The Sixers (0-2) hosted the San Antonio Spurs (1-1) on Saturday night. Philadelphia aimed to claim its first win of the young season. San Antonio hoped to sweep (more like lose) a back-to-back after Friday’s win over the Pacers. The Spurs knocked down 16 threes to send the Sixers to defeat, 114-105.
Before we get to what I saw, allow me to set the scene.
The Spurs were without Dominick Barlow, who is on a G-League assignment as part of his Two-Way obligation.
Gregg Popovich started Tre Jones, Devin Vassell, Keldon Johnson, Jeremy Sochan, and Jakob Poeltl.
All Sixers were available for this game.
Doc Rivers started James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, PJ Tucker, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
If there was ever an opponent to help the Sixers find their offensive mojo, it was the Spurs. The reckless passes directly at Sixer defenders were so confounding, they’d make Carson Wentz proud. From there, the Sixers were off to the races. Getting the ball to Harden in the open court was wise business. He piled up first-quarter assists by feeding cutting teammates and shooters as the Spurs reeled to get back on defense.
They still gave up a number of long jumpers as shooters peeled away from screens, but the Sixers did a better job of containing the Spurs when the ball swung. It wasn’t always necessarily the right rotation, but it seemed like the Sixers boiled it down to finding the open man and closing in on him to prevent open looks. You still want them to figure out their principles because that identity will guide them through the season on the defensive side of the ball. But after giving up far too many open three-pointers in the first two games, it was a definite improvement, at least while it lasted.
The Sixers did a much better job finding Maxey in the first half than they did at all in the first two games. The third-year guard connected on three triples in the first half. One came off a pin-in screen after Maxey roamed into the left corner. Another came off the catch from a Harden dime on the right wing. The third came in the right corner following a jab step to get Poeltl far enough off his body to launch the shot. His teammates also made a concerted effort to get Maxey the ball in transition. Maxey got deep downhill often in the first half, creating looks for himself or collapsing San Antonio’s interior and swinging the ball to create open looks for his teammates.
Embiid looked much better on both ends of the floor, although there was a really low baseline set by the first two games of the season. He was late on defensive rotations at the rim numerous times, surrendering layups to Poeltl throughout the game. But, he was much quicker and more engaged in stepping away from the rim to perturb ball-handlers from getting deeper. He also stepped beyond the short midrange and defended with intensity on the perimeter. On the offensive side, Harden set him up for powerful plunges to the basket. He also sprinkled a couple of midrange jumpers in. Most encouraging was the aggressiveness and engagement. Embiid got to the line for 15 free throw attempts in this game. He wasn’t relying on finesse the way he did in the losses to Boston and Milwaukee. He used his size to his advantage and got inside.
Harden had quite a bit of difficulty scoring the ball in this game. But rather than force up shots to play his way out of the cold spell, Harden played within the flow of the offense. He shot 4-for-18 from the field. But as bad as that is, he didn’t take away from his teammates in those 18 shots. He still found ways to be effective to the tune of 12 assists while only committing 2 turnovers.
The Sixers made sure to acknowledge former head coach Brett Brown, who is now an assistant on Popovich’s staff, during a timeout in the first quarter. He was met with more cheers than boos, but still an overall positive reception, and deservedly so.
The very essence of Embiid’s early struggles this season came in one of the first possessions of the game. He had a runway to the basket for a dunk after receiving the dump-off pass, and the ball hit the back of the rim and popped off the basket.
It’s been a bit of a foggy start for Maxey after an incredibly promising preseason. Teams seem to have gotten the proverbial memo about his scoring at the rim. There’s now extra help rotating over when he gets to the cup, spiking the ball away when he leaves layups dangling in the air instead of getting all the way to the rim for a slight kiss off the glass. But, the other area of notable struggle is the over-aggression on defense. I wrote last game that his effort was there. He’s not just living with being a net-negative defensive player. Maxey is conscious of his shortcoming and trying to address it, which is half the battle. But, he’s over-doing it at times. And it’s manifesting in unnecessary fouls. He’s not going to eliminate the fouls entirely, no one does. But, the problem is that he’s accumulating them quickly. And if he’s doing that, he can’t be effective on offense because he’s sitting on the bench in foul trouble. He’s doing some good things on that end of the floor, but there’s a balance he has yet to find.
The Sixers’ third quarter offense continues to be a massive, massive problem. While the turnovers weren’t the problem, the shot-making was. They got some good looks off solid ball movement, shots just didn’t fall. To compound the issue, Philadelphia began hemorrhaging points on the perimeter. The transition defense was a day late and a dollar short, and the likes of Doug McDermott ripped off a barrage of triples to expand the San Antonio lead.
The Sixers had absolutely no answers for Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell. They were able to penetrate deep off the dribble and create havoc for the Sixers way too often. Philadelphia had absolutely nothing for them as they knocked down three after three and floater after floater. At some point, you have to have the pride to stop the ball at the expense of staying true to your defensive schemes. The Sixers have Tucker for a reason. When it became obvious that Johnson and Vassell had the hot hands, the game plan should be adjusted to mitigate their damage. Switch everyone but Tucker, stay home on the shooter, whatever. Letting them rip you for 43 while you do the same things over and over again is just unacceptable.
The Sixers missed a million shots at the rim in this game. Embiid, in particular, just couldn’t find touch around the basket for layups. That spells the difference in a 9-point loss, especially when that loss comes against a team that is trying to lose its way to Victor Wembanyama in next summer’s draft.
The Sixers (0-3) will host the Pacers (0-2) on Monday night. Tip-off is set for 7 PM, Eastern time. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.