76ers

Sixers’ Game 1 loss to Nets should serve as a wake-up call

Sixers’ Game 1 loss to Nets should serve as a wake-up call

Theoretically, Saturday could’ve gone worse for the Sixers, but it’s hard to imagine how.

Joel Embiid played, and while he was brilliant at times, you could tell he wasn’t himself. The Sixers got next to nothing out of three of their five starters. Amir Johnson got caught checking his phone while the team was down double digits in the fourth quarter. Ben Simmons was not thrilled with the crowd booing and didn’t hide it.

And the worst part? The Sixers, who’ve supposedly embraced their lofty expectations, fell behind 1-0 in their first round playoff series after a 111-102 loss to the Brooklyn Nets at the Wells Fargo Center.

Not a banner day in South Philly.

But therein might lay the silver lining. The Sixers aren’t likely going to panic, but a loss in the first game of a series they're heavily favored to win was surely a wake-up call.

“It’s an eye-opener, if that’s what you [want to] call it,” Jimmy Butler said. “I’m telling you, we’re going to be fine. We’ve got practice, we’ve got a day to recoup, then we’ll be back on this same floor come Monday.”

Even for the most level-headed and optimistic, it’s fair to be a little concerned. The team’s issues from the regular season crept back up at times.

The chief concern is still the health of Embiid. Embiid gave it a go, but didn’t look right. He tried a knee brace during his pregame warm-up, but decided against wearing it during the game, saying it caused pain in his calf.

While pain management is the biggest thing facing Embiid, there is definitely still an issue of fitness level. Embiid hadn’t played in a week and missed 14 of the last 24 games of the regular season. Because of that fatigue, he often settled for jumpers instead of continuing to get to the line like he did to start the game.

If Embiid can get remotely close to the player he’s been for most of the season, he can carry this team.

“Hopefully, I’ll feel better and gain a couple more of my athletic abilities so I can be more down on the block,” Embiid said. “Jimmy did a great job [Saturday] attacking. We couldn’t back him up so Monday we’ve got to do a better job.”

With JJ Redick, you just kind of have to take the good with the bad. What he does on offense with his shot-making and movement away from the ball opens everything up for his teammates. Defensively, his lack of size and athleticism make him a liability.

Tobias Harris’ struggles are troubling. He slumped into the playoffs, shooting just 27 percent from three over his final 19 games. He played a team-high 41 minutes, but wound up with just four points. His season-low was six. Still, Harris has proven he can get hot and carry this team offensively. He just needs to get out of his own head.

The biggest concern is the disturbing pattern we’ve seen with Simmons. Brad Stevens gave the rest of the league the blueprint to stop Simmons and Kenny Atkinson followed it in Game 1. Simmons’ lack of shot is hurting him, but so too is his lack of aggressiveness in looking for his own shot.

“I do know that he completely cares,” Brett Brown said of Simmons. “His experience from the playoffs last year -- you want to improve from that and you want to show all the fans all the work he definitely has put in. Tonight, you would’ve have seen that. He will be back and maybe there is some truth to what you just said, where he’s over thinking it and trying to overanalyze stuff. That could be true, but I will tell this room, I would be shocked if you don’t see a different Ben Simmons in Game 2.”

The fans are hoping to see a different Sixers team in Game 2.

Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Flyers, Sixers and Phillies games easily on your device.

More on the Sixers

Celtics' Al Horford will reportedly hit free agency after opting out of player option

Celtics' Al Horford will reportedly hit free agency after opting out of player option

The Celtics’ offseason isn’t off to a terrific start.

Unsurprisingly, it appears All-Star guard Kyrie Irving will leave in free agency. GM Danny Ainge also reportedly took a swing for All-Star big man Anthony Davis, but was outbid by the Lakers.

But what transpired Tuesday may hurt them more than anything. Earlier in the day, it was reported that Al Horford would not opt in to his $30.1 million player option, but there was optimism the sides could strike a multi-year deal. Now it’s being reported that “the gulf is too great” between Boston and Horford’s camp and the veteran big will hit the market looking for a three- or four-year deal.

Uh oh.

Horford’s stats won’t blow you away — 13.5 points, seven rebounds per game as a Celtic — but he’s arguably their most indispensable player. While Irving’s departure almost seemed inevitable during Boston’s playoff run, Horford possibly jumping ship is pretty jarring. 

When the Sixers play Boston, Horford is tasked with guarding Joel Embiid or Ben Simmons. How many players in the league are capable of guarding both, let alone doing it at a high level? The answer is likely zero. 

Ainge was right to hold on to Jayson Tatum in negotiations for Davis, but it’s going to be tough to build a championship-caliber roster with the pieces the Celtics have and what cap room they have left. They could make a deal for a veteran point guard like Memphis’ Mike Conley. Ainge still has an excellent trade piece in the Grizzlies’ protected 2020 first-round pick. 

With all the uncertainty surrounding the Celtics, Raptors and Bucks, it would seem to make even more sense for Elton Brand to #RunItBack with Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris. The Eastern Conference — and perhaps even the entire NBA — may be wide open.

Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Flyers, Sixers and Phillies games easily on your device.

More on the Sixers

6 takeaways from Sixers GM Elton Brand ahead of the 2019 NBA draft

6 takeaways from Sixers GM Elton Brand ahead of the 2019 NBA draft

Sixers GM Elton Brand spoke to reporters Tuesday ahead of the NBA draft Thursday night. Here are six takeaways including how close Brand thinks they are, "optionality" with five picks and more.

The agony of defeat

Any time you're not the last team standing at the end of the NBA season, it's not going to sit well. For Brand and the Sixers, watching the Toronto Raptors hoist the Larry O'Brien trophy stings a little more after taking them to seven games.

But Brand is looking ahead, and giving the reigning NBA champions their stiffest fight is only fueling him to make his team better.

"Hats off to the champs, but it just shows me that we were close," Brand said. "We are so close. So my goal this summer is to get better through the draft, through free agency, whatever we have to do and be able to compete again at that level. It definitely hurts. From the players to the coaches to my staff – we want to grow and we want to get better."

Embiid and Ben Simmons didn't take the loss well. Especially Embiid, who appeared to take all of the questions about his health and ability to play against Marc Gasol to heart.

Brand is confident his young All-Stars are prepared to use it all as motivation.

"A lot of promises, vows – it's raw. It hurts," Brand said. "You're passionate. 'I can't believe we lost like that.' They've been in the gym, they've been rehabbing, they've been working hard, so the goal is to just keep the momentum. How do we take that into the summer? But they've been executing their plans. They're still hungry. They still feel that pain to lose how they lost. As tough as it was losing like that, we're going to get better from it."

Character evaluations

Pre-draft workouts are a good opportunity for Brand and his staff to learn a little more about prospects. It gives them a chance to talk to the player 1-on-1 and see what they're all about. But it doesn't end there.

I don't want to give too much intel, but we talked to people that pick up their laundry," Brand said. "It's a whole range of people. From their coaches, their mom, their family, but we get specific intel, then we meet with them. It's different. It's like an interview. You're on your best behavior. So we try to just get to know them the best we can, know their personalities, talk to middle school coaches, high school coaches, just to be clear on what kind of person they are.

What kind of character are the Sixers are looking for?

"Tough, hard-nosed, respectful, wants to get better. Treat your teammates with respect. Younger players, we like a high IQ. A guy that knows how to play defense, make the right pass, take the shot when warranted and competitive. We want tough competitors that can think the game."

Feels like the first time

It's easy to forget that Brand wasn't named GM until after the draft last season. While he was part of the process, Brett Brown held the interim general manager title.

This year, Brand is running the show and will have final say.

"The first thing I learned is making a recommendation vs. making a call, there's a big difference," Brand said. "Under Bryan [Colangelo], it was, 'Oh yeah, that sounds good.' But now I'm making the call – that's a big difference. A lot of posturing going on. You talk to a team about future picks and it's like, 'Oh no, we don't want to give up futures.' But now as the draft comes along, getting calls like, 'Hey, would you consider it?' Similar to the trade deadline. Very similar to the trade deadline with everyone trying to get an angle and trying to get an advantage for their organization and their team."

With the team being so close and looking for guys that can contribute right away, Brand definitely understands the responsibility of being the one that pulls the trigger.

"It's definitely much more pressure than making a recommendation. Last year, I was just like, 'Yeah, this guy can shoot, I saw him in L.A. His change of motion, he can get to the rim. He has a short neck like me, but he's really taller.' Just whatever it is. But now I'm making that call, so there's more pressure to get it right, especially for the trajectory of our team, because we need young talent. Even if we do get to the championship level we aspire to, I don't want to fall off a cliff either. I want to have talent in the kiddies so they can grow and get better."

Optionality 

"Optionality" was a word former general manager Sam Hinkie used often and fondly during the days of "The Process," and it's one Brand returned to several times Tuesday when describing the Sixers' outlook heading into the draft. With five picks, it sounds like just about everything is a possibility.

Having the five picks, that gives us that optionality. If there's a player that we're targeting that looks like they could be available, we could move up. We could move back. We could move out. We could sell a pick. That's what's great about having those options. Regarding selling the picks, [it's a] possibility. There's some later picks that teams would pay for, and if we don't have anybody on our draft board that we want to grow with the Blue Coats or come to the G League, that's a possibility.

Because the Sixers have only four players guaranteed to be under contract next season and will need to commit a substantial amount of money should they wish to sign free agents Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, using four or even all five of the selections the team currently holds could be an appealing idea. That said, it's just one of many options on the table for what promises to be an eventful Thursday evening.

Looking for immediate contributors 

Unlike in previous years, when the Sixers were building for the future and willing to select developmental players, this draft is about snagging players who can help as rookies.

"We definitely are looking for players that can compete for a spot to be in our top-eight right now," Brand said.

That mindset has been reflected in the players the Sixers have brought in for pre-draft workouts – plenty of prospects in the 21 to 23-year-old range, with seasoned games and little projection required about their ability to play in the NBA. 

Senior director of scouting Vince Rozman has said the team is targeting "mature" players, which doesn't necessarily exclude one-and-done prospects. But, if there was any doubt, Brand made it clear Tuesday the Sixers are not going to place a high value on players with potential who lack an NBA-ready skill. 

"You're looking for a guy that can contribute right now," Brand said, "which starts with a specific skill where Brett [Brown] can look down that bench and say, 'All right, I need defense. … Oh, I need some shotmaking. The defense might not be there or something else might not be there, but I know I can get this from this rookie.' Just something that they can contribute right away and they might not be elite at it, but they'll be good at it."

Willing to wait

Brand and the Sixers have been consistent over the last five weeks in describing the type of players they'll be targeting in the draft.

However, Brand clarified Tuesday that the team won't automatically eliminate players who can't contribute immediately, whether that's because they need more time to develop overseas or because they're currently injured. 

"With the five picks, it depends on where – later in the second round, one of those picks, if the value proposition is there and you're like, 'OK, he has to rehab and get better,' you think of that because in two years, we're going to need talent. But the appetite to wait, it's all going to be determined on the clock and who the player is."

Nineteen-year-old Croatian forward Luka Samanic is one player who the Sixers might consider worth the wait if he's available late in the second round, though Samanic said at his pre-draft workout with the Sixers that he believes he's capable of playing in the NBA next season.

Auburn's Chuma Okeke, who tore his ACL during the NCAA Tournament, is one player who could slip in the draft because of his injury. His "3 and D" skills would seem to fit well on the Sixers. 

Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Flyers, Sixers and Phillies games easily on your device.

More on the Sixers