Ben Simmons tip-in secures 113-111 victory over San Antonio Spurs, boosts Sixers’ cushion for the top seed in the East

Audrey Becker, Staff writer

In Sunday night’s game against the San Antonio Spurs, the second (and final) time the teams would face off this season, Ben Simmons would give his team an unexpectedly hard fought win with a clutch tip-in after a Joel Embiid overtime miss.

Heading into this game, many Spurs fans saw the matchup with the Sixers as a team rest day; four of their main rotation players, DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, Dejaunte Murray, and Derrick White, would be sidelined because of nagging injuries or load management. Unlike San Antonio though, the Sixers had a full lineup to run with, making them heavy favorites against the shorthanded 31-31 Spurs. Given the way the first quarter went, that is exactly how it seemed the game would play out; Embiid couldn’t miss a shot and the defensive prowess of Matisse Thybulle and Ben Simmons, who is in the running for Defensive Player of the Year, helped the Sixers cruise into the second quarter with a comfortable 10-point lead.

In the second quarter, the Spurs would chip away at the lead, but Embiid or Seth Curry would catch fire to stretch the lead further out. Curry was especially important in Philly’s first half efforts, drilling all four of his attempts from beyond the arc. The Spurs refused to give up, however, and behind the efforts of Rudy Gay, Pennsylvania native Lonnie Walker, and Keldon Johnson, cut a Sixer lead that was at one point a 17-point deficit to nine at the half.

After halftime, the Spurs brought a new energy to the court, which the Sixers seemed unable to answer until it was almost too late. When a team goes up by such a large margin against a shorthanded opponent, it can be difficult to keep a foot on the gas; the Spurs nearly managed to pull off the upset against the Sixers, with Walker and Gay, who made a game-tying three-pointer, putting on a show in the fourth quarter to send the game to overtime.

“I am just really excited for how hard we are playing,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said via ESPN regarding his team’s performance, despite missing some key pieces. “I just hope they continue to believe in themselves because they have had kind of a tough road.”

The overtime period was a high-defense, low-scoring five minutes, with both teams only putting up four points by the last possession. Simmons continued to play extraordinary defense, taking two crucial charges against Johnson. 

“I thought those two charges were the biggest plays of the game,” 76ers coach Doc Rivers said in a postgame interview via ESPN.

With a chance to win it, Embiid, who had 34 points and 12 rebounds by this point, put one up from close range only for it to roll off the rim. It seemed as though this game would go into double-overtime, but San Antonio had failed to box out Simmons, who tipped the Embiid miss back into the basket with only 0.3 seconds on the clock. Although this was only Simmons’ sixth point of the game, it could not have been more welcome. The Sixers would go on to win in their typical way-closer-than-it-should’ve-been fashion, 113-111. 

“I knew Joel was going to get a good look,” Simmons said in a postgame press conference via ESPN. “We trust him with those shots. I was just there to clean it up.”

Though a victory against an undermanned, .500, non-conference opponent may seem to have very little value in the grand scheme of things, the conference rival Brooklyn Nets, who were a half game ahead of the Sixers going into the day, lost their game against the Milwaukee Bucks. Philadelphia’s narrow win pushed that lead to a full game over Brooklyn for top seed in the playoffs and, with Philadelphia holding the season tiebreaker over the Nets, gave the Sixers a little breathing room in the competitive race for the top playoff seed.