Doc Rivers mentioned that he really likes this 76ers squad before Monday night’s game.
Sure, the Sixers were hampered by a COVID-19 outbreak. They also had to deal with the injury bug. And Ben Simmons has yet to play in a game or get traded.
With all that, Rivers knows this team lacks rhythm and that it will take time to build that.
That was obvious during Monday’s 101-96 victory against the struggling and depleted Orlando Magic. The Sixers (11-10) were far from sharp and championship ready in a game against the Eastern Conference’s worst team.
The Sixers basically stopped playing after the first quarter. They took out their main players and went through the motions. Philly shot 34% in the second half against the Magic’s zone defense. However, the Sixers’ struggles had more to do with lack of effort than anything the Magic did.
“We were just playing bad basketball,” Seth Curry said. “It’s pretty simple. A lot of bad plays on offense and defense for the whole team.
“We’ve just got to figure out how to be better for 48 minutes. Really the last two games we haven’t been playing good basketball.”
But this victory snapped their two-game skid.
Curry was one of the Sixers’ few bright spots, scoring a team-high 24 points on 10-for-13 shooting.
Tobias Harris had 17 points and nine rebounds. Joel Embiid added 16 points and 13 rebounds in his second game back from COVID-19.
Embiid gave the Sixers the lead for good (95-93) with a pair of foul shots with 48.1 seconds remaining.
This matchup at the Wells Fargo Center was just the seventh time the Sixers played with their opening-day starting lineup.
It also marked just the third time this season that the Sixers were at full strength. The last time that Danny Green, Harris, Embiid, Curry, and Tyrese Maxey all started before Monday was Oct. 30 against the Atlanta Hawks.
But what is it about this team that Rivers really likes?
“I don’t know,” he said. “Sometimes it’s more things you like. It’s hard to write. But this team is going to be really good. I can just feel it.”
Well, they’ll definitely need to play better.
The boo birds
The Sixers didn’t exactly produce the type of performance worthy of Rivers’ confidence.
They had a commanding 16-point lead with 7 minutes, 52 seconds remaining in the half. At that time, it appeared the Sixers would coast to an easy double-digit victory. But after trailing by 11 at intermission, the Magic opened the second half on a 19-8 run to take a 64-62 lead with 6:20 left in third quarter. The Sixers heard a lot of boos from the home crowd.
They eventually regained the lead and took an 81-78 lead into the fourth quarter. However, the Sixers looked like an unenthused team while shooting 38.5% in the quarter. Meanwhile, the energetic Magic were the opposite, outhustling the Sixers and shooting 56.0%.
Philly shot 34% in the second half against the Magic’s zone defense.
“It was a win,” Rivers said. “Not inspired. I thought the first six minutes we played pretty much the right way with a lot of energy. And then after that, I don’t think we played very well.”
Embiid comes up big late
One had to wonder how Embiid would respond after finishing with 42 points and 14 rebounds Saturday during his first game back from COVID-19.
Well, the big man had a tough time making shots, finishing 4-for-16. Embiid missed seven of nine shots en route to scoring six points in the first half.
“I don’t think Joel played with a lot of power today,” Rivers said. “None of us today played with a lot of power.”
But Embiid made up for miscues with clutch foul shots and defensive plays down the stretch.
After putting the Sixers up two with 48.1 seconds left, he went on to split free throws during two trips to the foul line and had a key steal. Philly held on to a five-point win.
Green played nearly 24 minutes in his third game back from being sidelined with left hamstring tightness. The small forward was back in the starting lineup after coming off the bench in the first two games.
On this night, the 34-year-old had five points on 2-for-4 shooting to go with one steal.
He missed his first two attempts — three-pointers — before scoring on a dunk that gave the Sixers a 25-14 lead with 3:37 left in the opening quarter. He didn’t attempt a shot in the second quarter. Then Green buried his first shot attempt — a 25-foot three-pointer — in the second half to put the Sixers up 62-58 with 7:09 left in the third quarter.
“It’s feeling good,” Green said of his hamstring. “I’m taking the proper precautions. I got a whole minute restriction going on. But I’m working through it, building up the strength, it’s going well so far. They’re trying to ramp me up little by little.”
Green played 17 minutes in Wednesday’s loss to the Golden State Warriors. He then played 21:59 in Saturday’s double-overtime setback to the Minnesota Timberwolves. The 13th-year veteran sat out the fourth quarter against the Warriors. Then he played 1:11 in the fourth quarter vs. the Timberwolves, but missed the overtime sessions.
It was tough for him not play down the stretch of those games.
“Knowing that a stop or two could have changed it or a big shot or two could have changed it,” Green said, “or a little bit more communication or giving somebody a break could have helped us. But it’s tough watching from the sidelines. But it’s part of the process.”
But his restriction is something that Rivers said will probably last another week or two. The team would probably be more aggressive with ramping up Green’s minutes had he been a younger player.
“Obviously, at Danny’s age, you just got to be very careful,” Rivers said. “We’re going to take it really slow.”
Part of ‘The Process’
Markelle Fultz and Michael Carter-Williams were two key Sixers players during “The Process” years who are now playing in Orlando.
However, both players were sidelined Monday night because of injuries.
Fultz has yet to play this season after having surgery in January to repair the torn ACL in his left knee. The Sixers drafted him with the first overall pick in the 2017 draft. He played in just 33 games with 15 starts before being traded to the Magic on Feb. 7, 2019.
Meanwhile, Carter-Williams is recovering from a left-ankle injury and is in the league’s health and safety protocols. Like Fultz, he has yet to play this season. The Sixers selected him with the 11th picks of the 2013 draft. He was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks on Feb. 19, 2015. The Magic are his sixth team.
Orlando coach Jamahl Mosley didn’t give a timeline for their return.
“They’re going through their rehab as tested,” Mosley said. “And their bodies are different. The injuries are different. So they’re going through their rehab on schedule. So there’s no real timeline for them, but just see how their bodies react to what they’re going through in their rehab session.”
In all, Orlando has five sidelined players, as Cole Anthony (sprained right ankle), Jonathan Isaac (left knee recovery) and E’Twaun Moore (left knee sprain) are also out.
Rookie point guard Jalen Suggs suffered a fractured right thumb against the Sixers. He was scheduled to get his thumb reevaluated after traveling back to Orlando. Suggs is expected to be sidelined several weeks.
The Sixers travel to Boston on Tuesday for Wednesday’s game against the Celtics at T.D. Garden. The Celtics (11-10) snapped a two-game skid with Sunday’s 109-97 road victory over the Toronto Raptors.