Joel Embiid
Joel Embiid

The last memory the Sixers have of a meaningful basketball game was Tobias Harris laying limp under the basket late in the third quarter of the team’s loss to the Celtics. That loss completed a four-game sweep in the First Round of the playoffs. Ben Simmons had not been available to play in the playoffs due to injury. The outcome was not surprising to anyone. It was a microcosm of an incredibly disappointing season characterized by dysfunction resulting from poor fit. Joel Embiid was unhappy throughout the season. The roster decisions were not conducive to bringing out the best in him and his two favorite teammates were set free. Wednesday, December 23rd, 2020, was a new beginning. After a monsoon of offseason changes, the Sixers were ready to embark with a reconfigured roster, coaching staff, and motivation. On Wednesday evening, they tipped off the 2020-21 season against the visiting Washington Wizards. 

Before we get to the observations, of course, some notes.

Contextual Notes

The Sixers rolled out Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris, Danny Green, Seth Curry, and Ben Simmons. All Sixers were available to play in the season-opener.

The Wizards started Thomas Bryant, rookie Deni Avdija, Isaac Bonga, Bradley Beal, and Russell Westbrook.

Washington was without Rui Hachimura (keratoconjunctivitis), Garrison Matthews (Two-Way), and Cassius Winston (Two-Way).

First Half

Ben Simmons was noticeably aggressive in the opening minutes of play. He diversified his repertoire to keep Washington’s defense guessing and creating optionality for the Sixers. Simmons pressured the rim by pushing the pace in transition and was quick to make decisions in the half-court. A refreshing sight for Sixers fans was the usage of pick-and-roll play to get to the rim in a spaced floor. More refreshing than that was Simmons’ willingness to step outside of his comfort zone. On one of the first possessions of the game, Ben curled into an elbow jumper without hesitation. He missed the shot, but the significant development that opens up his ceiling is the confidence to rise into a jump shot without hesitation.

In the early goings of this game, the Sixers’ pace was excellent. Fast-paced play has been a dominant theme for Doc Rivers. He has mentioned that buzz word endlessly when talking about offense. The Sixers were successful in keeping Washington out of their half-court defensive schemes by keeping the offense moving without much stagnancy.

Tobias Harris Remains Hesitant

Tobias Harris was patient, but aggressive in the first frame of play. After struggling in the first half of Friday’s preseason contest against Indiana, Harris was reacting to defenses more instinctually and, by nature, making decisions at a more productive speed. While Harris was effective (6 points on 6 field goal attempts) in the first frame, he was still over-dribbling on the perimeter without making any progress towards the rim.

Rivers has made a point of trying to break Harris away from his habit of excessively pounding the ball. But, dribbling can be effective if it progresses the play and creates a shot. Harris did start his possessions with tentative dribbling beyond the arc, but then that over-dribbling progressed into downhill play that resulted in scores. The key for Tobias Harris is balancing those dribble patterns and parlaying them into productive actions.

Coach Rivers’ endorsement of Shake Milton has proven to be very real, as Milton drew first substitution of the game for the Sixers. He replaced Danny Green. Milton continued his hot shooting, pouring in 10 points in the first half and showing resistance to Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal on the defensive end. Following the victory, Ben Simmons commended Milton’s work on defense: “He’s just getting better and better defensively. He took that matchup and I think he did a great job. Consider the type of player Beal is, he’s going to make shots. There’s just making it tougher on him and getting the passing lanes and to make sure he gets tough shots off.”

Maxey Mania Continues

Tyrese Maxey made his NBA debut in the first frame and played just under 7 minutes in the half. The rookie was not phased by a real-stakes environment, as he continued his downhill attack in fast-paced play. He continued to get into the paint on pick-and-rolls and generated scores off of those plays. He is quite literally the first rookie guard the Sixers have had since Jrue Holiday capable of generating shots off of the dribble in a half-court setting. Obviously, we need to observe trends and themes over a larger sample size. But, it does not feel coincidental that the lead ballooned as high as thirteen points in the first half with a multi-tooled guard powering the offense.

Paying homage to Brett Brown’s tenure as head coach, the Sixers blew their double-digit lead, and a familiar foe was to blame:

Second Half

The Sixers’ offense stagnated significantly in the first half of the third quarter, and a big instigator that I observed was the offense’s willingness to settle for Simmons post-ups. Don’t get me wrong, those post-ups can be effective when the appropriate matchup is identified. But, the key is moderation. Simmons is not proficient enough in the post to run an entire offense through it, especially when it’s an entirely new offensive system with players trying to learn on the fly. The stagnated offense quickly showed itself to be lost and slogged with the flow running through Simmons post-ups. The Sixers did not break the seal on the basket until halfway through the third frame, and they trailed by twelve by that point.

Of course shooters are naturally going to be streaky. The best ones make far fewer than 50 percent of their three-point attempts. There will be hot nights and there will be cold nights. Having said that, Seth Curry and Danny Green need to have shorter leashes if they’re missing open shots. Otherwise, they need to exert themselves to create positive play when they’re on the court. Both were very underwhelming in the third frame and missed a handful of open looks from deep.

Again, three-point shooting is a specialty whose mastery can finance an entire NBA career. But, a team without multi-level perimeter creation needs those specialized shooters to capitalize on open looks to help restore order and take the pressure off of the rest of the offense. Curry and Green need to capitalize on open looks or find ways to affect positive impact elsewhere. It’s difficult to give them minutes when both are missing open looks, turning the ball over, and getting targeted on the defensive end.

Embiid Goes To Work

The story of this game was the fourth quarter, one in which Joel Embiid put his imprint on the game. The Sixers trailed by ten opening the final frame of regulation. Embiid brought them back to life with a 15-point showing in the final quarter. Embiid, Morey, and Rivers have talked endlessly about wanting him to be great and helping him activate that greatness. The big man has a binder of impressive quarters in his career, but he showed a level of motor that he did not exhibit in the past. He did not settle for lazy jumpers beyond fifteen feet, and he powered his way past helpless defenders throughout the frame. Embiid finished the game with 29 points, 14 rebounds, 1 block, and just 3 turnovers. Embiid was notably efficient, too. He converted 10 of 17 field goal attempts, only launched one three-point shot, and knocked down 8 of his 9 free throw attempts. A big component of Embiid’s growth will be parlaying his size and strength into more attempts closer to the rim and fewer from beyond the arc.

Tobias Harris had a second half to forget. The forward could not find any rhythm on the offensive end, committing offensive fouls and other turnovers. He missed a pair of wide-open triples in the late stages of the fourth period. Ultimately, he iced the victory for the Sixers. He sunk a pair of free throws with less than 30 seconds left in regulation to make it a multi-possession difference in favor of the Sixers. Following the game, Rivers gave Harris a vote of confidence: “He just missed shots. I thought he was hesitant. Even that last drive when he got free throws should’ve been a dunk. We’ll watch film, he’ll be fine.”

“He’s not young, and so I’ll be patient with him.”

Danny Green did not receive any fourth quarter minutes after starting the game. While Green had been dreadful on the offensive end and completely unable to find any sort of rhythm, it would be within reason to give the veteran wing crunch time minutes because of his defensive prowess. Rivers cited that Green hadn’t played a lot since the championship. He explained, “Danny has not played a lot. Just add Danny with that team [Lakers, played yesterday], too. It’s tough these guys played so late. He’s not young, and so I’ll be patient with him.”

“Matisse couldn’t wait to get in. That tells me a lot about his character.” 

Matisse Thybulle was not the beneficiary of regular playing time in this game, but his number was called in the final minute of regulation to put a defensive-minded body on the floor. Of Thybulle’s lack of playing time, Rivers said: “Matisse missed some time in camp. He’ll get his chance, I tell him that every day. The thing I like about him is a lot of guys, they don’t play, they give you the bad body language. Matisse couldn’t wait to get in. That tells me a lot about his character.”

There has been speculation as to who would earn the last spot in the rotation, and it looked as though Maxey was going to be the last one in. While that holds true as of now, there could be a time in the near future where the balance of minutes sways away from Maxey, if not someone else, and towards Thybulle.

Of interest was Rivers’ decision to close the game with a lineup of Milton-Curry-Harris-Simmons-Embiid. That lineup relegated Simmons to the dunker’s spot and put the ball in the hands of Shake Milton to power the offense. That was a stark contrast to the dominant proportion of the game, which featured the ball running through Simmons in most contexts. Ultimately, it worked out for the best. Curry dimed Simmons with an easy dunk to ensure the victory in the final seconds of regulation.

Philadelphia (1-0), led by Joel Embiid, beat Russell Westbrook (Embiid now 1-11 in his career against Westbrook) and the visiting Wizards (0-1) by a 113-107 final score. The Sixers now head to New York for a Saturday showing against the Knicks. Tip-off is 7:30 PM, EST. You can catch the game on NBC Sports Philadelphia or NBA TV.