The Sixers’ first game of the 2019-20 season without Joel Embiid was an adventure.
After going 8-10 without Embiid last season, the Sixers beat the Pistons Saturday night in Detroit, 117-111, with Embiid sidelined by a right ankle sprain. Tobias Harris (29 points on 10 for 15 shooting) and Al Horford (23 points, nine rebounds, five assists and no turnovers) came up huge for the Sixers, who trailed by as many as 13 points in the second half.
Below are observations after the Sixers’ win, which moves them to 2-0 for the first time since the 2013-14 season. They next play Monday against the Hawks at 7:30 p.m.
Harris leads the charge
Down 70-57 in the third quarter and missing their best player, the Sixers could have resigned themselves to a road loss. Harris made sure that didn’t happen, hitting some big shots during a 12-0 Sixers run.
Harris was consistent leading into the season in saying he’s willing to assume any role the team requires on a given night. The Sixers needed a scorer Saturday night, and he was excellent in being that guy.
Horford explodes late
Horford isn’t as intimidating a presence as Embiid and he didn’t have his finest defensive night in Detroit, but he’s clearly a much better backup plan than any the Sixers had last year.
His passing is a special skill, and it hasn’t taken much time for him to develop an understanding of where his teammates will be on the floor.
Horford started his Sixers career 1 for 11 from three-point range, then, within the span of about two minutes, converted a three from the right wing, finished an and-one off a feed from Ben Simmons, drove in for a dunk, and hit another three, lifting the Sixers to a 112-102 advantage. Harris had five fouls for most of the fourth quarter, and Horford was brilliant in his game-sealing offensive flurry.
The rookie’s first start
Brett Brown gave Matisse Thybulle his first regular-season start against Detroit.
The rookie picked up his first steal of the night against Penn State product and former Sixer Tim Frazier. As Detroit lined up to set staggered ball screens for Frazier, Thybulle jumped in front of both Pistons, seemingly without any effort, and swiped the ball. Though Thybulle’s approach is sometimes overzealous, he has an innate sense for the rhythm at which offenses want to play and how to disrupt it.
Offensively, Thybulle isn’t playing with that level of conviction, and he doesn’t have anywhere close to the same degree of anticipation. He passed up open shots in Detroit, tried to force passes through to covered teammates and didn’t seem to have a clear idea of what he wanted to do when he received the ball. Thybulle had no points, four turnovers and two steals in 23 minutes.
Two big problems
Mike Scott and Harris combined to shoot 9 for 12 from three-point range. All other Sixers shot a combined 4 for 22, another poor night from behind the arc after a 7-for-26 team performance Wednesday vs. the Celtics.
Scott’s status had been in question because of a left ankle sprain, but he made some key jumpers, including a fourth-quarter three from the top of the key that gave the Sixers a 93-91 lead.
The other major issue for the Sixers was their 22 turnovers.
Shaking it up
Neither of the Sixers’ two wings off the bench started well. James Ennis, who shot 0 for 3 from the field in Wednesday night’s night opener with two air balls and got beat off the dribble several times vs. the Celtics, immediately fouled Luke Kennard on a three-point attempt.
Furkan Korkmaz also fouled a three-point shooter later in the first quarter, Langston Galloway, and had three fouls within his first three minutes. It didn’t get much better for Korkmaz — he finished with no points on 0 for 3 shooting and two turnovers, and he didn't play in the second half.
When Korkmaz exited, Shake Milton entered. The 23-year-old stepped into his opportunity without any trouble, making a runner through contact on his first shot, knocking down a three-point shot from the right wing on his second and playing solid defense.
As we noted during the preseason, a fixation on Korkmaz because Brown is looking for players who can come into a game and knock down jumpers would not be prudent. Milton was a 42.7 percent three-point shooter at SMU and 36.7 percent last year in the G League — though he shot just 14 of 44 in 20 NBA games as a rookie. If Brown is targeting players who could help the Sixers’ outside shooting, Korkmaz is not the only young player on the roster who might fit that criteria. Milton had 10 points, including a three from the left corner to give the Sixers a 99-95 edge.
Give Brown credit for inserting point guard Raul Neto late in the second quarter, and for continuing to play Milton in the second half. We’ll see if one or both of those changes stick, or whether they were temporary adjustments to Korkmaz’s struggles and Embiid’s absence.
Still waiting to see that improved jumper
Ben Simmons can have a massive impact on a game without a jumper, as we’ve seen time and time again. That remains an important point to emphasize.
However, it’s also worth noting that Simmons has yet to follow the simple approach of taking jumpers when they’re open, which is what he said he’d do this season at media day. He missed one fadeaway jumper Saturday from the right baseline and another from near the right elbow.
He’s shot 5 for 12 on free throws in the first two games, too. It’s a very small sample size, but that’s an area where the Sixers would love to see Simmons make significant improvement. He shot 60 percent from the foul line in 2018-19, 56 percent as a rookie.
Simmons stepped up late vs. the Pistons, playing with a contagious passion down the stretch. He had 13 points, 10 assists, four rebounds and a career-high seven steals.
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