while on the ground, made the signal for a technical foul, then implored the Sixers faithful to make noise as he got up. The crowd responded, belting out a loud “Trust The Process” chant. About a minute later, Embiid scored while being fouled and once again played to the crowd with his youthful theatrics that have quickly endeared himself to this city.
Embiid felt that, while his team was playing with the lead for the majority of the game, he personally did not have the fire that he had when the Sixers played against the Golden State Warriors on Saturday.
“I mean, I fell and the whole game I was kind of flat,” said Embiid. “I wasn’t having fun. I was just going through the motions, but I needed that, too. If the game was close, it was going to help me at the end. But the game was saved by then.”
For his part, Jazz head coach Quin Snyder did not make too much of the interaction between Mitchell and Embiid.
“It’s just basketball,” said Snyder. “Donovan went in and Joel said something and Donovan responded. I don’t make anything of it one way or another. He said something to him and Donovan responded and I don’t know what he said, I don’t think it really matters. It was such an inconsequential play in my mind. You have two guys that are really good players, and Joel is one of the better players in the league and he’s competing and Donovan reacted, he’s a competitor too. That was not a big deal to me.”
Mitchell ended up leading four Jazz players in double figures with 17 points.
Philadelphia continues its home stand on Wednesday when they welcome the Portland Trail Blazers.