By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)
Boston 116, Philadelphia 108 – Box Score
Despite riding a 3-game winning streak, there were a lot of negative vibes surrounding the Philadelphia 76ers organization entering play Wednesday night. There was the Jahlil Okafor saga, with sources saying Bryan Colangelo (we’ll be polite and say) misread the market, thinking having Okafor stay at home would cause a deluge of offers. Those offers did not, because other GMs have access to game film, and Okafor was back with the team and on the court against the Celtics.
Then, we still are experiencing the blowback from Colangelo lying about the status of Joel Embiid’s injury situation. The news became official earlier Wednesday that he would be in attendance in New Orleans for All-Star weekend, but not participating in the Rising Stars game or Skills Challenge as originally slated.
Finally, Ben Simmons was recently announced to not be ready to play 5-on-5 in practice, ruling out a February 24th return that many fans had circled on their calendars. Brett Brown said the team fully expects Simmons on the court sometime this season, but considering the usual timeline for his injury would have had the first overall pick back a month ago, who knows what’s happening at this point.
All of which is to say that a win over the rival Celtics would have been really nice. Unfortunately, the King of the Fourth had other ideas.
Isaiah Thomas bobbed and weaved his way to 13 of his game-high 33 points in the 4th quarter, keeping the Sixers at bay in a contest that was close the entire game and Philadelphia led with as little as 8 minutes remaining. As you might expect, Thomas scored a quick 5 points when the dynamic defensive duo of Sergio Rodriguez and Jahlil Okafor were out there laying out the red carpet.
Brett Brown quickly adjusted and got the starters back in, but the play that stood out was Thomas splitting Robert Covington and Nerlens Noel out of the pick-and-roll and finishing a high lofting lay-in off the glass over Noel. Those are the Sixers two best defenders, and Thomas still found a crack to slip through and finish an incredibly difficult shot. He’s a worthy All-Star this season and he earned his team the victory Wednesday night.
The Sixers mainly hung around thanks to another strong performance from Rookie of the Year dark horse, Dario Saric. Saric recorded his 2nd straight double-double with 20 points and 11 rebounds. Over his last 5 games, he’s shooting 52.6% from the field, 36.7% from three, and 90.1% from the foul line. If he has his shot falling, with all the other intangibles he provides on the court, the rookie goes from helpful role player, to borderline star-caliber. Given how tough the adjustment can be for foreign players to the NBA initially, this is all very encouraging.
Robert Covington played his usual terrific defense and hit 4 of 6 threes for 18 points. Slowly but surely, his three-point percentage on the season is creeping back up toward career norms, now at 32.7%. He did take a nasty spill into the bench area late in the game, laying on the floor for quite some time before leaving with what the team termed a head contusion. Hopefully, it doesn’t turn into a lingering concussion situation. The All-Star Break is coming at a good time for Rock.
One guy who doesn’t need the break is TJ McConnell, who had a career-high 5 steals and was a consistent source of offense yet again with 8 assists and 12 points, his 3rd-straight game scoring in double figures. TJ has filed a patent on the mid-range, fall-away jumper off a spin move, getting Al Horford on it for 2 points last night.
Meanwhile, the guy who may not be with the team when it next takes the floor is Jahlil Okafor. He had his usual defensive breakdowns, but also showed very good hustle and awareness on a handful of rotations, also recording 3 blocks in the process. There was one play where he correctly hedged the pick-and-roll, recovered out to his man at the three-point line, and then showed good help-side awareness to come over and block Terry Rozier at the rim. It showed that somewhere in there, Okafor can do it. I hope some other team agrees and gives up enough of a package for Colangelo to pull the trigger.
In closing, I’m fully on the Marcus Smart is a punk bandwagon. Smart had 8 steals, many of which come because, for some reason, referees believe he’s the only player on the floor allowed to club people without a whistle being blown. But the final straw for me was in the final minute of the game when Smart twice pushed himself into Gerald Henderson, and then stumbled backward in a pseudo-flop as if Henderson had initiated the contact. The ref somehow called the foul on Henderson who was so incensed that he quickly earned a double-technical and was ejected from the game.
It kind of feels right to have a Boston villain to root against. I can’t wait for the next time these rivals clash. Enjoy the All-Star break, everyone.