OKLAHOMA CITY — The 76ers have had a split personality long before Doc Rivers took over as coach last season.
At times, the Sixers make the extra pass while sharing the ball and finding the hot teammate. Then there are occasions when they resort to playing “hero ball.” On those nights, things get stagnant as certain individuals attempt to become a one-man scoring machines.
For the Sixers, “hero ball” often has often resulted in losses, while they’ve had some success sharing the ball.
Doing the former paid dividends in their 115-103 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday night at Paycom Center.
That enabled Seth Curry to score 23 points of his 28 points in the first quarter. His lone basket after that was a huge three-pointer in the corner that gave the Sixers a 113-102 lead with 55 seconds left. Then he made a pair of foul shots with 36.7 seconds left to ice the game.
Curry’s three stopped an 11-4 Thunder run.
“I knew we kind of needed to stop the run,” Curry said of his three-pointer. “Tobias [Harris] found me in the corner. I just took my time, set my feet, and shot it like any other shot.”
He was one of six of double-digit scorers from the Sixers (2-1). All five starters and sixth man Georges Niang scored at least 11 points.
Joel Embiid was the playmaking center and vocal leader while tallying 22 points, 9 rebounds, 6 assists, and 3 blocks. Danny Green made people forget about his three airball three-pointers in the fourth quarter of Friday’s loss to the Brooklyn Nets. On this night, he had 11 points while making 3-of-5 threes.
Harris and Tyrese Maxey each had 14 points. Niang added 12 points while making 3-of-4 three-pointers.
This marked the Thunder’s first home game in front of fans since the NBA shutdown due to the pandemic. Back on March 11, 2020, the NBA paused the 2019-20 season after Utah center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19 prior to the tipoff of the scheduled Jazz-Thunder game here.
So there was a different atmosphere in the building Sunday night.
For the Sixers, this was a big difference from Friday’s loss to the Nets when they stuck to their first option. The lack of ball movement contributed to Brooklyn closing out the game on a 16-1 run.
Rivers knows there will be other games like Friday’s where guys get competitive and want to score.
“It’s not a selfish thing,” he said.
However, it’s a thing that has a knack for backfiring on the Sixers. It’s easy to share the ball against struggling teams like New Orleans Pelicans (their opening-game opponent) and the Thunder. Rivers has to get the Sixers to trust the extra pass against competitive teams like the Nets and New York Knicks.
“It happens, because they are humans,” Rivers said of guys looking for the own shots even when they’re more successful sharing the ball.
“I wish they were machines,” he said. “I really do. I wish I could dial them up and say, ‘Just stay here.’ That doesn’t happen. Even the great teams I’ve had, the same issues. It will always be that. That’s why we do shootarounds and practice.”
Curry’s hot start
Curry’s 23 points in the first quarter were two shy of Embiid’s record for the most points in a quarter. Embiid tallied 25 points in the third quarter against the Portland Trail Blazers on Feb. 4, 2021.
“I didn’t know,” Curry said of being two points shy of the record. “It’s pretty cool to be close to the record books. But I missed one [three-pointer] that I was open in that first quarter. I shouldn’t had missed that one.”
On this night, Curry made 8-of-10 shots in the quarter, including going 6-for-7 on three-pointers. As a result, he joined Jodie Meeks as the only Sixers with at least six three-pointers in a single quarter.
“I was just finding shots, honestly,” Curry said. “I was finding shots I normally shoot a high percentage off.”
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He moved well without the basketball. His teammates did a good job of finding him, and Embiid was solid manipulating the defense to open up shots for teammates.
“Honestly, it was nothing new,” Curry said. “I was getting good shots. It wasn’t like I was 18 dribbles, half-court 40-footers. I wasn’t like I was on a Steph type of streak. I was just finding good shots.”
Curry was referring to his sharpshooting brother, Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors.
Curry was hot at the start.
After Harris scored the game’s first basket, Curry added six straight points. Then Embiid hit a pair of foul shots before Curry tallied the Sixers’ next eight points. At one point, Curry had 17 of Philly’s first 27 points.
“The team recognized that he had it going,” Rivers said. “That’s the sign of a good team. They see that he had it going, and they were running Seth Curry left, Seth right. On postups to Joel, they were cutting to get Seth shots. It’s really great recognition by our group.”
He cooled off a little bit in the second quarter, missing his two shot attempts — both three-pointers. Then in the second half, Curry only attempted three shots while looking to set up teammates.
To his credit, the eighth-year veteran didn’t force things after the Thunder started paying more attention to him from the second quarter on. OKC began dubbling him and taking his catch away.
“The great part about Seth was like, Ok, If you start doubling me, we got shooters galore,” Rivers said. “’We got be people on the floor. The same thing Joel did today. So that’s growth.”
As has been the case for the last couple of seasons, Embiid was a game-time decision after being listed as questionable. This time, he was battling right-knee soreness.
He did routine pregame workout 45 minutes before game time. Embiid was locked in while taking instructions from assistant coach Sam Cassell and knocking down shots over a member of the player development staff. He did various drills and attempted foul line for 10 before heading into the locker room.
Once in there, he informed the Sixers that he was able to play.
That wasn’t a good thing for the Thunder, as Embiid was a vocal leader and led with his performance.
Embiid’s knee looked fine, as his versatility and athleticism were on full display.
Early on, he was playing point center. He would grab defensive rebounds, sprint up the court with the ball and find open teammates. After grabbing his first defensive rebound, Embiid ended the play by assisting on a three-pointer by Seth Curry.
Embiid was also solid on the defense.
He had an insane block on Darius Bazley’s dunk attempt. Embiid’s force on the ball knocked Bazley to the floor.
Embiid did everything on this night, even knocking down courtside fans while going after a loose ball near midcourt. The four-time All-Star had to leave briefly leave the game. He had to change his tights due to bloody left knee.
Once he returned, Embiid continued to set up teammates and instruct them where to be on the floor.
He made the Thunder pay when they tried to trap him.
“It was just great to watch, because they kept walking over, coming over and he was just patient,” Rivers said. “He just sat and was patient, picking people apart. ... Tom Brady-ish is what Joel was today.”
Embiid declined to speak to the media following the game.
While he played, backup center Andre Drummond was sidelined with a sprained right ankle. Power forward Niang played backup center against the Thunder.
Undersized at 6-foot-7, Niang doesn’t give the Sixers the rebounding of Drummond or reserve center Paul Reed. But he’s a solid three-pointer shooter that spaces the floor.
The Sixers were up 87-78 after three quarters.
They opened the fourth quarter with an all-reserve lineup of Isaiah Joe, Paul Reed, Niang, Furkan Korkmaz and Matisse Thybulle. The Thunder pulled within seven points on Jeremiah Robinson-Earl’s basket. But the Sixers responded with an 11-0 run to make it a 98-80 cushion after Niang’s three-pointer with 9:49 left.
First game back in front of Thunder fans
This marked what felt like the first true home game for Thunder second-year coach Mark Daigneault.
OKC opted not to play in front of a paying home crowd last season even after COVID-19 restrictions were lifted. They let friends and family members of the team attend games late in the season. They sat in the second level.
So this was the Thunder’s first game back in front of paying fans after playing their first two games on the road.
“I feel thrilled for all the guys,” Daigneault said. “We’re excited. I mentioned many times that’s how you connect with your fan bases, you know, at the games. So we’re thrilled to have them back in the building.”