Maybe they’d spent the bus ride reading Scott Brooks’ comments about them being the best team in the NBA. Maybe the Molly Pitcher service plaza was having a clearance sale on Nyquil. Whatever the case, the Sixers did not look like a team with something to prove on Thursday night. There are a lot of uncomplimentary adjectives you could use to describe their performance in a 122-109 loss to the Nets. In the end, though, the operative word was a noun.
“We didn’t come to play is what I saw,” head coach Doc Rivers said. “It was just one of those games. It was disappointing.”
We’re still very much in the part of the NBA season when the takes can go from bold to cold in a hurry, so don’t mistake this for a eulogy. This was supposed to be the Sixers’ biggest test of the season, but it was apparent before tip-off that it would be less than that. With Kevin Durant finishing up a seven-day COVID-19 quarantine and Kyrie Irving pulling a no-call, no show as only Kyrie Irving can, the Nets took the court without either of the stars that have made them the Eastern Conference’s prohibitive favorites. Meanwhile, an ankle injury left the Sixers without Seth Curry, whose 25 three-pointers in 42 attempts and ever-present threat for more had played a huge factor in their 7-1 start.
Still, this was the first game of the season when the Sixers looked like something less than a legitimate contender. (Their only previous loss came in a game that Joel Embiid did not play). They came out of the gates looking like they’d spent the afternoon summitting Denali, missing six of their first seven shots outside five feet and turning the ball over twice in their first five possessions. Ben Simmons missed two shots at the rim and turned the ball over four times in the first half, including a sloppy pass in transition that led to a fastbreak the other way. Dwight Howard clanked a two-handed dunk off the back of the rim. Tobias Harris was stuffed at the rim by Taurean Waller-Prince and missed a contested fastbreak layup after a steal at the opposite end.
“It’s so early in the season to be fatigued,” Rivers said, “so I would say it’s more a focus thing than a fatigue thing.”
The Sixers could have overcome all of these things if they’d had the version of Embiid who’d spent his first seven games looking like an MVP candidate. Instead, they got a guy who spent most of the night running the court as if he was wearing a spacesuit that had been left out in the rain. His shot was flat, his reaction time slow, his lateral quickness noticeably diminished. His first five shots came from outside eight feet, four of the five clanking off the rim. Late in the second quarter, he tried to take Jarrett Allen off the dribble and left the ball behind, the exact sort of flailing slop that he’d largely avoided while averaging 25.3 points and 11.7 rebounds with a career-high .528 field goal percentage and career-low 2.9 turnovers per game to start the season. The first half ended with Embiid on the bench with three fouls, eight points, and a minus-16.
The Sixers battled back to briefly hold a lead, but by late in the third quarter, Doc Rivers’ desperate search for energy left him looking past his two stars. In that regard, there were two positives to note, neither of which is new, and both of which could have huge implications for the future of this team. The first was the continued solid play of Harris, who was the only one of the usual starters to turn in a semi-competent game on the offensive end. The once-embattled veteran recorded his eighth consecutive game of 16-plus points, finishing with 17 on 7-of-16 shooting.
But Harris’ night paled in comparison to the performance of rookie point guard Tyrese Maxey, who scored 16 points in 21 minutes on 7-of-12 shooting. Playing with the confidence and decisiveness of a player who could be a significant factor come playoff time, Maxey spent the night creating a variety of shots for himself off the dribble, including a fadeaway from the elbow with the shot clock ticking down early in the fourth quarter. Of particular note was a pull-up three that he drained from the left wing in the first half: It was the kind of shot that makes you think that stardom is one potential outcome for the kid. He has all of the other tools, as he showed throughout the game: a long, strong body and excellent lateral quickness on the defensive end, an effortless handle and nose for defensive creases, a finishing ability that includes a nifty little floater that is nearly impossible to defend. If Maxey can add a step-back three to his arsenal ... well, like we said, it’s early.
Really, that’s the only consolation the Sixers can take from this one. They can make up for it in their next four games, which include a couple of showdowns with the Heat, in addition to matchups with the Hawks and Nuggets. To keep pace with any of those teams, they’ll need more energy than they showed on Thursday against the Nets.