The 76ers were without Jimmy Butler, and it didn’t matter.
Joel Embiid’s dominant play and Corey Brewer’s energy highlighted the Sixers' 121-93 victory over the Houston Rockets on Monday night at the Wells Fargo Center.
Embiid finished with 32 points, a co-game-high 14 rebounds, and three blocks after being a game-time decision because of back tightness. The All-Star center sat out the fourth quarter.
Brewer became the Sixers' latest fan favorite in what was the seventh day of his 10-day contract. Showing its appreciation of his grit, the sellout crowd of 20,313 chanted “Corey Brewer! Corey Brewer! Corey Brewer!” on two occasions.
“I’m just being me,” Brewer said. “What I do is I play hard. I bring energy and I do whatever it takes to win games.”
Brewer had 11 points on 5-for-10 shooting in 32 minutes, 43 seconds. He also had three rebounds, two blocks, and two steals while starting in place of Butler. The four-time All-Star missed the game with a mild sprain of his right wrist.
The Sixers (31-17) broke the game open in the second quarter en route to taking a commanding 34-point lead early in the fourth quarter.
Houston’s James Harden finished with a game-high 37 points on 26 shots despite sitting out the fourth quarter. He had his shot blocked five times. The Sixers did a good job of not allowing the Rockets other starting guard Eric Gordon and Austin Rivers to not get involved. Rivers was held scoreless after missing all five of his shots. Gordon had eight points on 2-for-13 shooting.
Reserve Gerald Green was the Rockets' second-leading scorer with 18.
This was a a busy day for Houston (26-20). The Rockets signed Kenneth Faried and agreed to trade Carmelo Anthony to the Chicago Bulls. But there was a lot of interest in the availability of Embiid and Butler.
This marked the third time that Embiid was listed as questionable and played with back tightness. This time, however, he looked fine. The 24-year-old had played gingerly, especially in the first halves, in the previous two games.
But on Monday, he was back to his dominant self, scoring 24 points in the first half on just nine shots. Embiid took advantage of Clint Capela’s being sidelined with a right thumb injury.
Butler is day-to-day and listed as questionable for Wednesday’s game against the San Antonio Spurs.
The Sixers had two options in regard to replacing him Monday.
They could have moved Wilson Chandler to Butler’s small-forward spot and started Mike Muscala at power forward. Or the Sixers could have kept Chandler at the four and started Brewer in Butler’s place. They decided to do the latter.
“It’s almost like why not as much as it is this is the reasons behind it,” coach Brett Brown said of starting Brewer. “I don’t see why we wouldn’t.”
The coach pointed out that Brewer is an 11th-year veteran who has been in big games. He mentioned that Brewer was a two-time NCAA champion at Florida and won an NBA title with the Dallas Mavericks.
In other words, Brewer isn’t the prototypical 10-day-contract guy. The Sixers actually signed him because of his ability to play defense and his reputation as a great locker-room guy. The goal was to try him out to see if he would be a good fit.
But he drew perhaps one of the toughest assignment of the season.
“You say, ‘Welcome to the team, you have James Harden. You are starting tonight,'" Brown said.
Harden is averaging a league-best 35.7 points. On Monday, he scored at least 32 points for the 20th straight game.
In his 43 games played, the guard has scored 50 or more points on four occasions. He has also tallied between 40 and 49 points 12 times and 30 and 39 points on 14 occasions.
“The way he’s playing right now, nothing can help you,” Brewer said before the game.
Harden did have a Harden-esque game.
He scored 27 of his points in the first half. While Brewer was the primary defender, Ben Simmons, Chandler, T.J. McConnell, JJ Redick, and Jonah Bolden also guarded him at least once.
Harden did what everyone expected him to, making threes and attacking the rim. He wasn’t always successful at the rim, as Bolden (three), Embiid (one) and Muscala (one) all blocked his shot at least once. At times, Brewer was overmatched. But that wasn’t because of lack of effort. He actually got under the skin of Harden, a former teammate.
“He did what he does: Play hard," said Chandler. “He goes to play hard regardless of shots are falling or not. He going to get out in the open court. He’s going to give his body.”
At one point in the second quarter, the 6-foot-9, 185-pounder face-guarded Harden on the ground 30 feet away from the already advanced ball. After Harden got up, Brewer acted like the reigning MVP knocked him over in an attempt to draw an offensive foul.
“Corey was great,” Embiid said. “You need that type of guy on the team. That’s why we have been trying to figure out learning how to play with each other. You need that type of guy that’s going to come out and be like, ‘I’m going to take out the best player on the other team.' ... I felt like he did a pretty good job on him tonight.”
Brewer scored on a running dunk with 29.1 seconds left in the half. He immediately raced over to Harden to get ready for defense. He got up close to the six-time All-Star, positing himself low.
As Harden tried get position, Brewer did a good selling job while refusing to budge. Harden was called for the offensive foul and appeared to get frustrated. Moments later, the crowd started chanting ‘Corey Brewer! Corey Brewer! Corey Brewer!’
Like Brewer said, Harden is on roll and is hard to stop. But Brewer’s presence was felt.
“He’s annoying man," Harden said. “He’s on a 10-day. So he’s fighting for his career. He did an unbelievable job of being active and bringing the extras to the game.”
Said Redick, who finished with 16 points: “You need a guys like that that’s going to come out and be disruptive.”