Tuesday night’s loss to the Knicks was not revelatory for the Sixers.
Ben Simmons is out for personal reasons, and so the team is starting a 20-year-old point guard in Tyrese Maxey. Shake Milton hasn’t played yet this season as he works his way back from a right ankle sprain. The Knicks play physical, pesky defense, which doesn’t help matters. And Joel Embiid’s right knee soreness doesn’t either.
The Sixers have seen they can’t let their standards slide for long, at least against good opponents. Five minutes and 33 seconds of ill-timed emptiness offensively spoiled an impressive three and a half quarters last week against the Nets. A 39-16 second-quarter disadvantage decided Tuesday’s game and dropped the Sixers to 2-2.
Whatever you think of his approach, Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey is correct when he classifies Simmons as a “very good player.” He wants a “difference maker” back for Simmons. In the interim, it makes sense that the Sixers would play a poor game with Simmons not active and Embiid not 100 percent.
“It was just physicality,” head coach Doc Rivers told reporters at Madison Square Garden. “They got into our bodies — every single player. The ball stuck, we refused to move it, and I just thought the pressure took us out of the game. … And then when the second unit came in, they even turned it up even more. And that’s what their second unit does. That’s what our second unit is supposed to do, but it didn’t happen tonight. They were the better team.”
Embiid seemingly feels obligated to rescue the Sixers when they’re floundering. It’s not a task any player can manage often, especially a 7-foot center who needs to scrap for positioning, counter double teams, absorb contact and, for the time being, play through a sore knee.
He drew 11 foul shots against the Knicks but only shot 2 for 7 from the floor, scoring 14 points. Embiid’s five turnovers surpassed his total from the previous three games combined.
“Offensively, for me, finding the right time to be aggressive and less passive, because at times we’re going to need it,” he said. “Like tonight, we couldn’t get open. They were just more physical than us, so someone has to figure it out and get their own shots.
“Since the season started, it feels like I haven’t gotten any easy ones. I’ve had to work for everything. So I’ve just got to figure out the right schemes offensively, especially when to roll and when to pop, so I can get easier shots.”
The road ahead for the Sixers is four straight games at Wells Fargo Center. That’s been good news for them in recent seasons, although they technically haven’t won a meaningful game in Philadelphia since June 8.
Simmons’ situation remains unpredictable. Perhaps the positive steps Morey and the Sixers have hinted at will eventually culminate in a return to action, as improbable as that once appeared. If that’s not the case, the Sixers would like to learn more about who they are without the three-time All-Star, besides being a team that takes a higher volume of three-pointers, starts a second-year player and misses the Defensive Player of the Year runner-up.
“I think that we need to be able to have a really good focus of how we’re going to play,” Tobias Harris said, “no matter who we’re playing against — bottom-of-the-pack teams, more physical teams, teams that match up better with us — however you want to call it. We have to figure out a distinct style. That starts first with our defense.
“It’s good we have a home stretch where we can establish that. And then offensively, we have to get that ball moving more side to side. We have to live with some shots that we’re going to take. But I thought tonight we just didn’t have enough movement — ball movement, but also body movement from all of us, including myself. So we have to be better at that.”
Whether or not Embiid is available — early-season caution would be sensible — Thursday’s matchup with the Pistons should be a nice chance for the Sixers to inch back over .500. Detroit is the Eastern Conference’s only winless team and No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham isn’t quite ready to make his NBA debut due to a right ankle sprain.
After that, nothing looks easy. The Hawks head to Philadelphia on Saturday. Nobody would be surprised if Damian Lillard, who’s 2 for 24 from three-point range, emphatically ended his slump next Monday against the Sixers.
The homestand concludes next Wednesday with the Bulls, who are 4-0 for the first time since the days of Michael Jordan. He scored 27 points in a blowout win over rookie Allen Iverson and the Sixers in Game 2 of the Bulls’ 12-game winning streak to begin the 1996-97 season.
A quarter century later, Chicago would be a high-quality win for a Sixers team that would like to start earning a few without Simmons.