PHILADELPHIA — Robert Covington doused Markelle Fultz over the head with cups of water, a basketball baptism of sorts for a rookie No. 1 pick who already needed a career rebirth.
Fultz had the Philly sports world buzzing and was trending on social networks when his return was casually dropped by coach Brett Brown about 90 minutes before tipoff. Fultz got a standing ovation when he checked in to a game for the first time in five months, then promptly airballed his first jumper. But by the fourth quarter, the chants for “Fultz! Fultz! Fultz!” were so loud, the 76ers rookie briefly thought that perhaps Super Bowl MVP and Eagles QB Nick Foles was in the house.
This was a different kind of Philly Special.
The Sixers have made a giant leap from the painful “Process” to the postseason that has 50 wins and home court advantage firmly in sight over the final nine games.
All-Star Joel Embiid and rookie of the year favorite Ben Simmons are headed to the playoffs — and they’re bringing Fultz along on the ride.
The 19-year-old Fultz had seemingly been lost for the season because of a sore right shoulder that may or may not have caused a case of the yips in a shooting form that would be heavily dissected around NBA circles.
Coach Brett Brown said over the weekend it would take Fultz telling the Sixers that he was ready to play, a significant sign that Fultz was in fact healthy enough to hit the court, but perhaps not mentally prepped to slip on the No. 20 jersey.
For whatever reason, Fultz decided Monday he was ready to go. Perhaps the difference came on Sunday, an off day — the Sixers had officially clinched their first playoff berth since 2012.
With seeding the only uncertainty down the stretch, time was running low to see what potential role Fultz could have in the postseason. He came back with an uneven performance including his airball and a few shots blocked, but he flashed a confident, attacking game in the lane that finished with 10 points and eight assists in 14 minutes in a win over Denver.
It was Fultz’s first game since Oct. 25 and his fifth career NBA game.
“He showed signs of why he was the first player chosen,” Brown said. “Obviously, the game is fast and it’s elite at this stage and that’s a good team but the night could not have worked out better.”
What came next was as perplexing as some of the theories floated as to why Fultz had lost his shot. Fultz spoke for the first time since his media blackout started in October.
He gave a couple of non-answers to two questions about his shoulder and had no substance in his answer about why he was able to play on Monday.
What happened next put Fultz on highlight reels — and got him ripped on national TV — for more than his play.
Did he do something to hurt his shoulder or just feel soreness?
Fultz rubbed his face and stared straight without talking and grabbed a towel someone tossed him. His wiped his face during a few more seconds of awkward silence.
Pressed again about the injury, Fultz simply stared blankly ahead.
Teller is chattier during a magic act.
Here were a couple of other big zeroes from Fultz: He did not attempt a 3-pointer (he hasn’t this season) and did not shoot a free throw. His foul shooting form was ridiculed in the preseason and there was no immediate sign his mechanics were fixed.
But a healthy and mentally straight Fultz could be the final piece that helps the Sixers earn the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference and get a first-round home court edge.
The Sixers have won seven straight games, 18 of 19 at the Wells Fargo Center and their 43 wins are the most since they won the same number in 2003-04. They won 48 games in 2002-03 and last hit the 50 mark (56) in their run to the NBA Finals in 2000-01.
Yes, Brown — who has a 10-win season and 26- and 28-game losing streaks on his resume — is finally able to lead a playoff run.
“It means it’s the first sort-of real-time thing we can touch to feel that we’re moving in the direction that we all want,” Brown said. “That reward for doing those types of things that says, ‘now you’re in the playoffs,’ is the first step toward what I expect there to be many more steps. We’re here to win a championship.”
The Sixers host the lowly New York Knicks on Wednesday, exactly the kind of game they need to win to hold serve on their seed and perhaps stretch Fultz’s playing time.
“It’s kind of a risk coming back, especially when the team is playing well and we have to include him,” Embiid said.
The season has already been a success.
How long it lasts just may depend on the tightlipped No. 1 pick with that shaky shot.
More NBA basketball: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball