The Philadelphia 76ers (1-1) visited the Oklahoma City Thunder (0-2) on Sunday night. Philly was looking to right some of their wrongs from the Friday night loss to the Nets in the season’s first game at the Wells Fargo Center. The Thunder had designs to claim their first victory of the season. Seth Curry connected on 7 triples, and the Sixers left Oklahoma City with a 115-103 victory.
Before we get to what I saw, some notes.
The Sixers were without Andre Drummond, who was nursing a sprained right ankle. Shake Milton (sprained right ankle) and Grant Riller (recovery from torn left meniscus) were unavailable. Ben Simmons continued to be away from the team due to personal reasons.
Doc Rivers started Tyrese Maxey, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
All active Thunder were available. Mark Daigneault started Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Luguentz Dort, Josh Giddey, Darius Bazley, and Derrick Favors.
Joel Embiid got the game rolling by registering a deflection in a Thunder passing lane that he then chased into the first row to save from going out of bounds. Embiid bowled over a spectator sitting in the front row. Fortunately, no one seemed to be injured in the scary collision. First, my goodness — imagine a 7-footer carrying 280 pounds of body mass coming full speed your way. Second, it’s the third game of the season. You’re playing the lottery-hopeful Thunder. That is one of those moments where it’s acceptable to prioritize your health (and spectator safety) over making the hustle play.
Speaking of the big fella, that wasn’t the only admirable hustle play he went for in the first quarter. He recorded a ridiculous rejection at the rim against a charging Darius Bazley. The most impressive part was that Embiid was getting back in transition when Bazley began his attack, and he still blocked the dunk as if it were a volleyball. Words won’t do it justice:
MY GOODNESS, JOEL. pic.twitter.com/J9uArAVH5T— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) October 24, 2021
Plays like that are why Defensive Win Share is an advanced metric that inherently favors centers — and perhaps for good reason.
Once Embiid departed from the game to change out of his bloody compression pants after suffering a cut on his leg, Rivers opted to go with a small-ball lineup featuring Niang in the middle. That decision to push boundaries was almost certainly less about preference and more about the fact that Drummond was unavailable, though. In a very short experiment, the Sixers proceeded to hemorrhage points at the rim. That weakness might be more exploitable when you encounter long, athletic teams like the Thunder. But, the degree to which such small-ball lineups would be exploitable on a night-to-night basis isn’t the problem. It’s that such a shortcoming is very obvious to opponents. So regardless of their own personnel, they’ll try to exploit Philly in the middle in lineups where Niang is the de facto big man.
Niang is a fine-enough combo forward. If nothing else, he’s a massive upgrade over Mike Scott. But, he’s not vertically athletic or laterally agile. He can neither protect nor attack the rim the way that a small-ball big must be able to in order to be effective. So, teams are always going to pick on him if Rivers puts him in that spot without being precipitated by the opponent also going small. To the head coach’s credit, he seemed to recognize and adjust rapidly. Paul Reed saw minutes at center with Niang at the four to open the second quarter.
Curry’s ridiculous start to the season continues to grow increasingly ridiculous. The sniper canned six triples in the first quarter, and he did so in a variety of contexts. Whether it was squaring his shoulders as a ball-handler out of Double Drag sets or tip-toeing to the weak-side corner and waiting for Embiid to hit him out of a double-team, Curry found rhythm just by touching the ball.
The First Three Games Have Not Been Kind To Danny Green
It’s been a rough go for Danny Green to start this season. His defense was awful in the season-opener and his offense was brutal late in the home-opener. In the first half against the Thunder, the defensive woes struck again. He made a few gambles in the half-court that didn’t pay off, allowing his man to catch the rock and push the rim for scores. He also had a brutal turnover late in the first half and did not get back on defense with any degree of urgency. Overall, Green looks a bit slower to start this season than he did last season. Perhaps there’s something lingering in the legs from the injury that knocked him out of the playoffs. Maybe he’s dealing with some sort of other discomfort to start this season. Rather than assume injury, one might just chalk it up to him being a wing in his mid-30s who was never the most dynamite athlete to begin with.
Whatever the case, you thought he might struggle on offense without Simmons around to feed him bullets in the corners. But, this version of Green looks as if age has hit him with an aluminum baseball bat. I don’t think it would ever get to the point where he’s out of the rotation, since Rivers has the utmost affinity for veterans. But, Green simply needs to be much better.
It might be part of a conscious effort to stay away from contact down low to because of the knee soreness, but Embiid has been far too willing to start possessions high instead of establishing himself in the post. Some might just look past it because Embiid is initiating dribble hand-offs or trying to facilitate the offense in some other capacity. It’s not as if he’s just standing around idly on the perimeter. The problem is that it’s not producing effective offense for Philly. Rather than Embiid initiating high, there should be a better effort to get him deep seals on the left side of the floor with a shooter feeding the entry pass so as to lift the help defender away from Embiid’s space.
To his credit, Embiid was productive as a playmaker. He registered 6 assists with no turnovers through three quarters of this game.
SGA Touches On What Will Be A Theme For The Sixers
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander demonstrated the most pressing defensive concern that the Sixers will have in Ben Simmons’ absence. Sunday was the first time this season that Philadelphia faced a lead ball-handler featured as the undisputed face of his franchise. And Gilgeous-Alexander dominated as a scorer and playmaker. Philly might be able to handle guards that go one speed, such as Russell Westbrook. But those that can change paces on a dime as they toggle through switches and tight spaces are going to torture Philly. The simple fact of the matter is that Philadelphia has no one capable of playing up on a ball-handler. The Sixers lack the personnel to beat opposing guards and wings to desired spots, out-muscle them, and engulf them with wingspan and height. The gripes with Simmons’ offense are more than valid. But, he neutralizes just about every dynamic guard and wing in the league.
By the way, it’s only going to get more challenging to strategize against, too. Gilgeous-Alexander was a problem on a team that is intentionally constructed to get a high lottery pick. The Warriors, Wizards, Blazers, and many more have credible complimentary pieces that will both help space the floor for that featured guard or wing and pose their own threats to Philly’s secondary and tertiary perimeter defenders.
The Sixers (2-1) will loop back to New York to visit the Knicks (2-0) on Tuesday. Tip-off is set for 7:30 PM EST. You can catch the action on TNT.