The Sixers were feeling good heading into Friday night's game in New Orleans, having sealed a regular-season series sweep of the Celtics and then had a day to rest and a day to practice.
They didn't play like a confident, fresh group in a 101-94 loss to the Pelicans at Smoothie King Center, dropping to 35-17.
Head coach Doc Rivers thought the team's performance was “mentally weak," and Danny Green agreed.
“I don’t think we came to play tonight the way we should have," Green said. “I think we kind of just eased into the game and thought it was going to be — not given to us — but we thought we were going to win just off of our sheer talent. By the time we tried to turn the switch on, it was too late. We wanted to try to get into the ball and pressure. If we would’ve done that from the jump, it might have been a different ball game.
“We learn from it. It’s a young team — got to mature. We’ve got to take everybody seriously, because any night in this league, you could lose to anybody. As you see, we’ve got to respect every opponent. So hopefully we don’t ease into any more games like we did tonight, because it’s going to be a tough hole to dig out of.”
Zion Williamson recorded 37 points, 15 rebounds and eight assists, an excellent all-around offensive showing.
Joel Embiid posted 14 points on 5-for-16 shooting and nine rebounds.
Tobias Harris scored 23 points on 7-for-16 shooting, while Ben Simmons had 10 points on 3-for-6 shooting, nine rebounds, six assists and five steals.
Rivers was unsure after the game whether Embiid would play Saturday night against the Thunder after the All-Star center fell awkwardly in the second half. He said the team had initially planned to play Embiid in both games of the back-to-back set.
Here are three observations on the Sixers' loss:
Embiid goes cold against Adams
Steven Adams is one of the only players in the NBA who appears to have strength comparable to Embiid.
Adams was very physical early on with Embiid, grappling to deny him the ball in the post. He had to take a more cautious approach when he picked up his second foul with 8:25 remaining in the first period, and Embiid ended up scoring 10 of the Sixers’ 22 first-quarter points against a combination of Willy Hernangomez and Adams.
Rivers was frustrated that the Sixers didn't feed Embiid during the time Adams was on the bench.
“I was really upset at our team in the first quarter," he said. “We get two early fouls on Adams. I think we went five minutes with Adams off the floor and a 6-9 guy guarding Joel. I had to call a timeout for us to get the ball to Joel. That should never happen, and it did tonight. Again, I just keep going back to we were a very mentally weak team tonight.”
Hernangomez was a nuisance for the Sixers on the offensive glass and in transition, and the same was true of frontcourt mate Jaxson Hayes. That duo made its first seven shots and totaled 16 points within the opening 14 minutes.
Embiid’s long-range jumpers haven’t dropped since he returned from his left knee bone bruise. A 42.2 percent three-point shooter before the injury, he’s 1 for 12 from behind the arc over his last three games.
His mid-range game was off Friday night, too, and his four free throw attempts were well below the season average of 11.8 he took into the game.
Williamson does it all with Ball sidelined
Simmons and Matisse Thybulle were among the Sixers' defenders on Williamson, who set a strong tone by slamming in a put-back dunk on his first possession ever against the Sixers.
Williamson is incredible when he has downhill momentum, even when the opposition is set in the half court and not at all worried that he might pull up for a jumper. The best a defense can typically do in those situations is contest his layup tightly without fouling and hope he misses it. Most of the important work must be done before he reaches that stage, and the Sixers couldn’t wall off Williamson’s path to the paint consistently enough.
“He’s so young still," Rivers said. “His speed and power (are) unseen. We did a terrible job on him tonight. We really did. We gave him every angle, everything he wanted. But you have to be great to take them, and he did it. I thought every mistake we made, Zion took advantage of tonight. He played terrifically. Great kid. I know him a little bit. I wasn’t happy for him tonight, honestly, but he’s a load. You have to game plan and you have to have the right game plan to deal with him.”
Harris, Green and Simmons all spent time on Brandon Ingram, last season’s Most Improved Player. Ingram was rusty after a five-game absence due to first MTP irritation, although Harris should be credited for playing clean, active defense, cutting off the 23-year-old’s driving angles well. The Pelicans were missing Lonzo Ball (left hip soreness), so Williamson and Ingram carried even more of New Orleans’ offensive burden than usual.
Williamson thrived despite not having his normal starting point guard, taking care of the ball while putting immense, constant pressure on the Sixers’ defense.
Sixers never find an offensive groove
Seth Curry capped his first half in fitting fashion by misfiring on an open 12-foot jumper. He didn’t score all night, going 0 for 7, and Shake Milton closed the game over him.
“I don’t worry about one single game," Rivers said. “Seth has been playing well the last couple games. He had a tough one night. I’m not going to draw up new stuff or anything like that. I believe in shooters. Guys don’t forget how to shoot; they all have a bad game here and there. Everybody will. It’s human nature. Dustin Johnson didn’t make the cut at The Masters. What can you do? It’s just a human game; it always will be."
Harris’ shots weren’t falling early either. After a 4-for-11 performance Tuesday in Boston, he started 1 for 6. He tried to turn the tide for the Sixers in the fourth quarter but couldn't spearhead a successful comeback.
Simmons scored five first-half points on just three field-goal attempts. The Sixers involved him in a couple of nice actions to begin the second half, including one where Simmons handed the ball off to Curry, quickly rolled to the rim and converted a layup. He couldn’t sustain the sharp execution, though, soon committing two of his six turnovers.
The concept of Simmons as a versatile offensive weapon sounds great, and it makes sense that Rivers has looked to mix up his half-court usage. Simmons is sometimes a peripheral figure, sometimes the lead ball handler, sometimes a screener and sometimes a post-up player. That’s all well and good, but it’s not necessarily conducive to Simmons finding a sweet spot between effective aggression and sound decision-making.
Still, Rivers is right to vary how he uses Simmons and search for the areas where he’s most productive and most likely to have size and athleticism advantages. The Australian has already shown he can score efficiently and avoid excessive turnovers in a multi-purpose role. The bottom line is the Sixers will need him to do that (and also be at least a passable free throw shooter) in the playoffs.