First came one block.
Then another. And another after that, followed by three more.
That the 76ers (18-9) were the beneficiaries of tremendous rim protection with a game on the line is hardly a surprise.
What was an impressive plot twist was that the club kept turning Detroit (13-10) away while Joel Embiid was watching from the bench.
With their 7-foot Defensive Player of the Year candidate missing in action for the first time this season (rest), the Sixers still managed to tighten the screws when it mattered most, overcoming the Pistons, 117-111, at Little Caesars Arena.
The turning point of Friday’s tilt came midway through the fourth quarter, when the Sixers held Detroit scoreless for five minutes.
The result for the Sixers was 13 straight points, allowing them to seize control of a contest that, at one point early in the second half saw them trail by as many as 15 points.
Given the circumstances, Brett Brown considered the win the best of the Sixers’ 18 on the year.
“Just a fantastic team effort, team commitment,” said Brown. “The fact that there was a genuine inner belief that we could claw our way back into this and find a way to win in and of itself is a tremendous statement.”
Mike Muscala, who logged 29 minutes off the bench in Embiid’s absence, was one of the driving forces behind the Sixers’ comeback. During their decisive run, he accounted for three of his team’s six blocks, assisted on a JJ Redick 3-pointer that gave the Sixers the lead for good, and nailed a triple of his own.
Muscala’s 18 points were one shy of his season high, while his four threes matched his top total of the year.
“I’m super proud of our guys in the second half, just coming together and having each other’s backs,” Muscala said.
Equaling his output from Wednesday’s stop in Toronto, Jimmy Butler paced all players Friday with 38 points (13-27 fg, 11-12 fg). It marked the first time in Butler’s eight-year career he scored that many points in consecutive games.
Butler added six rebounds, six assists, and three steals as well. Along with Ben Simmons (18 pts, 14 reb, 6 ast, 3 blk) and Wilson Chandler (10 pts, 8 reb, 2 stl, 3 blk), he helped form the backbone of the Sixers’ crucial late-game defensive performance.
“We got a lot of heart,” said Simmons. “We fought back. I thought we played together as a team tonight. That’s what really stuck out to me.”
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Chandler’s Contributions Recognized
There were several candidates Friday worthy of ringing the Sixers’ locker room victory bell.
Jimmy Butler not only went for another big scoring night, but competed with an inspired defensive spirit throughout the game.
Ben Simmons was aggressive from the jump, providing leadership through his own determined two-way play.
And then there was Mike Muscala, who stepped when his team needed quality production from the five spot.
But the player Brett Brown ultimately selected for the latest rendition of the Sixers’ post-game ritual was Wilson Chandler.
The veteran forward posted 10 points (4-5 fg, 2-3 3fg) and eight rebounds in 37 minutes; however, the statistic most telling of his influence on Friday’s game was his plus-23 rating.
Chandler was also tasked with the challenge of providing the bulk of the primary defensive coverage on Blake Griffin, who combined for 88 points in the first two meetings of the season between the Sixers and Pistons.
While Griffin finished Friday with 31 points, Chandler and the Sixers made the All-Star work, especially in the second half.
Griffin was forced to do most of his scoring from the foul line, where he converted 17 of a career-high 24 attempts.
“[Chandler] is an adult in the room,” Brown said. “He is a man, he’s been in the league for a while. There is a physicality I respect. He’s a prideful teammate. He’s always in a very sort of humble way wanting to please and fit in and do the right thing. I’m happy for him he had such an impact on this particular game.”
Friday was Chandler’s first ringing of the bell. He was acquired via a trade with Denver in the off-season.
“It meant a lot, Coach recognizing I was playing hard,” said Chandler, “but anybody could have rung the bell tonight. I was happy it was me.”
Publicly, the 31-year old Chandler projects a mostly even-keeled, steady demeanor.
Inside the locker room, though, he’s earned the respect of teammates by having a caring, upbeat personality.
Moose Lets Loose
Like Wilson Chandler, Mike Muscala drew rave reviews from fellow Sixers and Brett Brown alike.
“Early on, I think his competitiveness was there,” said Ben Simmons. “The physicality really picked up with him.”
No more so than during the Sixers’ game-changing 13-0 fourth-quarter spurt. In the span of about 90 seconds, Muscala blocked one shot by Bruce Brown, and two more from Reggie Jackson.
Sandwiched in between the Jackson swats was a 3-pointer that made it 108-100, and further swung momentum in the Sixers’ favor.
“I thought defensively, at the end of the game, I thought he was excellent,” Brown said of Muscala’s showing. “We needed it all.”
“It’s a good come-from-behind win,” said Muscala. “We play them again Monday, so we’ll watch some film, and get ready for another battle.”
Heading Home With a Boost
Following a tough loss Wednesday in Toronto, 113-102, the Sixers – minus their top scorer and rebounder – dug deep Friday, and pushed through for an important win.
With the victory, the Sixers earned a split of a difficult trip, and also wedged an extra game between themselves and the Pistons in the Eastern Conference standings.
“It’s huge,” said Wilson Chandler. “We’re missing a guy who’s averaging almost 30 points, who’s our best defender. So it’s huge to come here, without him, after losing to the Raptors, it’s huge to get this win on the road against a good team.”
Jimmy Butler’s another veteran who understands how fragile momentum can be, especially in the context of an NBA season.
“I always tell everybody, you can’t get to high, you can’t get to low, you got to stay right there in the middle. I think we’ve been ok staying right there in the middle – working, studying, and wanting to win. As long as we keep that up, we’ll be fine.”
T.J. with the push, Jimmy with the punch.
The Sixers will be idle Saturday and Sunday, but when they return to action Monday at The Center, they’ll find themselves facing the Detroit Pistons once again. It’ll be the fourth and final meeting of the season between the Eastern Conference foes, and also mark the start of the Sixers’ third three-game homestand in the last three weeks.