PHILADELPHIA — After yet another slow start by the 76ers, Ben Simmons gave restless fans and a slumping team a needed reminder of just good they can become in the East.
Simmons had 21 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists, and turned the game around in the decisive third quarter to lift Philadelphia to a 113-92 win over the Atlanta Hawks on Monday night.
Simmons made 5 of 6 shots in the third and hit all five free throws for 15 points and helped the 76ers outscore Atlanta 31-13 in the third.
“I think we just needed a spark and I was able to provide that for the team,” he said. “I told the guys to keep running with me and I’ll find them.”
Without a major roster addition, the Sixers had played little like a team that won 52 games and a playoff round a year ago. Simmons and Joel Embiid have been solid and are making early cases for All-Star berths. But Philly’s distinguished duo had little help and the Sixers had won their last two games by one and two points, respectively, and needed this win just to move above .500 (4-3).
“I think everybody gets caught up in last season. This is a different team,” Simmons said.
Here’s how much expectations have soared in Philly: The Sixers were booed by fans, who showed nothing but love in the early days of “The Process,” as they trudged off the court tied at halftime.
Simmons turned everyone around.
“He has a second gear a lot of people in this league don’t have,” Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce said.
He got some help in the third from the oft-maligned Markelle Fultz. Fultz, desperately trying to join Simmons and Embiid as a cornerstone trio, had a sweet stretch during which he buried an open 3, crushed a one-handed dunk in transition and had an assist on an Embiid jumper for a 78-60 lead.
Fultz had season-highs with seven baskets (on 16 attempts) and 16 points in 23 minutes.
“I’m a great basketball player,” Fultz said. “I think I can do pretty much anything. I can pass the ball, I can pull up the 3, I can get to the rim. I just think I have an all-around game.”
That was enough to help send Atlanta to its second straight loss. Kent Bazemore led the Hawks with 18 points.
“We still had energy, but it’s their own court and they definitely fed off the energy from the crowd, made a few shots, and got on a few big runs,” Hawks guard Trae Young said. “We weren’t able to stop them.”
The Sixers aren’t much more than Embiid and Simmons and some needed 3s from JJ Redick. The Hawks sagged off Fultz most of the game and dared him to shoot jumpers. Dario Saric, one of the early parts of “The Process,” has seemingly lost his shot, much the same way Fultz did. Saric missed all seven shots in the first half (including four 3s) and finished 1 of 9 overall for four points.
“He looked heavy-legged to me,” coach Brett Brown said.
Hawks: The Hawks were outrebounded 64-47. … Hit just eight 3s. … Shot 37 percent from the floor.
76ers: Brown said Wilson Chandler’s return from an injured left hamstring is not far off. … Movie director M. Night Shyamalan was at the game. … Mike Muscala hit four 3s.
Pierce made a homecoming of sorts after spending five years on Brown’s staff with the Sixers. Pierce said he owed Brown so much for helping him become a head coach.
“He’s passionate. He’s got energy all the time,” Pierce said. “He cares about the players.”
Pierce said he’s kept in touch with Brown and former players who have wished him well in his new gig.
“These guys are happy I’m in the position that I’m in,” Pierce said.
Brown said having a coaching tree was one of the responsibilities of the job.
Fultz, the No. 1 pick of the 2017 draft, had a nice spin move and hit an 8-footer in the lane in the second quarter and seemed most confident running the show and not playing with Simmons.
“There is zero doubt in my mind that it’s his best position now,” Brown said. “What can he be? What he can grow to? I don’t know. But his position now is with the ball and as a point guard.”
Hawks rookie Omari Spellman is coming off a national championship at Villanova and third-year forward DeAndre’ Bembry from Saint Joseph’s both had plenty of local fans in the house. Pierce said Bembry is playing with confidence after missing chunks of his first two seasons with injuries.
“He’s happy he’s getting an opportunity to play,” Pierce said.
Pierce said Spellman was making an impact, even with spotty minutes.
But not every hoops fan in Philly is part of Nova Nation. One fan yelled out, “Spellman, you’re a D-League player!”
Hawks: Play Tuesday at Cleveland.
76ers: Play Tuesday at Toronto.