The 76ers hosted the Denver Nuggets in a key game Monday night at the Wells Fargo Center. But under the circumstances, the result of the game ended up being nothing more than a sidebar.
The focus was on the individual performance of Markelle Fultz, who was making his first appearance since Oct. 23. The first overall pick in June's draft finished with 10 points, eight assists, four rebounds and one turnover in 14 minutes, 24 seconds in the Sixers' 123-104 win.
In the process, he became the first player to have 10-plus points and eight-plus assists in 15 minutes or less since Danny Ainge and Tom Garrick did so as opponents on Nov. 11, 1990. The only other players to post such statistics in a game since the 1963-64 season are Hall of Famers Walt Hazzard and John Stockton.
"You know, he showed signs of why he was the first player chosen," coach Brett Brown said. "Obviously, the game is fast and elite at this stage, and that's a good team. But the night could not have worked out better."
The 19-year-old point guard had his shot blocked four times while making just 5 of 13 shots. However, he was extremely active and a solid floor general.
"It really doesn't matter," Fultz said when asked to rate his performance. "I was just happy to be out there on the floor again, to help these guys, really, and we got the win. So I'm very happy."
His teammates were impressed.
Ben Simmons said the way Fultz played was huge for the team and for Fultz.
"He's great," Simmons said. "He has a lot of potential, his pull-up, the way he can get to the rim and find guys."
Joel Embiid had 20 points, 13 rebounds and two blocks, while Simmons added seven points, 13 rebounds, 11 assists and one turnover. Simmons' 577 assists are the most by a rookie in team history. His second assist (No. 568) broke Allen Iverson's rookie record.
The victory improved the Sixers to 43-30 and extended their winning streak to seven games. The Eastern Conference's fourth-place squad is one game behind the third-place Cleveland Cavaliers with nine games remaining.
But this night was all about Fultz's long-awaited return.
He had been sidelined for 68 games while trying to regain his shooting touch.
"This is what everybody has been waiting for," teammate Robert Covington said. "All the work Markelle has been putting in … while he has been out. … It's exciting for us, exciting for the city. And we are just happy to have him back."
Fultz received a standing ovation when he checked into the game with 2:54 remaining in the first quarter.
He lost the ball on his first trip down the floor. Fultz made up for that by scoring a layup on an assist from Embiid with 1:41 left in the quarter. His first assist came on an Ersan Ilyasova jumper 55.2 seconds before the end of the quarter. His second shot attempt — an 11-footer over the outstretched arms of Mason Plumlee — failed to reach the rim. Fultz then had his shot blocked twice on one possession early in the second quarter.
Aside from shooting the ball, Fultz was effective during his 5-minute, 32-second stretch. He tallied three assists and one rebound before leaving to a huge ovation 9:22 before intermission.
Fultz said when he first checked in, "It was a little bit of excitement and a little bit of I have to help the team. Like I didn't want to let the team down. Once I stepped on the floor, it just felt great to be back out there with my brothers and have fun."
He checked back in with 3:21 left in the third quarter.
Fultz missed a turnaround jumper at the 2:10 mark before scoring on an acrobatic running layup 18 seconds later. His third made basket came on a cutting layup with 36.8 seconds left in the quarter. Both baskets drew electrifying roars from the crowd.
Then with 10:25 remaining in the game, Fultz had a shot blocked by Plumlee. But Fultz looked good running the Sixers while being an assist machine before checking out with 9:11 to play.
With 3:20 left, the crowd chanted "We want Fultz." Then, as he stood at the scorer's table with 2:42 left, the crowd chanted "Markelle Fultz" before they chanted "Fultz" while clapping their hands. They were mimicking the Minnesota Vikings' Skol chant.
"Just the way he was welcomed by our city, spectacular," Brown said. "'Really spectacular, the way he was embraced by his teammates."
He came in at the 2:42 mark while Denver's Devin Harris attempted foul shots. Fultz had another shot blocked before grabbing a rebound. Then he hit a 14-foot jumper with 2:13 left. On the ensuing possession, Fultz recorded his seventh assist on a Covington basket.
Then he buried another jumper with 1:18 left before missing his next attempt.
"It felt good to get back out there and help my team get the 'W' like we did and just push forward for the playoffs," Fultz said.
Asked what the team can expect from him the remainder of the season, team president of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo said that was the great unknown.
"I'm not sure I have the answer," Colangelo said. "We will … certainly not judge tonight as the sole case of what to expect going forward."
Fultz had played in only four games before being sidelined for close to five months. That's why Colangelo said the Sixers won't judge him based on what he does in the final 10 games or in the playoffs.
"This is an opportunity just for him to get back out there and figure out what he is capable of right now," he said. "This is step one in a big career for Markelle Fultz."
The Sixers had listed him as out against the Nuggets (40-34). However, word began circulating Monday afternoon that Fultz's return was likely. Brown then announced during his pregame press conference that the Maryland native was playing.
"It was his decision," Brown said. "It's been fluid and I get goose bumps telling you all that. I'm so proud of him. The people around him have done great things and I give that kid credit."
Fultz had hoped to return with at least 10 regular-season games left to get back in basketball shape before the playoffs begin. That's enough games for him to get his legs under him for the playoffs.
"He and I have been talking a lot, and never was it at a stage where it was definitely going to happen," Brown said.