By Teddy Brenner
Twas two nights before Christmas and all through the house…
There were no fans at the Wells as the Sixers tipped off the 2020-21 season against the pesky Washington Wizards and their newest weapon, Russell Westbrook.
And Sixers center Joel Embiid became the stocking-stuffer:
He scored 15 of his 29 points in the fourth quarter and added 14 rebounds to lead a 113-107 win and spoil Westbrook’s triple-double Wizards’ debut.
The Sixers haven’t lost at home since Dec. 20, 2019.
Westbrook and Bradley Beal were fantastic in spurts in the opening-night backcourt pairing that nearly handed 76ers coach Doc Rivers a loss in his Philly debut. Westbrook had 21 points, 15 assists and 11 rebounds to wow the Wizards after being acquired in the big deal that sent former cornerstone John Wall to the Houston Rockets. Beal, a two-time All-Star who was second in the league in scoring last season, had 31 points.
“Not good enough. I’m kind of disappointed in myself,” Westbrook said. “There were plays where I could have had a better game.”
Embiid, sensational in the fourth, and Shake Milton, who scored 19 points off the bench, were the go-to scorers late, and Ben Simmons sealed the win with a monster dunk in the waning moments. Simmons had 16 points — one less than Embiid scored in the fourth.
“He’s the focal point. The ball is going to Embiid on every single play,” Beal said. “He’s a hassle down there.”
Embiid was nearly unstoppable in the post in the fourth, getting the ball on five straight possessions at one point and turning them into buckets that wiped out a 10-point deficit. His driving layup with 1:09 left put the Sixers up 105-103, and he finished 10 of 17 from the floor.
“I don’t think anybody can stop me, especially with the mentality I have this year,” Embiid said.
The Sixers made their major change on the bench, hiring Rivers to replace Brett Brown and wake up a team that was swept out of the first round of the playoffs last year. Rivers has to find a way to make the Embiid-Simmons pairing work — two All-Stars who have yet to get the most of their prodigious talents and have frustrated fans with their flaws.
Simmons showed an early willingness to try and fix his — making shots from beyond 15 feet.
Simmons was encouraged by new teammate Dwight Howard, who won a ring last season with the Lakers, to stick around postgame and work on his shooting. Both players stayed on the court and Howard waved toward the stands — mostly security guards and team employees — to get louder during a shooting drill. Simmons was the subject of trade rumors, though new head decision maker Daryl Morey said the guard was not on the trading block.
“Dwight’s been pushing me to get better. He wants me to be great,” Simmons said. “I really appreciate that. It makes you want to work.”