PHOENIX — Joel Embiid let the ball drop from his hands as the whistle blew with about 4 minutes, 6 seconds to play Saturday night, then trudged to the end of the Philadelphia 76ers’ bench.
The MVP contender’s night was over. And so was his team’s.
One night after the Sixers faltered in the fourth quarter in a loss at the defending-champion Golden State Warriors, the Phoenix Suns used a final-period surge to top the Sixers, 125-105, at the Footprint Center.
After blazing through the bulk of this difficult, road-heavy March, the Sixers (49-25) have hit a snag at the end of this stretch. With eight regular-season games to play, Saturday’s defeat dropped the Sixers to two games behind the idle Boston Celtics (51-23) for second place in the Eastern Conference.
Early on, the matchup looked like one between teams that played a road game the previous night and were without at least one key contributor. James Harden missed his third consecutive game with Achilles soreness, while new Suns superstar acquisition Kevin Durant (sprained ankle) and standout center Deandre Ayton (hip) also remained out.
But the Suns eventually generated the decisive 11-2 run to open the fourth, which pushed their lead to 100-85 on a Terrence Ross three-pointer less than three minutes into the quarter. The Sixers missed seven of their first 10 shots in the frame, helping the Suns extend their lead to 20 on dunk by Bismack Biyombo with 5 minutes, 53 seconds.
Tyrese Maxey scored 37 points on a 14-of-19 shooting from the floor (including 7-of-11 from three) and added seven rebounds and three assists. Embiid, the NBA’s leading scorer, finished with 28 points but labored to 8-of-19 shooting from the floor after entering the game listed as questionable to play with calf tightness. He added 10 rebounds and four assists.
The Sixers wrap their four-game road trip Monday against the Denver Nuggets, who sit atop the Western Conference standings and are anchored by back-to-back MVP Nikola Jokic.
Maxey, who notched his highest point total since scoring 44 against the Raptors in late October, largely kept the Sixers afloat on a night they otherwise struggled from the floor and committed 12 turnovers.
The dynamic third-year guard scored eight points in less than four minutes to begin the game, on a driving layup and pair of three-pointers. He totaled 13 points in in the second quarter on 5-of-6 shooting, including a deep shot that cut the Suns’ lead to 50-49 with 2:33 remaining in before the break.
That carried over to the second half, when he hit multiple big shots. After hesitating, he hit a pull-up three-pointer that tied the score, 67-67, in the third, then put the Sixers up one by going 1-for-2 from the free-throw line. Another deep shot gave his team a 74-72 lead with 7:11 remaining in the period. He hit 30 points by the frame’s final minute on a jumper that got the Sixers within 89-83.
Maxey squashed the Suns’ run to begin the fourth with an old-fashioned three-point play, but the Sixers could not use that to build any late momentum.
Reserve wing Jalen McDaniels returned after another two-game absence with a hip bruise, finishing with zero points on 0-for-3 shooting and one rebound in 14 minutes. He was the first sub after De’Anthony Melton picked up two early fouls, tasking McDaniels with guarding Suns star Devin Booker.
McDaniels tested that hip fairly early, when he tried to elevate to receive an alley-oop pass but could not corral the ball. He also missed his two three-point attempts.
That performance was indicative of the Sixers’ entire bench unit, which sputtered until it occupied the floor during garbage time. That group started the game 0-for-8 from the floor, before a wild Shake Milton finish through contact. Its next make from the floor did not occur until late in the third, when Milton hit a pull-up jumper. Milton went 2-of-9 from the floor but totaled a team-high six assists, while Georges Niang went 1-for-4 and Paul Reed did not attempt a shot.
Doc Rivers also opted to go with veteran Dewayne Dedmon, not Reed, when Embiid took his second-half breather. The veteran, who signed with the Sixers off the buyout market last month, immediately committed a foul and then got whistled on the offensive end in the third quarter’s final minute.
Danuel House Jr., who had worked his way back into the rotation in recent weeks, missed his second consecutive game with shoulder soreness.
The Suns’ bench, meanwhile, scored 53 points while utilizing an 11-man rotation. Ross finished with 15 points, seven rebounds, and four assists, while T.J. Warren totaled 16 points on 7-of-12 shooting and eight rebounds.