INDIANAPOLIS – This was a solid way to open a tough stretch.
The 76ers got a confidence-building 120-96 victory over the Indiana Pacers on Thursday night at the Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
The victory improved them to 30-16 and put them percentage points (.659 to .652) behind the Pacers (29-15) for third place in the Eastern Conference. The Sixers have also won two of three games against the Pacers, with both wins coming in Indiana. The fourth and final game of the season series will be March 30 in Philadelphia.
Thursday marked the first of 12 straight games against teams with winning records.
“We’re playing well,” said Jimmy Butler, whose team was coming off a 149-107 home victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves. “We are doing what we are supposed to do. We are guarding. We are playing basketball the right way. If we continue to do that, we are going to win.”
The Pacers shot 40.2 percent from the field, ending a streak of two games and seven of their last nine with 50 percent or better shooting. The Sixers held Victor Oladipo and Myles Turner to a combined 7-for-25 shooting. Oladipo had 15 points on 6-for-20 shooting, and Turner had eight while shooting 1-for-5.
In addition to playing stellar defense for the most part, the Sixers had their second straight strong offensive performance.
They shot a season-best 52.9 percent on three-pointers, had 38 assists on 46 made baskets, and made 10 of 11 foul shots. Unlike in the past, the Sixers didn’t have any lapses in this game.
“I think everybody is buying in and really trying to get better ...,” Ben Simmons said.
Butler and Joel Embiid paced the Sixers' balanced attack.
Butler had 27 points on 10-for-17 shooting to go with eight assists and three steals.
Embiid was two assists away from posting his second triple-double of the season despite playing with a bad back. He had 22 points, 13 rebounds, eight assists, and three blocks.
Embiid and Wilson Chandler both played despite being listened as questionable earlier in the day.
Chandler is still dealing with an upper respiratory infection that caused him to miss games against the Phoenix Suns (Jan. 2) and Dallas Mavericks (Jan. 5). He missed the shootaround Thursday morning. Embiid participated in the shootaround but was a game-time decision with back tightness.
It was obvious that Embiid’s back bothered him. The All-Star center moved gingerly on the court, and he sat on a foam roller and rested on his back on the baseline the first two times he exited the game. Afterward, Embiid had a heating pad on his back whenever he went to the bench.
“It was hard like I mentioned," he said, “but I’m a warrior and I wouldn’t let my teammates down. I felt that we needed this game for home-court advantage. So I knew I had to play to give us a better chance to win the game.”
Early on, he settled for a lot of shots on the perimeter instead of playing ‘bully ball’ in the low post. And he had a bad slip on the floor.
But he still managed to have presence at the rim on defense. He also contested several shots.
Embiid struggled early and shot 9-for-19 on the night.
“This one was important because it kind of sets the tone for what’s coming,” Embiid said of playing despite having back tightness. "We started to figure each other out. We did that against Minnesota; that was a good sight to see.
“But like I said, that’s a great win to start off, and we’ve got some big ones coming up, and I’m excited about it.”
JJ Redick added 20 points while making 6 of 9 three-pointers. Simmons had 11 points, eight rebounds, and eight assists.
Simmons was held scoreless in the first half after missing all four of his shots. He scored his first point with 7 minutes, 31 seconds left the third quarter. Then his first made field goal came on a 10-foot hook shot with 5:40 remaining in the quarter.
The Sixers had a commanding 18-point lead (91-73) after Redick’s three-pointer with 11:13 to play. The Pacers responded with a 10-0 run to close the gap to eight points with 8:00 remaining.
Embiid and Mike Muscala had consecutive three-pointers before Cory Joseph scored Indiana’s next basket. Then Muscala hit another three-pointer to push the Sixers' lead back up to 15 (100-85) with 6:03 to play. They extended their lead to 20 points on Simmons' dunk with 1:26 left.
Former Sixer Thad Young paced Indiana with 27 points.
“We get sort of ‘We’re under the microscope’ a lot, as it relate to this portion of the season,” Brown said. "The additional sort of expectations in the city have brought a new attention to our team, and we appreciate it.