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RECAP: 76ers 97, Pistons 79

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Six wins! And before New Year’s!

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Detroit Pistons Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

In all fairness to Detroit, the Basketball Gods [NBA schedule] wasn’t exactly on its side tonight: the Pistons faced its fourth game in just six nights, while the Sixers felt crisp following a couple-days rest. But still: no Joel Embiid, no Sergio, no Nerlens (for the second half), Philly on the road — this was an incredibly winnable game for the Pistons.

But exhaustion wouldn’t relent for Detroit, as the Pistons — currently tied for most games played to this point at 25 — looked like an Ages 10-12 Basketball Camp squad for the most of the night. Its help defense was atrocious, allowing the Sixers to nail 56 percent of its shots from the floor, and Detroit players could barely even dribble the ball without coughing it up for much of the first half. Pistons center Andre Drummond looked worst of all: often mistaken for a defensive specialist, Drummond was torched by Jahlil Okafor (14 points, 6-9 from the field) when matched up together, and the 2016 all-star looked lethargic all night. Drummond, as a league-leading rebounder and elite pick-and-roll threat, is perhaps the worst matchup in the league for Okafor, but Jah had the upper-hand for much of the night.

But the real hero for the Sixers was T.J. McConnell, coming up just an assist short of his first career triple-double. McConnell has notched plenty more bad games than good this year and has regressed tremendously on defense, but kept Philly’s offense humming tonight as he whipped passes all over the court as the lone point guard. He’s likely not long for a roster spot in Philadelphia beyond this season with Ben Simmons, Sergio Rodriguez, and Jared Bayless in the fold, but a few more games like this may earn him a couple more years in the league.

And he had help from his teammates, of course: Nerlens Noel, finally back after missing the first 23 games with elective knee surgery, looked his old self before leaving the game with an ankle sprain during halftime; Ersan Illyasova and Robert Covington were both scorching out of the gate, combining for 12-21 from the field and 4-9 from beyond; Nik Stauskas and Hollis Thompson were nailing contested fadeaway jumpers. Literally nothing bounced the Pistons way Sunday night:

Of course, because the Sixers just can’t help themselves, Detroit finally managed to cut the lead down to single-digits with just a few minutes to go. But the biggest distinction between this Sixers squad and the Teams of Process Past is that it can not only hang around with goodish teams like Detroit, but even win in a relatively convincing fashion. We now somehow find ourselves with six wins halfway through December — and two without Embiid. Who would’ve thought?

Some notes:

  • Don’t look now, but Jahlil Okafor has nailed at least 50 percent of his shots in the last five games (that he’s played in), combining for a shocking 34-53 from the field over that stretch. Like Mike (or Spike, I already forget) mentioned on the last Ricky, Jah is much better when he plays within the flow of the offense rather than posting up and slowing everything down. For as much as his back-to-the-basket game was lauded coming out of Duke, his faceup game has, without question, been his best NBA skill thus far:

His defense is still nothing to write home about, but he also didn’t let Andre Drummond stomp all over him — progress! We need more of this Jahlil, with or without Embiid dressed to play.

  • Also don’t look now, but Robert Covington has gone 18-42 from deep (42.8 percent) from the field over his last seven games. It’ll take a while now for his 3-point percentage to recover after a horrid start, but he’s probably been the Sixers best or second-best two-way player over that small stretch.
  • This is the Sixers first back-to-back road wins since December 21 and 23rd, 2014 (h/t Dan Levy). Look at that!
  • Sorry, Stan, it’s the law: