Believe it or not, the Sixers’ season opener was less than five months ago.
A lot has changed since that night, when the Sixers played the “bully ball” defense Brett Brown wanted, holding Boston to 36.7 percent shooting in a convincing win. It’s the Celtics’ second-lowest field goal percentage of this season, which now is on hiatus because of the coronavirus pandemic.
NBC Sports Philadelphia will be re-airing that game tonight at 7 p.m., when the Sixers were originally scheduled to host the Wizards. The night began, you may recall, with Al Horford symbolically “ringing in a new era.”
AL HORFORD RING THAT BELL BROTHA. 🔔 pic.twitter.com/KmVrKGxlYL— NBC Sports Philadelphia (@NBCSPhilly) October 23, 2019
He was solid in his Sixers debut, posting 16 points and three assists. We could all see the backup center minutes behind Joel Embiid would be much better than they’d been last season, and the Embiid-Horford pairing wasn’t a major concern yet. The Sixers actually outscored the Celtics by seven points in the nine minutes the two big men shared the floor.
They looked excellent defensively — the whole team did, really. Rookie Matisse Thybulle overcame a few early mistakes and carried over the ball-hawking, havoc-wreaking skills he’d shown throughout the preseason into a meaningful game and difficult matchup against All-Star Kemba Walker, who shot 4 of 18 overall. New assistant coach Ime Udoka had talked in September about “making them feel you” defensively, and the Sixers seemed to be consolidating that aggressive identity.
“We want to be one of the best — we want to be the best defensive team in the NBA,” Tobias Harris said.
Thybulle has 18 more steals than any other rookie, Simmons is first in the league in that category, Embiid is fourth in defensive win shares per game (minimum 20 games played) and Harris has substantially improved defensively. Still, the Sixers haven’t met the standard it looked like they were capable of on Opening Night. They’re sixth in defensive rating, 18th in offensive rating and sixth in the Eastern Conference. After Brown’s preseason declaration that he wanted the No. 1 seed, that’s an obvious disappointment.
There are many reasons for why the season hadn’t gone according to plan after that opening win and a 5-0 start. Injuries to Simmons, Embiid and Josh Richardson; Horford’s four-year contract with $97 million guaranteed looking like a poor use of resources; Harris, Richardson and Horford shooting below their career averages from three-point range; a 10-24 road record that’s been accompanied by clunky offense bleeding into poor defense and lapses in effort.
On a positive note, 22-year-old Furkan Korkmaz and 23-year-old Shake Milton have become part of the Sixers’ rotation. Korkmaz had three points in 19 minutes on Opening Night, while Shake Milton played 66 seconds of garbage time. As far as basketball is concerned, Korkmaz’s occasionally game-changing shooting and Milton’s ability to step into the starting lineup following injuries have been important. Outside of that, though, they’ve added joy to a season that had often been gloomy and weighed down by expectations.
Everything has stopped and is uncertain for now. Things were uncertain back on Oct. 23, too, but there was rational hope and excitement that the Sixers could finish at or near the top of the Eastern Conference and make a deep playoff run.
If basketball returns this season, that feeling and those memories from Opening Night will be even more distant.
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