Joel Embiid’s body language said it all. If the Sixers are the team that showed up against the Pacers on Saturday night, you can forget about the NBA Finals. They’ll be lucky to get out of the first round. After a month of practices, a handful of scrimmages, and a key lineup change, the Sixers showed up to their Orlando opener as a slightly different flavor of the same muddled soup. They struggled to score the ball in the half-court. They struggled to defend the ball on the perimeter. When they weren’t failing to take advantage of their size, they were allowing their size to be taken advantage of.
Shake Milton? Still not a playoff-caliber point guard. Ben Simmons? Still not shooting outside the paint. Al Horford? Still a $25-million-a-year backup center. Josh Richardson? Still relegated to the outskirts of an offense that doesn’t even have an inskirt. Embiid? Still the only guy with a clearly identifiable role.
Other than that, things went well.
The final tally was 127-121, Pacers, and maybe that’s worth a mention. The less talented team scored the most points, which is never the optimal outcome. But these next eight games are not about end results for the Sixers, or for the vast majority of the 22 teams whose seasons the NBA deemed worthy of continuation. While the league is calling this initial portion of its reconfigured schedule the “seeding games,” they are more or less a chance for the contenders to shake off the rust of a five-month layoff and acclimate themselves to a brave, new hermetically-sealed world.
With no fans in the stands, and, thus, with no home-court advantage at stake, the stakes for a team in the Sixers’ position are minimal. If the Sixers had beaten the Pacers, they would have moved a game ahead of Indiana for the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Avoiding the sixth seed means avoiding the Bucks in the second round, but it could also mean facing the Heat in the first. And if you think a third straight second-round exit would be most unfortunate, you should probably consider how it will feel if Jimmy Butler knocks them out first.
So, yeah, maybe we’ll look back and realize that these games could have made a difference. But this Sixers season has always been about the ultimate end, and achieving it is probably going to involve beating the Bucks at some point, and the team we saw against the Pacers on Saturday night did not look capable of doing that.
It starts where it always does, with the enigma that is Simmons, whose transition to power forward was supposed to unlock the full potential of this Sixers offense. But one thing people seem to gloss over when they say Simmons shouldn’t play point guard is that somebody has to play it. By the end of Saturday night’s game it seemed that even Brett Brown had concluded that Milton might not be that guy.
It’s a conclusion that Embiid seemed to arrive at late in the first quarter, which lead to a heated exchange with his second-year teammate during the intermission break. The drama began with just over a minute remaining in the first quarter. TJ McConnell got into the paint and found Jakarr Sampson for a layup, prompting a frustrated-looking Embiid to bark in Milton’s direction. Milton, seemingly distracted by Embiid, turned the ball over in the back court, leading to a three-pointer by T.J. Warren that gave the Pacers a 35-27 lead. After Milton picked up a charge, Embiid rebounded a Pacers miss and pushed the ball up the court himself, pulling up for a three-pointer that clanked off the front of the rim (for what it’s worth, the Sixers were in a 2-for-1 situation with the shot clock and game clock).
“It’s basketball,” Embiid said after the game. “Everybody makes mistakes. It happens. We got to come in and get better. But it’s nothing. It happens everywhere. We discussed what’s going on and you move on, you find a solution.”
When play resumed, Raul Neto had replaced Milton, a change that Brown repeated just nine seconds into the second half after Milton picked up his fifth personal foul. This might not be Milton’s last hurrah at point guard, but it certainly wasn’t a night for the resume tape.
“I thought he struggled tonight,” Brown said. “I thought he got sped up in his mind. ... I thought that he chased for the most part all game.”
Brown has mostly been noncommittal when talking about who might replace Simmons as the primary ball handler, saying only that Milton would get the first shot. Neto is the apparent fallback option if Milton proves too big a liability.
Problem is, neither liabilities nor fallback options are going to be good enough to beat a Bucks team that features one of the game’s most singularly dominant players surrounded by a cohesive group of veterans who play their roles to perfection. The unfortunate truth is that the Sixers are 66 games into their schedule and the head coach is still tinkering as if it is training camp. That’s not a good sign, because his options haven’t changed.