Surging 76ers a team of players with something to prove

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Sixers forward Robert Covington celebrates with teammate Gerald Henderson after the Sixers beat the Portland Trail Blazers 93-92 on Friday, January 20, 2017 in Philadelphia. Trail Blazers center Mason Plumlee looks away.

ATLANTA - The 76ers' celebration after their 98-97 victory over the New York Knicks on Jan. 11 was one of the most memorable moments of the first half of the season.

Two snapshots serve as a symbol of the camaraderie and the similarities the players on the team share.

After he sank the buzzer-beating baseline jumper to win the game, T.J. McConnell sprinted with his right arm and right index finger pointed toward the ceiling. All of his teammates were in heavy pursuit with smiles as wide as the Atlantic Ocean.

The second snapshot was of McConnell's being surrounded by the baseline near the bench. The second-year point guard wore a killer stare that said, "How dare they doubt me? Folks better recognize who I am."

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It was the same look that any of his teammates could have given and it would have had the same meaning.

"We all have that similar story," Nik Stauskas said. "We all have something to prove. We all have the same goal. That kind of makes coming together a little bit easier."

The Sixers are the talk of Philadelphia and are creating a huge buzz around the NBA, with just cause.

They won eight of 10 games heading into Saturday night's matchup against the Atlanta Hawks here at Philips Arena. Their 15-26 record through 41 games is the best since they went 17-24 during the 2012-13 season.

The Sixers were also 41/2 games behind the Chicago Bulls, who have the eighth-best record in the Eastern Conference as of Friday. The top eight teams advance to the postseason.

Time will tell if the Sixers can actually turn Joel Embiid's playoff quest into a reality.

The Sixers have a legitimate NBA All-Star Game candidate and runaway rookie-of-the-year contender in Embiid. They have a coach in Brett Brown, who has been a part of four NBA championships as a San Antonio Spurs assistant. And the Sixers should have the services of a passer extraordinaire in Ben Simmons, the first overall pick in the 2016 draft, sometime this season.

Still, Vegas lists the Sixers at 5,000-to-1 to win the NBA title. That's understandable.

The Sixers aren't loaded with a bunch of household-name draft picks or A-list free-agent acquisitions. They're loaded with three types of players.

First, there are guys whom very few outside of the Sixers believed had NBA talent. Starters McConnell and Robert Covington fall into this category.

McConnell went undrafted out of Arizona in 2015 despite being the runner-up for Pac-12 player of the year. Folks didn't think he was athletic enough to play on this level. Covington went undrafted out of Tennessee State in 2013. He did play in seven games during the 2013-14 season with the Houston Rockets, but he spent most of that season in the NBA Development League.

The Sixers also have some players who came to Philadelphia after other teams basically gave up on them. Stauskas and Ersan Ilyasova are in that group.

The Sacramento Kings made Stauskas the eighth-overall pick in 2014 only to trade him to the Sixers 13 months later. The Sixers are Ilyasova's fifth team since June 2015 after he played seven seasons with the Milwaukee Bucks.

And then there are the projected first-overall draft picks who slid to the Sixers because of injuries. Embiid and Nerlens Noel know about that.

In 2013, Noel dropped all the way to sixth to the New Orleans Pelicans, who traded him to the Sixers, because he had torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during his lone season at Kentucky. The Sixers selected Embiid third in 2014 after the Cleveland Cavaliers and Milwaukee Bucks passed on him because of a broken navicular bone in his right foot.

"It's about proving yourself," said Covington, which he did Friday night, hitting two big three-pointers, including the game-winner, in a 93-92 win over Portland.

The Sixers don't have a who's who roster by NBA standards. However, they have a bunch of players with chips on their shoulders. And during this stretch, that has been serving them.

kpompey@phillynews.com

@PompeyOnSixers

www.philly.com/sixersblog