The Brooklyn Nets, who have been shorthanded for weeks due to COVID-19, got a major boost on Thursday night when star forward Kevin Durant returned to the lineup for the first time since Dec. 16. But even though he picked up right where he left off, finishing with 33 points, seven rebounds and four assists, it wasn't enough.
Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey combined to spoil Durant's return and lead the Philadelphia 76ers to an impressive 110-102 victory. Though the Sixers were mostly whole in terms of their roster, they were without coach Doc Rivers for the game after he entered the health and safety protocols on Thursday.
Embiid and Maxey combined for 59 points, 14 rebounds and five assists on the night, and took over down the stretch to make sure that the Sixers got the win. After Durant tied the game at 91-91 with 5:33 to play, the Sixers took a timeout. Maxey checked into the game following the break, and the Sixers outscored the Nets 19-11 the rest of the way. Embiid and Maxey either scored or assisted on 17 of those points.
The most impressive sequence came on either side of the three-minute mark when Embiid bullied LaMarcus Aldridge for an and-one to break a tie and put the Sixers up by three.
On the very next possession, Embiid found Maxey in the corner for a triple to push the lead to four. The Nets never got any closer.
In the closing seconds, and again after the buzzer, Embiid and Durant exchanged some words. Smiling, Embiid also motioned for Durant to get off the court -- copying what Durant himself did the last time the two teams played.
"Yeah, I'm sure they didn't like that," Durant said. "But I'm glad I can bring the best out of my opponent. They come out here and play extremely hard. Like I said, that's only gonna make me better as a player and us better as a team. Yeah, of course they felt a way about that. But I told 'em I'm gonna keep the same energy regardless. Win or lose, I'm gonna still be me."
Durant also said that nothing between the two crossed the line. They're simply two competitors who respect each other and are playing with passion.
"Hell nah. [Embiid] ain't really say nothing, I think I was just turnt up," Durant said. "We down eight, 10, they got the game in control, so just let 'em know we still here I guess. So nah, he didn't say nothing that crossed the line. We all respect each other out there. We respect this team, I respect all the players on this team and vice versa. That's just how we play."
As for Embiid -- who tweaked his ankle in the second half, but played through the pain -- this was his sixth straight 30-point game, continuing a stunning run. During that stretch he's putting up 33.7 points, 10 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.7 blocks per game, while shooting 54.2 percent from the field and 47.8 percent from 3-point land.
In addition to his own dominance, he's also been inspiring his teammates. "Last game, Joel told me I was trash," Maxey said. "I told him I got him this game. So I just went out here, and tried my hardest for my teammates."
The Sixers have now won four of their past five games to improve to 19-16 on the season, which has them up to sixth place in the Eastern Conference.