76ers on a roll ahead of Hornets' visit (Jan 13, 2017)
PHILADELPHIA -- The struggling Charlotte Hornets find themselves in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race.
The surging Philadelphia 76ers, who host the Hornets on Friday, can only hope to be there at some point as well.
"Playoff time, baby," rookie center Joel Embiid joked after the Sixers beat the New York Knicks 98-97 Wednesday night on a buzzer-beating jumper by guard T.J. McConnell.
The Sixers, one of the NBA's worst teams the past four years, won four of their past five games to improve to 11-25. They have already exceeded their victory total for all of last season.
"We've just got to take it step by step, game by game," Embiid said. "We've just got to get better every game, try to win every game."
Embiid is a big reason for the team's improvement. He leads the 76ers, as well as all NBA rookies, in scoring (19.4 points per game), rebounding (7.5 per game) and blocked shots (2.0 per game) despite playing an average of just 25.1 minutes. The team is limiting his action because Embiid, the third overall pick in the 2014 draft, missed two seasons after undergoing a pair of foot surgeries.
He also has rested periodically, and the Sixers plan to hold him out of Saturday's game in Washington. He is expected to play Friday, despite sustaining a slight sprain of his left ankle late in the first half Wednesday against New York.
He returned and finished with 21 points and a career-high 14 rebounds as the Sixers erased a 10-point deficit in the final 2:29.
"The last couple games we've been finishing," Embiid said, "so it gives us a lot of confidence."
Embiid, who has seven double-doubles this season, exceeded the 20-point mark in each of his past seven games. According to the team's official website, that is the longest such string by any Philadelphia player since Brett Brown became the coach in 2014.
The Hornets (20-19) have lost the first three games on a five-game road trip and five of six in all. Most recently, they fell 121-114 at Houston on Tuesday, when Rockets guard James Harden scored 40 points in a triple-double. Kemba Walker scored a team-high 25 points for the Hornets, adding 10 assists and six rebounds.
Charlotte hopes to have forward Nic Batum back on Friday. He missed the previous two games with a hyperextended right knee but practiced Thursday.
"I can't say enough about how much this team needs Nic Batum," power forward Marvin Williams told the Charlotte Observer. "Not only offensively what he brings to the table for himself and the rest of us, but defensively as well. He's such a smart player, such a great player, on both ends of the floor.
"When you (lose) a guy like that, who does so many things, the team does struggle a little bit in his absence. If he's back out there, it will make a huge difference."
The Hornets beat the Sixers 109-93 on Nov. 2, but Embiid did not play.