The Philadelphia 76ers (26-12) returned home for the first time since the All-Star break to host the San Antonio Spurs (19-15). The Sixers, in their first game of Joel Embiid’s expected lengthy absence, were looking to push their three-game winning streak to four. The Spurs were looking to begin a winning streak after waxing the Magic on Friday night. The Sixers outscored the Spurs by 25 points in the third quarter en route to a 134-99 victory, handing the Spurs their largest margin of defeat in franchise history.

Before we get to the game, some notes.

Contextual Notes

Ben Simmons was available to return without restrictions after completing the NBA’s health and safety protocol for COVID-19. Embiid is expected to miss at least two to three weeks after suffering a bone bruise on his left knee in Friday night’s victory over the Wizards. Given the violent nature of the injury in real-time, the bone bruise is a favorable outcome, relatively speaking. Doc Rivers started Simmons, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and Tony Bradley.

This was the first game held in Philadelphia with fans in attendance since the COVID-19 pandemic first blitzed the country in March of 2020.

The Spurs were without DeMar DeRozan (away from team due to death in family) and LaMarcus Aldridge (parted from team as they work towards a trade). Gregg Popovich started Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Keldon Johnson, Trey Lyles, and Jakob Poeltl.

First Half

The Sixers appeared slightly flat early in this game, namely in the presence of Jakob Poeltl. The Spurs are a small-market team in the South out of the contention picture in the Western Conference, so the typical fan in the Northeast probably doesn’t watch the Spurs even if the opportunity is there. When they’re not on television, fans certainly aren’t hearing a great deal about the Spurs.

“Pick-and-roll defense, we still got work to do.”

So, while Jakob Poeltl flies under the radar, he has specialized in setting firm screens. In an era of basketball where there is an endless supply of offensive fouls to be called on illegal screens, solid screeners can be rarity. Alas, the Sixers struggled to get around his screens. As such, the Spurs were able to penetrate the lane relatively freely. Of course, in the Spursian utopia under Popovich, the Spurs weren’t living off of their first looks. They were making extra passes to free up shooters. One way or another, they were getting open looks until the Sixers tightened up their defense.

After the victory, Rivers pointed to the first half when assessing the improvements the defense (second best in the NBA, after this victory) still needs to make. “Pick-and-roll defense, we still got work to do,” Rivers said. “I thought the first half they went downhill a lot. Now, I thought our pull and our weak-side was great. But, we have to do a little bit better there for sure.”

“It was amazing, the energy is completely different when they’re there.”

Shooters are almost always creatures of habit. It’s hard to imagine playing basketball all one’s life in the presence of in-person viewers, only to have said viewers taken away abruptly for an extended period of time. Danny Green has never been timid in a Sixers uniform, but he certainly felt the hot hand in the first half, canning a trio of trifectas on his way to 13 points to lead Philly at halftime.

Seth Curry, however, can go through spells of timidness. In the first half, however, he was letting it fly without too much thought. I was satisfied with his attempting four triples in the first half, even though he only connected on one. The point is that you want him to get those looks up because his efficiency suggests that he will make more than enough of them.

Dwight Howard also responded quite well to having fans in attendance. Howard provided a handful of thunderous dunks to ignite the Wells Fargo Center. He followed those dunks with an emphatic presence on the defensive rim, altering a number of shots around the basket.

Howard has been incredible as his responsibilities on the court have been condensed with the Sixers. Right now, his job is to clear bodies under the rim to create space for defensive rebounds, affect shots at the rim, and dive hard on offense in search of Superman dunks. With fans in attendance, you would expect his personality type to feed off of the energy.

Ben Simmons touched on the fan presence after the victory. “It was amazing, the energy is completely different when they’re there,” Simmons said. “I think it was a great experience for everybody who hasn’t played in Philly that’s on the team now to really understand that. I think they really understand it now. Even if it was three thousand fans, you can really feel them and feel the energy.”

The Fresh Prince Returns

Simmons was a bit rusty through the first quarter of his return. He was passive in trying to get around the smaller Dejounte Murray on the perimeter, and lost the ball a couple of times as he attacked. He did find his rhythm in the second quarter, depositing a handful of what has become his signature baby hook shot from the middle of the lane. To his credit, Simmons remained problematic for San Antonio even when he wasn’t actively pursuing scores. He generated transition opportunities with some backside poke-aways and created open looks for his teammates with passes that those with average court vision simply cannot serve.

Second Half

Tony Bradley left the game and did not return after rolling his ankle in the third quarter. After the game, Doc Rivers anticipated that Bradley would be fine to play on Tuesday.

There really is not a ton to say about what happened after halftime. There is certainly nothing to scrutinize, as the Sixers won the second half by 23 points. They used a barrage of trifectas to put the Spurs in their collective grave in the third quarter. Philly won the third frame by 25 points, 46-21. The Sixers converted eighteen field goals in 23 possessions, along with 5 of six free throw attempts, in the third quarter. While that period was certainly the fatal blow to San Antonio’s hopes of winning this game, the Sixers won this game on the defensive side of the basketball.

“The more you’re successful at it, the more guys trust it.”

Philly held the Spurs to 47 points in the second half. For context, that second half total outscored the Sixers’ third quarter output by a single point. The Sixers gave up 99 points on 94 San Antonio possessions–good for 1.05 points per possession. Magnifying that to a grander scale, that’s approximately 105 points per 100 possessions–good for the best defense in the league on any given night.

After the victory, Rivers commended his team’s defense since returning from the All-Star break. “I think guys are focused, they’re locked in,” Rivers said. “Dan’s an amazing defensive coach and we stay on them. We stay on them about every possession, being ready and down. Again, transition D, pick-and-roll D, weak-side help. That’s the three things that we’re really focused on and they’re starting to see it. The more you’re successful at it, the more guys trust it. So, I think that’s helped, as well.”

The Sixers don’t often play perfect games. Aside from some early defensive issues, they did just that. Philadelphia is obviously short-handed, themselves. But, in the presence of home fans for the first time in over a year, they thoroughly dominated a short-handed Spurs team.

The Sixers (27-12) will host the New York Knicks (20-19) on Tuesday night. Tip-off is set for 8 PM EST. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.