The Sixers’ first game of the 2020-21 season without their All-Star center certainly did not go according to plan.
They lost to the Cavaliers on Sunday night, 118-94, to fall to 2-1. Joel Embiid was ruled out shortly before tip-off with back tightness.
Cleveland's Andre Drummond scored 24 points and grabbed 14 rebounds. Tobias Harris recorded 16 points, nine rebounds and five assists for the Sixers.
Embiid hadn’t appeared on any of the NBA’s official injury reports earlier in the day, and head coach Doc Rivers chose not to divulge whether the Sixers would have their All-Star center sit out the second game of the team’s opening back-to-back. Rivers said after the game that Embiid was expected to play, and that his health is "nothing to be concerned about."
"He was actually planning on going and went out on the floor, and he had some stiffness in his back," Rivers said. "We just thought, why chance it this early in the season?”
Embiid played 31 minutes Saturday in the Sixers’ win over the Knicks, including a 10:24 stint to begin the game, and had a team-best 27 points and 10 rebounds. His absence Sunday is no cause for alarm as Rivers and the Sixers attempt to strike a balance that keeps players healthy, well-conditioned and working effectively with each other. It’s not easy, as Rivers knows well, but Embiid’s availability for more important games is an obvious priority, and there was no point in having him play at less than full health.
Furkan Korkmaz exited early in the fourth quarter. Rivers said he was unsure of his status and didn't want to guess.
Next up for the Sixers is a game Tuesday vs. the Raptors.
Here are observations on their loss to Cleveland:
A big drop-off with Sixers’ big men
Dwight Howard started in Embiid’s place and was frustrated with the officiating for much of the game. He picked up his third foul with 7:54 left in the second quarter for some tussling inside with Drummond, which forced Tony Bradley to enter earlier than planned for his second stint.
Bradley was the Sixers’ third-string center — at least for the first half. The 22-year-old picked up two early blocks, one on a JaVale McGee turnaround jumper and one on a Cedi Osman driving layup attempt. He was a very good rebounder last season in 58 games with the Jazz and believes he has “stretch five” ability. Defensive agility and overall explosiveness are weaknesses for the UNC product, and his outside shooting is mostly untapped to date. One would think Bradley still should have the game to hold down the fort as Howard’s backup in these situations when Embiid is out, but this wasn’t a strong start. He finished with four points on 2-for 7 shooting and eight rebounds in 17 minutes.
The Sixers went with Mike Scott as a small-ball center to close out the first half. As if things couldn’t get worse for the Sixers, McGee drained a three-pointer. He’d been 6 for 35 from long distance over his NBA career entering the game. Scott took Bradley’s backup center minutes in the second half, too, before Bradley entered again for fourth-quarter garbage time.
It’s like saying water is wet but yes, Embiid is highly valuable for the Sixers on both ends of the floor. As the roster stands, it sure seems both stars will need to be healthy for the Sixers to have playoff success.
Exceeding the margin for error
Many of the Sixers’ defensive problems in this game can be attributed to Embiid sitting out and the still-unbeaten Cavs executing well.
That said, the team’s collective energy and effort levels dropped as Cleveland built a big lead in the second quarter. A 3-on-1 fast break that ended with Drummond converting an and-one against Harris and no other Sixers anywhere near the play was a lowlight.
Sloppy turnovers presented the Cavs with too many of those chances. A softly tossed pass from Danny Green intended for Howard led to another Drummond transition layup early in the third quarter and caused Rivers to call a timeout. Without Embiid anchoring the defense, the Sixers’ margin for error is inevitably lower — even against opponents who are less talented than them on paper.
Not an effective backup plan offensively
Harris scored the Sixers’ first five points by drawing a foul on a baseline drive and sinking a three from the top of the key in transition. Early positives for Harris included the fact that he tried three catch-and-shoot triples within the game’s first four minutes and didn’t start as poorly in his defensive matchup against Larry Nance Jr. as he had Saturday night against Julius Randle. A mid-air decision to throw a pass picked off by Cleveland’s Darius Garland was a negative. He’s trending in the right direction, but the Sixers would’ve needed Harris to be tremendous to beat the Cavs given how much the team struggled as a whole.
Though the concept of Ben Simmons pushing the ball and kicking out to shooters sounds great in theory and has worked at times in the past, it’s not a winning formula if those shooters aren’t knocking down jumpers at a good rate. Sixers besides Harris shot 6 for 31 from three-point range, and the team made just 5 of 16 mid-range attempts, per Cleaning the Glass.
It also didn’t help that Simmons sometimes appeared rushed and out of control as he constantly sought out transition opportunities. The 24-year-old had six of the Sixers’ 21 turnovers. He posted 15 points, six rebounds, four assists, two blocks and two steals.