Tobias Harris grabbed the mic and welcomed fans back to Philly.
Then the 76ers put on a show to make up for the 368-day wait.
Ben Simmons flexed after a dunk, Dwight Howard exhorted 3,071 fans to get loud as they won free ice cream and fries, and the Sixers made their home court come to life again.
And they did it all without Joel Embiid.
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Harris scored 23 points, Seth Curry had 21 and the 76ers won their first game since Embiid was lost with an injury, beating the San Antonio Spurs 134-99 on Sunday night.
It won’t always be this easy without their franchise player.
“We’re a great team when we have everybody,” Harris said. “This team needs everybody.”
The Sixers’ hold on the top spot in the Eastern Conference appears tenuous with Embiid out for at least two weeks with a bone bruise on his left knee. Embiid had emerged as an MVP candidate, averaging 29.9 points and 11.5 rebounds in 31 games until he was injured Friday at Washington. The Sixers were relieved the injury wasn’t worse than first feared.
“He was happy that it isn’t as bad as a lot of people thought it was, probably including himself,” coach Doc Rivers said. “Now that he knows all it takes is rehab, he has a game plan, we have a game plan and we’re moving forward with it.”
With Embiid out, the 76ers welcomed back Simmons after he missed the first two games after the All-Star break because of COVID protocols. Simmons and Embiid were set to play in the All-Star game only to learn the night before they were flagged for contact tracing. Though neither player tested positive for COVID-19, the barber they visited did.
Simmons had 14 points and nine assists in the romp and the oft-maligned guard for his inability to shoot beyond 15 feet — 4 for 31 lifetime on 3s — has a defender in San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.
“It would enhance his game, obviously. That can’t be argued with,” he said. “He’s so elite already, who gives a damn if he can’t shoot.”
Simmons didn’t need to flex his long-range skills in a game the Sixers largely dominated — and their first one in Philly with fans since the pandemic.
“We missed you,” Harris told the crowd before the game. “We look forward to seeing you guys in the second half of the season and into the playoffs.”
The crowd cheered and was energetic for most of the game — breaking out a familiar anti-ref chants when calls went against the home team — waving rally towels and dancing to the Carlton Cam.
The Sixers gave them plenty of reason to have fun. The Sixers went just 1 of 3 from the free-throw line while the Spurs were 12 of 13 and still led 60-52 at the break. The reserves got the bulk of the scoring time in the second half and built a 35-point lead.
The Sixers won their fifth straight game, a needed cushion without Embiid before they leave for a six-game trip later this month.
“We wouldn’t bring him back earlier or later,” Rivers said. “We would bring him back when it’s time to play.”
Derrick White and Drew Eubanks led the Spurs with 17 points.
“They punched us in the face,” Spurs guard Dejounte Murray said. “They didn’t let up. I felt like we just couldn’t get the ball to go in and we couldn’t get stops. That makes it hard.”
Simmons waved for fans to get loud after a dunk and flexed his muscles after a bucket in the third that sent a crowd of 3,000 into as much of a frenzy as a crowd of 3,000 can get. Simmons will need to carry the load with Embiid out — even if that means weeks or more without the big man.
“We’ve got to hold it down,” Simmons said. “We’ve got all the pieces to win.”
Spurs: DeMar DeRozan remained out of the lineup because of personal reasons.
76ers: Tony Bradley started for Embiid and scored four points … The Sixers outscored San Antonio 46-21 in the third quarter. … Furkan Korkmaz made all four 3s off the bench and scored 16 points. Danny Green also hit four 3s for 16.
Spurs play Monday at Detroit.
76ers host the Knicks on Tuesday.