The clock has just struck midnight on the East Coast. The Sixers are beginning their road trip out west, and things are off to a bad start. There are five minutes left in the third quarter, and the Portland Trail Blazers lead the Sixers 93-72, a 21-point lead. Joel Embiid is out due to suspension, Ben Simmons is turning in his worst performance of the season, and Damian Lillard is making shots from all over the floor. A recipe for disaster.
By now, we all know what happened next: the Sixers stormed back from the massive deficit and won, a remarkable win punctuated by a game-winner from Furkan Korkmaz that we will remember for a very long time.
But how did they get in position to steal a game and remain the NBA’s only undefeated team? After rewatching the game, here are the eight plays I found to be most crucial to the comeback.
Play #1: 1:50 left in the 3rd Quarter, Sixers trail 83-100.
Last night was one of the most impressive wins Brett Brown has had in his Sixers tenure. With one star out and another struggling mightily, Brown needed to push the right buttons in every instance. And, at least down the stretch, he did.
The first pivotal adjustment came when Raul Neto was inserted into the game. In a very short stint in Detroit last week, Neto showed that he can make some winning plays. Last night, he was called on in a big spot, and boy did he deliver. Neto displayed all of the traits that led me to believe that he would eventually find a spot in Brown’s rotation. This play stood out the most — Neto sees that Skal Labissiere is looking to hit a back-door cutter, beats the ball to the spot for the steal, and it results in a transition three for Mike Scott. This cut the lead to 14, and helped kickstart a run that the Sixers needed to end the third quarter.
Play #2: 9:15 left in the 4th Quarter, Sixers trail 107-102.
Once again, a source of crucial offense for the Sixers is their hounding defense. (This will happen again later.) The obvious attraction here is Neto’s acrobatic finish, which he deserves a ton of credit for, but don’t forget about James Ennis III, who enabled transition offense with this steal, and had a fantastic performance on that end of the floor.
Play #3: 6:06 left in the 4th Quarter, Sixers trail 115-108.
When Kent Bazemore knocked down a triple with six and a half minutes left in the game, I mentioned on the Liberty Ballers Twitter account that it felt as if every time the Sixers had made a breakthrough in chopping down the lead, the Blazers would shut down any hopes and nail a three. The Sixers had just cut the lead to four, and Bazemore made it a three-possession game. But this time, the Sixers got those points back immediately, courtesy of the rookie Matisse Thybulle, who had his quietest game of the young season. After a drive from Simmons and a wise swing pass from Kyle O’Quinn, Thybulle nailed his only three of the night to cut the lead back down to four.
Play #4: 4:02 left in the 4th Quarter, Sixers trail 121-115.
In a similar situation, the Sixers found themselves on the ropes here. Time was running out and they could no longer go blow-for-blow with Portland, they had to take over. That started with Josh Richardson, who struggled offensively in the first half but turned it around after intermission, scoring 15 second half points. The biggest three points were right here — not only was it a tough shot, but it came in a possession where the Sixers were failing to generate any good looks. In order to pull off comebacks like these, you need some luck in the form of difficult shots going in. The Sixers got that from Richardson here.
Play #5: 2:27 left in the 4th Quarter, Sixers trail 120-125.
Once again, the Sixers’ offense that is at times inconsistent and lagging is helped out by their monstrous defense. Simmons, who was noticeably too eager to gamble for steals throughout the game, came up large here, stalking Lillard, prying the ball loose and immediately leaking out to receive a Richardson assist for a dunk. I continue to marvel that Simmons is as versatile of a defensive player as he has become — capable of defending players like Lillard and Trae Young while also spending a seven-game playoff series checking Kawhi Leonard.
Play #6: 1:10 left in the 4th Quarter, Sixers trail 125-122.
When Media Day happened on September 30th, Tobias Harris told us that his primary focus over the summer was increasing his lateral quickness in order to better stick with smaller players as a defender. The Sixers have only played five games, but early returns are positive. While far from a stopper, Harris has been noticeably lighter on his feet. And other than Korkmaz’s game-winner, this stop might have been the most important play of the game for the Sixers. Harris cuts off three different attempts to get the basket by Lillard, who then throws the ball away for a turnover. This was the best defensive play I can remember Harris making since arriving in Philadelphia, and it came at the perfect time.
Play #7: 56 seconds left in the 4th Quarter, Sixers trail 125-122.
Al Horford is as malleable and as flexible as they come. After a stretch of games where he was mostly a background piece doing the little things and not taking shots, he ended up attempting a career high 24 shots last night. The Blazers had no true centers available, and Horford took advantage, asserting himself as a safety net for the Sixers offense. When they had to have a bucket with less than a minute to go, we saw a familiar site: Horford setting a screen, popping to the three-point line, blowing by the big attempting to recover and scoring at the basket. (Only this time, the big attempting to recover wasn’t Embiid.) Horford was huge for the half-court offense all night, leveraging his size against a depleted Portland team to the tune of 25 points.
And before we get to Korkmaz, Ben Simmons should be recognized for knocking down two free throws to give the Sixers the lead with 10 seconds left. That was a huge spot where he could have easily crumbled. Props to Simmons for coming through in that kind of situation.
Play #8: 2.2 seconds left in the 4th Quarter, Sixers trail 128-126.
POP THE KORK!!!
After a potentially game-winning three by Portland’s Anfernee Simons, it was Korkmaz of all people who saved the day. But he isn't the only one who deserves mentioning here: Brett Brown drew up a perfect play to win the game on a Korkmaz three that was wide open because of a phenomenal screen Horford set on Lillard.
As for Korkmaz, he has responded about as well as possible to all of the noise that came with many questioning his spot in the rotation. In a year from now, we will only remember him drilling this corner three, but tonight was the best defensive performance of Korkmaz’s career, drawing two charges and blocking a pair of shots. He also made a few impressive plays off the dribble. This two-game stretch has clearly been the best of his NBA career.
And that is how the Sixers outscored the Trail Blazers 57-35 over the last 17 minutes of action. Looking back, what stands out to me most is this — here are the Sixers who contributed to this set of plays:
- Raul Neto
- Mike Scott
- James Ennis III
- Matisse Thybulle
- Kyle O’Quinn
- Josh Richardson
- Ben Simmons
- Tobias Harris
- Al Horford
- Furkan Korkmaz
This list contains every single player who stepped on the floor last night for the Sixers. Every single one played some kind of role in marching back from down 21 points. This was a team win in every sense of the word.