Pacers hold off Sixers, 101-98, in key Eastern Conference tilt

Dario Saric drives in on the Pacers’ Thaddeus Young during the third quarter of the Sixers’ 101-98 loss Tuesday night.

Brett Brown shies away from singling out one game.

The 76ers coach usually says all of the games are equally important to win. However, he broke from the norm on Tuesday before losing a key game to the Indiana Pacers, 101-98, at Wells Fargo Center.

“Tonight we can get the split,” he said pregame of securing a head-to-head tiebreaker. “We think they can be one of those teams hanging around, competing for home court. None of us can really predict what the next month, how those games are going to play.

“We’re going into this game thinking this is an important game. I said that to the team – rarely do I go there.”

However, his words weren’t able to spark the Sixers (36-30). They went on to lose at their home arena for the first time since a 114-109 setback to the Toronto Raptors on Dec. 21. They had won 13 consecutive games here.

But the Sixers had an opportunity to win.

They pulled within three points (101-98) on Joel Embiid’s dunk over Trevor Booker with 13.4 seconds left.

On the ensuing possession, Victor Oladipo was called for an offensive foul in the backcourt after being trapped by Ben Simmons and T.J. McConnell. That gave the Sixers the ball with 7.6 seconds left. Embiid missed on a three-pointer at the top of the key.

Dario Saric and Oladipo were tied up for the ball with 3.0 seconds remaining. The referees called for a jump ball. Oladipo won the tip and the ball was deflected off Ben Simmons’ leg and out of bounds on the baseline with 0.3 seconds left. Indiana got possession and held onto the win.

“I think the difference between this game is maybe [they] wanted it more this game,” said Saric, whose squad committed 21 turnovers. “Maybe, you can say something like that. But I don’t know, it’s weird sometimes when you lose like that, you don’t know where to start.”

The victory gave the Pacers the season series at 2-1. As a result, Indiana (40-28) owns the tie-breaker should both team finish the regular season with the same record.

Right now, the Pacers are in third place. The Sixers are three games back in sixth place with 16 remaining.

“I think we need to be locked-in,” Saric said. “This was a very important game for us. It’s not like we have any more times to throw the games and get losses like this. I hope we understand that the next game.”

The Sixers face the struggling New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Thursday.  They shouldn’t have a problem against the Knicks (24-44).  However, aside from beating the fourth-place Cleveland Cavaliers on March 1, the Sixers haven’t recently shown an ability to beat other teams currently ranked among the conference’s top eight squads.

“The fact is that we have not been able to get through the Miamis, the Washingtons, the Milwaukees and tonight the Indianas,” Brown said of recent losses to the eighth-place Heat (twice), fifth-place Wizards, seventh-place Bucks and Pacers. “With each one of those games, we learn a little bit about what we need to get better for the playoffs.

“I think there’s tremendous learning power out of these games.”

We learned that Embiid and Myles Turner, two of the league’s top young centers, would have a fierce battle in a postseason series.

Embiid finished with a game-high 29 points to go with 12 rebounds and three blocks. The all-star did, however, have eight turnovers. Turner finished with 25 points and six rebounds while being hampered with foul trouble.

Meanwhile, Simmons, the Sixers’ point guard, had 10 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists (both game highs) for his seventh triple-double of the season. Saric added 18 points for the Sixers.

Former Sixer Thad Young had 19 points and 10 rebounds, while Pacers all-star Olapido was held to 11 points on 4-for-21 shooting.

This game also marked Booker’s first game against the Sixers since being bought out of his contract on Feb. 28. The Pacers signed him for the remainder of the season on March 3. He had five points and six rebounds in 17 minutes, 27 seconds.

The reserve power forward was very physical with his former teammates while providing solid defense.

After the game, Booker, who asked the Sixers to be released, tweeted, “God’s plan!”

Early on, the Sixers didn’t exactly look like a team up for the challenge. The Pacers opened up a 12-point lead on Lance Stephenson’s 18-foot jumper with 10:37 remaining in the second quarter.

They, however, pulled within two points (66-64) on Robert Covington’s three-pointer with 8:22 left in the third. Then Saric knotted the score at 71 on a three-pointer with 5:32 remaining in the quarter.

But the Pacers responded with a 9-0 run to get a little cushion.

However, things started to get heated as the Sixers mounted a comeback.  Booker straight-armed Embiid in the paint late in the quarter. The center collided into Domantas Sabonis underneath the basket. The Pacers reserve post player suffered a sprained left ankle on the play. He went to the locker room unable to put any weight on his leg.

Then Embiid displayed some frustration with 44.2 seconds left in the quarter following a Stephenson basket that made it 82-77, Pacers. The Sixers center shoved the reserve guard in the back, drawing a technical foul.

The home squad pulled within two points (83-81) on Embiid’s fadeway jumper with 10:41 left.  The Pacers went on to extend their lead to eight points, twice. The Sixers battled back into the game and nearly pulled out the victory. It was another lost opportunity for the home squad.

“Those are the types of teams that we get wins against,” Simmons said.