The moment the Sixers became Doc Rivers’ basketball team?
According to the coach, it was around 9 o’clock on Saturday night. Halftime, Madison Square Garden, the woeful Knicks hanging around by five. We’d been hearing for several years now that the Sixers were going to play some defense. And, what do you know, here it came. After allowing 55 points in the first two quarters, the Sixers smothered the Knicks in the third, holding them to 14 point while seizing control of the game with an 86-79 lead.
“It was the first time I thought we established a defensive mindset,” Rivers said later. “We came out and said, ‘Let’s get some stops.’”
Three games isn’t near enough time to make any sweeping proclamations about Rivers’ team. We’ve seen them allow 59 points in a half to the Wizards, and 34 points in a half to the Knicks. We’ve seen an aggressive Ben Simmons, and a passive Ben Simmons. We’ve seen the version of Tobias Harris who can shoot, and the one who can’t. But with the Sixers at 2-1, we have seen enough basketball to say three definite things.
(1) This is Joel Embiid’s team. For real, this time.
The good thing about regime change is that it gives us onlookers the chance to see the world through new eyes. When Rivers and Daryl Morey arrived in town this fall, the thing that stood out most was their effusive and emphatic insistence that the Sixers would go wherever their big man took them. That their emphasis on Embiid seemed so conspicuous is probably one of the reasons that they are here. While Brett Brown often labeled Embiid the franchise’s crown jewel, the Sixers just as often looked like a kingdom that didn’t know what to do with its riches.
Under Rivers, the vault has been opened, so much so that Embiid’s last-minute scratch from Sunday night’s game seemed to completely derail any chance the team had of finding its legs. Through their first two games, the big man had been the center of the Sixers’ on-court universe, with everybody else placing a distant second.
His 15 points in the fourth quarter of the season opener against the Wizards was the driving force in a 113-107 win. Three days later, he scored 27 in the Sixers’ 109-89 win over the Knicks. In two games, Embiid has scored 56 points on 20-of-37 shooting with 24 rebounds and four turnovers. Those are MVP numbers.
It’s too early to know how much of Embiid’s early showing is due to Rivers’ arrival, how much of it is due to his own self-improvement, and how much of it is due to a more complementary cast of characters around him.
But it will be difficult to tease out and isolate Rivers’ impact from any of those things. What we can say for sure is that the Sixers offense looks much more coherent working consistently through Embiid, and the space around him has been as good as we’ve seen it. In two games, he attempted 37 shots, and there is plenty of opportunity for that total to increase.
(2) The shooting around Embiid will play a big role in determining just how potent this team is.
There is no secret to the formula that the Sixers are pursuing, but they are going to need consistency from Harris and Danny Green to make it a reality. Surround Embiid with three 40-plus% three-point shooters, and it’s difficult to see how a defense can stop it.
But 40% shooters are rare, and ones who can contribute on the other end of the court are even rarer. It’s why Green, in particular, is a critical linchpin (and, frankly, why he has been one throughout his career). He remains an elite defender, as we saw on several possessions against the Cavs’ Collin Sexton on Sunday night. But Green has struggled with his shot, missing nine of the 11 three-pointers he attempted through three games.
After the season opener against the Wizards, Rivers said that he is going to be patient with Green, who is 33 and coming off a long NBA title run with the Lakers. But Green’s last five seasons were marked by inconsistency.
If he ends up being the guy who shot 42% from three-point range in his first six seasons and .455 in 2018-19 with the Raptors, the Sixers will be tough to beat. But if his production is more in line with last season, when he shot 36.7% from downtown for the Lakers, the Sixers are going to need somebody else to step up.
That somebody could be Harris, but he’ll need to become a player whom he has looked uncomfortable being since his arrival in Philadelphia. After a rough opening night, Harris connected on 6 of 11 shots from downtown while scoring 33 points in his last two games. His ability to thrive as a catch-and-shoot complement to Embiid remains a question.
(3) The ultimate question isn’t how the Sixers compare with previous years’ teams, but how they compare with the Eastern Conference’s best teams.
Specifically, the Nets. One of the biggest reasons for optimism about the Sixers in the early going has been the performance of their bench. The arrival of Dwight Howard, the emergence of Shake Milton, and the potential of Tyrese Maxey are all reasons to believe that the Sixers can run with any second unit in the league, in particular that of the ridiculously deep Nets. Keeping pace with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant is another matter entirely.
The game everybody needs to circle is on Jan. 7, when the Sixers head to Brooklyn to face the Nets for the first time. It will be their eighth game in 13 days, and the back end of a back-to-back.
This season is going to be a grind, which is why the Sixers were wise to keep Embiid on ice when his back tightened up in Cleveland. In a little over a week from now, we’ll get our best chance yet to assess the Sixers’ chances of surviving it.