By Lewis Gould
It was Joel Embiid’s 24th birthday, and the 21,000 fans at the Wells last night let him know how much they loved him.
Then he paid them back.
Embiid had 24 points and a career-high 19 rebounds and Robert Covington hit a key 3-pointer to lead the 76ers to a 120-116 victory over the Brooklyn Nets.
“They’ve shown me a lot of support since I got here and I appreciate it,” said Embiid. “That’s a great memory.”
J.J. Redick added 23 points and Ben Simmons had 21 points, 12 assists and eight rebounds for Philly (38-30), which pulled a half-game behind idle Washington for the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
Embiid was just 6 for 23 from the field. With his shot off, he affected the game in other ways.
“When shots aren’t falling, you have to do something else,” Embiid said.
The 7-footer made his presence felt defensively, including a key block on Spencer Dinwiddie’s drive with 21.8 seconds left.
“He is a complete difference-maker,” coach Brett Brown said. “Those are massive stats by any standards.”
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson scored 21 points for the Nets (21-48), who lost their third straight and 19th in the last 22 games.
Coach Kenny Atkinson felt his young team’s play was improved, but Philly was just too tough.
“They’re a heck of a team,” Atkinson said. “Two great players and they surround them with shooters. They hit a lot of tough shots.”
Brooklyn tied it at 110 on Jarrett Allen’s two free throws with 2:29 left. After a Redick miss, DeMarre Carroll drained a 3 to give the Nets the lead. After Redick made the second of two free throws, Covington tied it with a layup following a Simmons steal.
Pulling out a late victory in a close game will help the 76ers’ confidence heading into the playoffs, Brown said.
“It lets them know because we’ve been on the other side of that,” Brown said. “We do have the people, I believe we have the structure and they have shown they have the poise to be able to walk a game down.”
Phillytrailed by as many as 13 points in the first half and was down 58-55 at the break. But the 76ers pulled ahead with a strong third quarter. Embiid capped the period with a 22-foot jumper as time expired, making it 86-81 entering the fourth.