The ball finally went up for the 76ers last night, as their NBA regular season began, but it took the team a while to rise with it.
In fact, it took until the second half for the Sixers to unkink themselves and play something close to attractive basketball against the Boston Celtics. The league doesn’t award wins on style points, however, just points, and the Sixers scored and prevented enough of those to get the opening victory, 107-93.
Reading too much into one game of an 82-game season is perilous, but some of the expected truths about the Sixers did make an appearance in the first one. They are, in no particular order: strong defensively, somewhat slow, challenged on perimeter offense, and largely dependent on what Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons can provide on a given night. None of that is a surprise, and the best news is that both Embiid and Simmons look very good.
The outcome, at its core, was a defensive win for the Sixers, and that looks likely to become a habit. Acknowledging his own concerns about the overall offense, coach Brett Brown selected 6-foot-5 Josh Richardson, the starting shooting guard, for double-duty as the backup point guard, choosing him over two smaller candidates. Brown made it clear that being bigger and more physical than the other guys will be a priority.
The Sixers’ defense limited Boston to 37 percent shooting, and they outrebounded the Celtics, 62-41, a disparity that proved necessary on a night when it was still a four-point game with nine minutes to play.
“If we had not done that, we’d have lost,” Brown said. “It was a war of attrition, and we played as physically as we could. Had the defense not been the defense, you would have seen a different result.”
Perhaps, although many of Boston’s misses were on good looks. What the Sixers did, however, was create an atmosphere in which the Celtics never knew when an arm would come out of nowhere to swat at them or the space on the floor would suddenly disappear. How much that led to rushed shots, or to a general sense of unease, is impossible to quantify. But there will be few teams this season, if things continue in this fashion, that feel comfortable operating against the Sixers’ defense. It has the capability to be that good every night.
“In my opinion, the offense needs to catch up to the defense,” Brown said. “I expect the defense to be quite good. If the defense can hold the fort, I expect the offense to catch up and make more shots.”
That is his plan for the season – the hitters finally catching up to the pitchers – and it is also the blueprint for how the opener went. The Sixers were disjointed on offense in the opening half, with the exception of Simmons, and held a one-point lead at halftime, only because of a free-throw advantage.
For his part, Simmons was exceptional the entire game. He didn’t make a shot from outside the basket area, but the Celtics were unable to prevent him from getting his baskets in close. He finished with 11-of-16 shooting and 24 points. The other four starters had between 15 and 17 points. The overall shooting did improve in the second half, particularly for Tobias Harris, who was 1-for-5 from the floor in the first half and 5-for-6 in the second half. Where Harris was very good, in something of a surprise, was on the defensive end. He finished with 15 rebounds, 14 of them off the defensive glass.
With strong defense and an offense that revolved around Simmons and Embiid, the night was short on surprises. Aside from Richardson’s double-duty, the only surprise was 19 minutes of playing time for Furkan Korkmaz, a player essentially discarded by the Sixers last season but re-signed when they failed to find a perimeter sniper on the open market.
Korkmaz came in when rookie Matisse Thybulle got into early foul trouble, but, according to Brown, the plan all along was to use Korkmaz as the ninth man in a nine-man rotation.
“I need to grow a bomber,” Brown said. “Why not Kork?”
There are several good answers to that question – mostly involving Korkmaz’s defense – but those will have to wait for another time. On this night, as the season began with a win, Brown made it clear that he loves his team’s defense and is still unconvinced about the other end of the floor.