By Jerry Wein

The Sixers didn’t have MVP candidate Joel Embiid because of a balky back.

So last night’s game in Utah against the NBA-best Jazz looked dicey at best.

And Jordan Clarkson took advantage with a season-high 40 points off the bench to send the streaking Jazz past the Sixers 134-123 in a matchup of conference leaders, despite a career-best 42 points from Ben Simmons.

Utah (23-5) has won eight straight games and 19 of 20. Clarkson has been a sparkplug in several of those victories.

The Sixers (18-10) had no Embiid, a late scratch because of back tightness. Playing without his All-Star running mate, Simmons had 12 assists and nine rebounds — barely missing a triple-double. He easily topped his previous best of 34 points set on Dec. 7, 2019.

“Honestly, I’ve been working on my mentality and my mental (approach) a lot these past few weeks,” Simmons said of his newfound scoring prowess. “It’s not easy to do that, change the way you play. Certain things in the game come natural to certain people. I feel like I’m figuring it out.”

Tobias Harris had a season-high 36 points for the Sixers in a fast-paced game between championship hopefuls.

Despite all the highlights from Clarkson and Simmons, it was Royce O’Neale who made the biggest shots down the stretch. The Utah guard hit consecutive 3-pointers to quell Philadelphia’s final rally. His wing 3 to beat the shot clock gave the Jazz a 129-118 lead with 2:12 to play.

“I try and get Royce to shoot as much as possible. We played hot potato for a second there at the end trying to get him to shoot it, but we’re a really good team when he shoots the ball,” said Ingles, who had 20 points.

Simmons scored eight straight points in the fourth quarter to cut the Jazz lead to 110-104 with 8:40 left. Minutes later, he found Harris for a 3 to get Philadelphia within 113-109.

Embiid was scratched after coming out to warm up, and coach Doc Rivers expressed surprise the big man wasn’t playing. But that just cleared room for Simmons.

“I didn’t know we’d get 42 points out of him, but he did everything. He guarded, did a good job. Played with pace,” Rivers said.

Simmons and Harris took turns isolating and driving to the basket with a full head of steam starting from beyond the 3-point line. Utah tried O’Neale, center Rudy Gobert and others but they all had trouble stopping Simmons in the paint.

Simmons had 19 points in the first quarter, his most ever in one period.

“I loved when I saw Rudy was guarding me,” Simmons said. “I feel it was a little bit of disrespect putting him on me.”

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