76ers

Remembering Sixers’ Opening Night win over Celtics and how much has changed

Remembering Sixers’ Opening Night win over Celtics and how much has changed

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.”

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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Sixers Talk podcast: How hot is head coach Brett Brown's seat getting?

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NBC Sports Philadelphia/USA Today Sports Images

Sixers Talk podcast: How hot is head coach Brett Brown's seat getting?

On the latest edition of NBC Sports Philadelphia's Sixers Talk podcast, the crew dives into Brett Brown's job security, the Sixers' playoff prospects down in the bubble, and much more.

(1:35) — Are the Sixers giving fans a reason to be optimistic?
(15:58) — Might be time to lower the playoff expectations
(29:35) — How hot is Brett Brown's seat getting?

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Apple Podcasts / Google Play / Spotify | Stitcher | Art19 | YouTube

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Brett Brown thinks Sixers' fourth-quarter defense 'stinks,' so what are the answers?

Brett Brown thinks Sixers' fourth-quarter defense 'stinks,' so what are the answers?

The Sixers’ late-game defense in their first two seeding games has been subpar. They allowed 46 fourth-quarter points Saturday against the Pacers and escaped with a 132-130 win over the Spurs on Monday night despite conceding 43 points in the fourth. 

Brett Brown is, to put it mildly, not pleased. 

I think it stinks,” he said Monday in a video conference call. “I think it’s not anything that we are or believe in or talk about. We were very lucky to win tonight. … The good news is it is well within our reach immediately to flip the switch. We need to have an immediate paradigm shift and an admittance that we can’t afford to pick and choose. And in the last two games we have done that.

“I give credit to Indiana, and certainly the Spurs tonight — those guys scored. Their three scorers scored. But in general, it ain’t going to get it done. It’s not who we are and it needs to be fixed, and fixed it will be. And it needs to start with the mentality, and I know our players understand that. It’s not like that speech I just gave is a mystery. They’re smart enough to know it to be true.

With a 178.0 defensive rating in fourth quarters at Disney World, the Sixers are worst in that statistic by over 38 points. It would be stunning if their fourth-quarter defense remains anywhere near this poor. 

The team’s first two games in a “bubble” during a pandemic with assigned bench seating and virtual fans have been somewhat odd, as one might expect. Instead of labored, inefficient offense and solid defense, we’ve seen a team that’s scoring just fine but far from sturdy on the other side of the ball. One Sixer who hasn’t often resembled his pre-hiatus self is Ben Simmons, a strong First Team All-Defense candidate. 

Per NBA.com/Stats, opponents have shot 17 of 24 when defended by Simmons (70.8 percent) in Florida. He’d held opponents to 41.3 percent shooting before the NBA’s suspension, the lowest mark of any Sixers regular, and thrived against high-level scorers. T.J. Warren and DeMar DeRozan have had success against him.

Some of the answers to this problem for the Sixers should be simple. Simmons, who fouled out in 25 minutes Monday, has to show these were merely two games below his normal high standards. Collectively, the Sixers need to be stingier against dribble penetration and close out on shooters with greater urgency and effort.

A schematic tweak or two might be advisable down the line. It appeared early in the year that the Sixers would be significantly more willing to blitz the pick-and-roll and generally play aggressive defense under new de facto defensive coordinator Ime Udoka. The team’s default pick-and-roll coverage with Joel Embiid on the court remains having the guard try to work over the screen and Embiid dropping. (Al Horford often plays "up to touch," or a little higher up.) That’s the norm across the NBA, but perhaps the Sixers could be a bit more flexible in choosing when they deviate from it. 

“We’ve gotta do a better job defensively to be the best defensive team in the league,” Embiid said, “so we’ve just gotta take the challenge. … The last two games, we haven’t been able to keep our man in front of us. We’ve just gotta do a better job, and in those situations I’ve just gotta do a better job of protecting the paint and making sure I correct some mistakes.”

Ultimately, it’s improbable that the Sixers will make a deep playoff run unless the team’s defense in its opening seeding games ends up looking like an aberration. 

“One thing that we have to get to is understanding that we know we can score,” Tobias Harris said, “but at the end of the day we can make these games a whole lot easier if we lock in defensively and get stops and let that fuel our offense — it makes us more efficient.”

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