CHICAGO — As good as the 76ers have been at home, they were the exact opposite on the road.
They headed into Thursday’s game against the Chicago Bulls at the United Center with four consecutive road losses.
So the Sixers had this matchup targeted as one they needed to win. Thanks to Ben Simmons, they were able to do just that.
The rookie point guard made a pair of foul shots with 5.6 seconds left to give the Sixers a 116-115 lead. The Bulls had a chance to win the game, but Bobby Portis missed a short jumper in the closing second and Lauri Markkanen failed to get off a shot before time expired as the Sixers held on for the 116-115 victory.
Simmons’ foul shots were set up after Joel Embiid stole Denzel Valentine’s bad pass. The center dished the ball to a streaking Simmons, who was fouled by Valentine.
“Stepping up to the line, I knew I was going to knock them down,” the rookie-of-the-year candidate said. “That’s one of those things, you have to have the mentality. So, I was put to the line. I can’t be thinking I’m going to miss them, so …”
This marked the first time ever that Simmons won a game in this fashion. His two foul shots came after he missed his previous two with 3 minutes, 52 seconds remaining. He finished the game with 6 of 11 from the foul line.
“He has such strength with inner belief; we’ve seen it time and time again,” Brown said. “Different things that we have seen that he delivers. He has tremendous inner confidence. So it didn’t surprise me. It really didn’t.”
The victory improved the Sixers to 31-25 and extended their winning streak to six consecutive games. However, this marked their first road win since beating the shorthanded San Antonio Spurs on Jan. 26.
Meanwhile, the Bulls (20-37) have lost 10 of their last 12 games.
Simmons finished with a team-high 32 points, a game-high 11 assists and seven rebounds. He joins Hall of Famer Allen Iverson has the only rookies in franchise history to finish with at least 30 points and 10 assists in a game. Meanwhile, Embiid added 30 points and game highs of 13 rebounds, four blocks and three steals.
— Keith Pompey (@PompeyOnSixers) February 23, 2018
Before his missed shot in the closing second, the Sixers had no answer for Portis.
The Bulls reserve forward finished with a career-high 38 points on 15-of-26 shooting.
His dunk with 4:08 left gave the Bulls a 111-106 lead. The Sixers pulled within two points (112-110) on Dario Saric’s foul shot with 1:42 left. The Sixers had a chance to knot the score or take the lead with 1:17 left, but Embiid turned the ball over.
Then Zach LaVine came down and buried a three-pointer to put the Bulls up, 115-110, with 1:02 to play. Simmons closed the gap to three points (115-112) on a tip-in of his missed layup with 35.4 seconds left.
JJ Redick made it a one-point game (115-114) with eight seconds remaining with a pair of foul shots. But Simmons scored the winning points with 5.6 left, as the Sixers ended the game with a 6-0 run.
“We stole that win,” Embiid said. “We didn’t play well. Offensively, I thought we were moving the ball. We got what we needed, But defensively, I thought we sucked.”
He added that Portis had a great game.
“But it’s not how you start,” Emdiid added. “It’s how you finish. Big-time players make big plays. I stole the ball and Ben was clutch. He made his two free throws and we got the win.
This game also marked Embiid’s first appearance in Chicago due to injuries or not being cleared to play in back-to-back. The all-star didn’t disappoint.
However, it was like the Chicago’s front office was trying to stop him.
The team appears to be in full-blown tank mode, sitting healthy players Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday. The two are among the Bulls best players. Chicago said the move allows it to monitor the development of their young players.
But the Sixers made things more interesting that it needed to be.
They had a commanding 18-point cushion (25-7) with 6:43 remaining in the first quarter. However, the Bulls battled back and took their first lead on the game (63-62) on Cameron Payne’s three-pointer with 1:11 before intermission.
But a lot of the Bulls’ first-half success had to do with Portis.
He took advantage of several open looks, scoring 21 of his career-high points before intermission. He did that on 8-for-12 shooting, including going 4 of 6 on three-pointers in the first half.
The Bulls also made 12 of 21 three-pointers (57.1 percent) before intermission. For the game, Chicago shot a season-best 52.9 percent (18 of 34) on three-pointers. Their 18 three-pointers tied a franchise record.
“Joel and Ben carries us,” coach Brett Brown said. “I thought everybody else really had some subpar performances. You feel like we came out of [the NBA All-Star] break. But to the group’s credit – like we did when we were down 24 at home [Feb. 14 to the Miami Heat] – we stayed together.”
Reserve shooting Marco Belinelli finished with five points on 1-for-5 shooting (all three-point attempts) in second game as a Sixer. Redick finished with 14 points, but made just 4 of 13 shots.