As expected, the 76ers lost to the undermanned Houston Rockets on Monday night.
The 104-93 setback at the Wells Fargo Center dropped them to 0-4. It marks the first time they opened with four straight losses since the 2010-11 season.
But again, that was expected. Nerlens Noel's performance against Dwight Howard was not.
Aside from grabbing just one rebound, the rookie had a solid performance against arguably the NBA's best center. Noel finished with 10 points, a game-high six steals, five assists, and a block. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, he is the first rookie starting center with at least 10 points, six steals, and five assists in a game since the Phoenix Suns' Alvan Adams had 25 points, six steals, and five assists against the New Orleans Jazz on Feb. 14, 1976.
"I think he deserves a heck of a lot of praise," Sixers coach Brett Brown said. "To watch him front Dwight Howard and make Dwight Howard work, and for him to run the floor and show personality and a level of passion, that's what this city will end up falling in love with when it comes to Nerlens' reputation."
Noel slid from his normal power-forward position to center because Henry Sims, the starting center, has an upper respiratory infection. Sims played 13 minutes, 19 seconds in a reserve role.
Howard, whose status was questionable with a sore knee, had 11 points, a game-high 14 rebounds, three assists, and four blocks.
Holding a 48-pound advantage, Howard relegated Noel to bystander status on the boards. The rookie grabbed his lone rebound with 2 minutes, 40 seconds remaining. But Howard was no match for Noel's quickness and open-court defense.
Two of Noel's four first-half steals came against Howard. On one play, Howard tried to post up Noel. But the Sixers rookie quickly positioned himself in front of Howard, stole and the ball, and started a fastbreak.
"I was just anticipating every move he made," Noel said. "Not overly thinking, but I've been doing this a long time, where I played against guys 30, 40 pounds heavier than me. You just have to play smarter and [with] discipline."
Noel's best defensive play came against James Harden. The Rockets shooting guard easily beat JaKarr Sampson to the basket. But the 6-foot-11, 217-pounder blocked Harden's two-handed dunk attempt right before the buzzer sounded to end the third quarter.
Noel had another highlight after he stripped Howard near Houston's three-point line and finished with a breakaway dunk.
"I definitely brought the energy that I'm capable of bringing every night," he said.
Howard was at his best when Noel wason the bench. That's when the 6-11, 265-pounder was more assertive on the defensive end. He blocked shots by Luc Mbah a Moute and Hollis Thompson in a span of 11 seconds.
But the Sixers still managed to keep things close for most of the game despite committing 18 turnoversand giving up 16 three-pointers. They were unable to contain Harden (game-high 35 points) and Trevor Ariza (24 points, 6 of 9 on three-pointers). Harden made 17 of 18 free throws.
The Sixers trailed, 90-84, after KJ McDaniels' jumper with 5:17 left. The Rockets responded with a 12-2 run to take a commanding 16-point lead with 2:13 remaining.
Tony Wroten led the Sixers with 20 points.