Down an All-Star, the Sixers had business to handle Wednesday night in New Orleans.
They began their 2021-22 season with a 117-97 win over the Pelicans at Smoothie King Center, pulling away in the fourth quarter to start 1-0 without the suspended Ben Simmons.
“The main thing I’ve been preaching is just go out there and have fun," Joel Embiid told reporters postgame. “By having fun, it’s sharing the ball, playing with each other. Like I said in practice, our attitude has been the same. We’ve been practicing hard. The same way we played today, that’s what we’ve been doing in practice.
“But it was good to get off to a good start, get a win, and kind of forget about the off-the-court stuff. Like I said, it’s not our job. Our job is to win games.”
The Sixers were also missing Shake Milton (right ankle sprain) and Grant Riller (left knee injury recovery). Zion Williamson (right foot fracture) was sidelined for the Pelicans.
Embiid had 22 points, six rebounds and five assists. Furkan Korkmaz posted 22 points, including 18 in the fourth, and five assists.
Tyrese Maxey gave the Sixers 20 points, seven rebounds and five assists. The Pelicans' Brandon Ingram had a team-high 25 points.
The Sixers' home opener is Friday night against the Nets. Here are three observations on their victory over New Orleans:
Embiid sets the tone
Embiid scored 10 points within the game’s first five minutes and led the Sixers to a 19-11 advantage. The four-time All-Star also racked up four first-quarter assists and drew two early fouls on Jonas Valanciunas. At his best, he plays with an all-consuming, almost casual dominance.
He banked in his first three-point attempt of the season, then converted another in conventional fashion shortly after. That long-range success made his pump fake a touch more convincing, opening the lane for a swift drive and layup.
Embiid was far less effective for his next stint, missing a handful of the mid-range jumpers that were a hallmark of his game last season. There wasn’t anything seriously wrong with Embiid’s decision-making, although inviting contact and earning free throws is a reliable path to efficient scoring for him. He locked back in to begin the second half, nailing a few mid-range tries with ease.
Tobias Harris (20 points, 12 rebounds) was solid and steady as a secondary offensive option, while Seth Curry’s jumper was pure. He contributed 10 points on 4-for-5 shooting and rarely seems like he’s going to miss.
On defense, Embiid showed off his versatility by blitzing or hedging several ball screens as a change of pace. The Sixers don’t want to overtax Embiid, but it makes sense that they’d play with greater aggression and variety in Simmons’ absence.
Playing without Simmons could perhaps be an excellent opportunity for Embiid to demonstrate his considerable defensive value. Valanciunas was stymied by Embiid — and also simply short of luck around the rim — on a 3-for-19 shooting night.
Good signs from Maxey the starter
Maxey opened the game in Simmons’ place. Though the starting point guard by name, he didn’t spend much time with the ball in his hands early.
The Sixers ran a lot of offense in transition, through Embiid and Harris isolations and post-ups, and through Curry Iverson cut actions.
Maxey had a few defensive missteps against Nickeil Alexander-Walker, including on a second-quarter play when he was beaten backdoor for an and-one layup. Late in close games, one imagines opponents will put pressure on Curry and Maxey to get stops.
Overall, there was a lot to like from Maxey in the opener. Though an explosive, dynamic scorer, he understands how to complement star talent and pick his spots. Every game won't be this smooth, but Maxey's a fast learner who's adjusted strongly to whatever the NBA has thrown his way.
Korkmaz, new-look bench with big advantage
Sixers head coach Doc Rivers played an all-bench group of Korkmaz, Isaiah Joe, Matisse Thybulle, Georges Niang and Andre Drummond for an extended stretch beginning late in the first period.
With Korkmaz handling the ball, that unit had a scratchy start offensively, struggling with timing on cuts and passes. The Sixers found a nice rhythm soon enough, though, playing unselfishly and moving the ball well. They scored 14 bench points — including six on Niang threes — before New Orleans had any. Drummond lived up to his reputation in grabbing 17 of the Sixers' 20 bench rebounds.
The Sixers finished with a 45-17 bench edge, thanks in large part to Korkmaz. He knocked down four triples in the fourth, the kind of ultra-confident, game-shifting spurt within his wheelhouse.
“Man, we’ve seen Furk do it before," Maxey said to reporters. “He’s a professional, really good at instant offense and a microwave. Once he gets hot, there’s really nothing you can do.”
Thybulle (two points, four steals, one block) played the most of the Sixers’ bench players by necessity, sliding in for Danny Green when the veteran picked up his third foul with 4:32 to go in the second quarter. Green and Thybulle were the Sixers’ two main defenders on Ingram, who got rolling after an 0-for-4 start.
Joe did not carry over his preseason brilliance, going scoreless in 13 minutes and committing a bad turnover looking to make a routine wing feed to Korkmaz.
He exited the game in the fourth quarter, heading to the locker room after landing awkwardly on a driving layup, but returned after being diagnosed with a chin laceration. Joe competed hard on defense as usual, taking a charge on New Orleans center Jaxson Hayes, and clearly deserves a real run in the rotation.