With no Philadelphia fans in the arena because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Sixers narrowly avoided their first loss of 2020 at Wells Fargo Center on Wednesday night.
They pulled out a 113-107 win over the Wizards in their first game of the 2020-21 season, overcoming an ugly third quarter during which they shot just 5 for 22.
Joel Embiid led the Sixers with 29 points and 14 rebounds, while Ben Simmons had 16 points, nine rebounds and seven assists. Bradley Beal scored 31 points for Washington and Russell Westbrook had a 21-point triple-double.
The Sixers’ second game is Saturday night against the Knicks.
Here are observations on their opener:
The spotlight’s on the bell ringers
Al Horford rang the Sixers’ ceremonial liberty bell before the team’s opener against the Celtics last season. This year, Simmons and Embiid shared the honor.
Again, it was a decision dripping in symbolism. Head coach Doc Rivers is determined for his star duo to collaborate frequently.
“I just think if they’re going to win together, they’re going to have to do a lot of things together,” he said with a laugh before the game. “Get used to it — get used to playing together, get used to running pick-and-rolls together, get used to celebrating together, get used to doing interviews together. They’re going to be tied at the hip, and so I think anytime they can do things together, it’s good.”
Indeed, Simmons and Embiid ran a couple of snug pick-and-rolls in the opening minutes, the first of which resulted in Simmons missing a pull-up jumper from just inside the elbow. The pair also teamed up on a nicely improvised lob after it looked like Embiid was heading over to set another screen for Simmons.
“It’s tough to guard," Simmons said of the snug pick-and-roll after the game. "You’re going to either switch the big on to me or guys try to go under. But it’s so close to the rim where it’s tough to go under. If you go under, Joel’s going to be right there for the post-up. (When) I’ve got a big on me, typically I’m quicker than the big, so I’m able to make those plays.”
Both as a combination and as individuals, there’s plenty the duo must improve on. Simmons had three rather careless first-half turnovers, all of which stemmed from trying to play fast. Beal ripped the ball out of Embiid’s hands during a Wizards run late in the second quarter when the Sixers big man deliberated for too long in the post as he scanned for an open cutter.
Embiid went on a scoring spree with Simmons off the floor early in the fourth quarter as the Sixers focused their offense on him and surrounding shooters. His excellence as a post scorer helped them escape with a victory.
"It’s easier when the court is just spaced out," Embiid said. "The other team, they had to respect Seth (Curry), they had to respect Shake (Milton), they had to respect Furkan (Korkmaz). ... At that time, Washington, they actually went in single coverage. And I knew it was time to get going, especially after that pitiful third quarter.
"Down 10, I had to just concentrate and make plays. It was not just about scoring. The times they double, kick it out. Furkan made a three, and then they stopped doubling and I just went to work.”
Major growing pains for new starting lineup
The Sixers’ starters played poorly together. Among the issues were lapses in transition defense and scratchy half-court offense. There were few situations in which new additions Curry and Danny Green looked comfortable offensively.
After making his first three field goals, Tobias Harris faded badly, missing his next 10. Rivers’ goal is to get him playing with the conviction and decisiveness he’s been lacking as a Sixer. This wasn’t a strong start on that front for Harris, who could use a jolt of confidence.
“He just missed shots," Rivers said. "I thought he was hesitant. Even that last drive (in the fourth quarter) where he made the free throws, I thought that should’ve been a dunk. We’ll watch the film, we’ll get him uncaged. He’ll be fine.”
Given that Embiid missed the team’s preseason finale with an illness and the Sixers had 26 turnovers in that game, perhaps the aforementioned struggles shouldn’t be surprising.
The starters missed their first 10 shots of the third period and seemed sure of little other than they should try to get Embiid the ball in the post. When he did receive it and was double teamed, the Sixers’ off-ball movement wasn’t purposeful or effective in the third.
Milton and Maxey bright spots
The Sixers played an all-bench unit of Milton, Tyrese Maxey, Korkmaz, Mike Scott and Dwight Howard for a stint during both halves.
Maxey made a classic rookie mistake on his first NBA possession, stepping out of bounds when he received a pass in the left corner from Milton. He posted his first professional points soon after, pushing the ball up the floor, driving to the rim off of a Howard drag screen and converting a nifty layup.
As was the case during the preseason, Maxey provided pace, energy and paint scoring. He teamed up with Howard twice more in the first half, including on one smart baseline backdoor cut, and finished with six points on 3-for-5 shooting and two assists in his debut.
Milton’s first-half defense against Westbrook was encouraging in terms of the big picture for the Sixers. He stayed attached to the nine-time All-Star, mirrored him effectively and didn’t allow the 32-year-old easy baskets. Those are the sort of difficult assignments Milton will need to handle in starter-less groups. Lineups last season with Miton and without Simmons allowed 119.6 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass (in the fifth percentile), so it’s worth tracking how such groups fare.
Offensively, Milton remained a sensible decision-maker and outside shooting threat. He had several aggressive drives and drew seven free throws, too. Milton scored 19 points, was in the Sixers’ closing lineup and guarded Beal during the final minutes.
Matisse Thybulle did not play until appearing as a defensive substitute for Curry in the last minute of the game. Rivers had said Thybulle’s limited time with rotation players during the preseason was because the Sixers were “taking their time” with him after he suffered a left ankle sprain during training camp, but the 23-year-old sure seems to be on the outside of the rotation looking in for the time being.
“Matisse missed some time in camp. The young fella is playing great," Rivers said postgame, referring to Maxey. "I thought in the first half, (Maxey) was terrific. But Matisse will get his chance, and I tell him that every day. What I liked about Matisse … guy hasn’t played all game and you turn to him, a lot of times (players will) give you bad body language. Matisse couldn’t wait to get in. That tells me a lot about him.”