NEW ORLEANS — Now, the 76ers hope to focus mainly on winning games.
As cliché as it sounds, the Sixers’ goal for this season, amidst the Ben Simmons saga, is to focus on what they can control. The disgruntled point guard has been in their presence for only three days this preseason.
They’ve adjusted to playing without him and can’t control whether he is present. What they can control is the effort they put forth in their increased roles without Simmons.
“For any NBA player, if you tell them their roles are going to be increased, they are probably going to be very excited,” Tobias Harris said. “It’s just an opportunity.
“The type of character guys that we have take that in a way where they want to embrace that.”
They did just that in Wednesday’s 117-97 season-opening victory over the New Orleans Pelicans at the Smoothie King Center.
Joel Embiid had his normal starring role, finishing with 22 points, six rebounds, and five assists. Harris had a double-double with 20 points and 12 rebounds. Tyrese Maxey added 20 points, seven rebounds, and five assists. Andre Drummond added 17 rebounds off the bench.
But the Sixers (1-0) won this game in large part because Furkan Korkmaz took over the fourth quarter.
That’s when the reserve guard scored 18 of his team-high-tying 22 points. Korkmaz made 5 of 7 shots in the quarter, including all four of his three-pointers.
This game also marked the head-coaching debut for former Sixers guard Willie Green, who was hired by the Pelicans (0-1) in July. New Orleans played without star power forward Zion Williamson, who is out with a right foot injury.
The home crowd made a point of reminding the Sixers that Simmons wasn’t with the team after he was suspended for Wednesday’s game, chanting “Where’s Ben Simmons? ... Where’s Ben Simmons?” in the second quarter. Then it chanted “We want Simmons ... We want Simmons” while Embiid attempted foul shots with 8 minutes, 59 seconds left in the third quarter. They also chanted “Where’s Ben Simmons? ... Where’s Ben Simmons?” again after intermission.
Furkan to the rescue
Korkmaz was a part of an all-reserve lineup of Drummond, Isaiah Joe, Matisse Thybulle and Georges Niang that started the fourth quarter with the Sixers up, 81-70.
Initially, things didn’t go well. The Turkish player missed his first two attempted shots as the Pelicans pulled within six points.
But Korkmaz ended their 5-0 run with a driving layup with 9:51 remaining. He went on to score the Sixers’ next three baskets on three-pointers to push their lead up to 13 points.
“When I was watching the game from the bench, I think we needed a push,” Korkmaz said. “I think we needed a little more pace to take the lead more. Overall, I think the second unit today, we did a good job.”
The reserves did play well, but Korkmaz put the game away. His play enabled the starters to rest and cheer from the bench the entire fourth quarter.
“Furk was amazing,” Embiid said. “That’s what we are going to need all season, especially from the bench guys.”
After Niang hit a three with 7:19 left, Korkmaz buried his fourth one from 26 feet out to give the Sixers a 19-point cushion at 98-79. All four of three-pointers came in span of 3:11.
New Orleans was forced to call a timeout after his fourth three-pointer. Korkmaz was bombarded by his teammates while walking to the bench.
“It’s good to see them celebrating like they scored,” Korkmaz said. “Like when I was coming to the bench, I saw Joel coming and jumping, Tobias coming and jumping. That was a good moment, especially at the beginning of the season.
“We are trying to get it more, and those are good pictures.”
Korkmaz scored his last four points of the game from the foul line and went to the bench with Philly up 26 points (111-85) with 3:15 to play.
Embiid was his dominant self
The MVP runner-up scored 10 of the Sixers’ first 14 points while hitting a pair of three-pointers to go with a jumper and layup. He finished the quarter with 12 points on 4-of-6 shooting to go with four assists and one steal.
The big fella, however, gave the Sixers a scare four minutes into the game. That’s when he reached down to grab his lower right leg after a defensive play. The four-time All-Star remained in the game until he was scheduled to be subbed out. At that point, Embiid had his right ankle checked.
He subbed back in 7:19 before intermission, and wasn’t as effective the rest of the half. Embiid made just 1-of-5 attempts the rest of the half. He missed his first four shots and converted a drive to the basket on the last one.
But he got back in his groove after intermission, scoring eight points on 3-of-6 shooting. He didn’t play in the fourth quarter.
Harris’ 11th season
For Harris, opening nights are always good moments.
This marked the start of his 11th season in the NBA. Harris, 29, reflected on being a 19-year-old rookie with the Milwaukee Bucks while walking into the arena Wednesday morning for the shoot-around. He thought back to the excitement that comes with wanting to get on the floor and play. Harris also recalled the “little bit of nerves” and uncertainty of his future.
“But really just the excitement of it,” he said. “When I see young guys on our team that are in that position now and getting an opportunity, it’s a great feeling.”
For Harris, these past 10 seasons have been a journey. It’s one that had him playing for four teams before being traded to the Sixers on Feb. 6, 2019. In Philly, he seems to have found a home.
Not only is Harris a team leader, he’s been their second-leading scorer since his arrival.
“I’m thankful for every moment of it,” Harris said of his journey. “And to be able to do it here with a great group of guys, just coming out with the energy we have, excitement and the chemistry that we are trying to build with group is key us.
“It’s a blessing to be a part of it.”
Maxey is one of the players the Sixers’ first unit is trying to build chemistry with, given Simmons’ absence.
The second-year combo guard got his ninth career start in part because of Simmons’ situation. Maxey had been battling Shake Milton to be the starting point guard. But the job’s been Maxey’s for the last two weeks because Milton has been sidelined with a sprained right ankle.
Doc Rivers’ instruction to Maxey before the game: “Just play.”
“‘Please don’t have me in your head or Joel in your head or anyone in your head,’” Rivers said to him. “‘Just have Tyrese in your head.’”
He wanted Maxey, who wore pink sneakers for Breast Cancer Awareness Month, to be aggressive.
Rivers had said that Milton would be sidelined for a while. However, the fourth-year veteran has recently begun working out with the player-development staff.
“I think he’s close,” Rivers said of his return. “I mean, I can’t give a guesstimate. But the fact that he’s sprinting and stopping and going, that’s huge. So I’ve got to feel that he is close.”
Green’s coaching debut
This was a special night and moment for Willie Green.
“I’m still pinching myself sometimes just understanding the opportunity that’s in front of me,” he said. “It’s ironic that I’m coaching against the team that I started in the NBA with, which is the Philadelphia 76ers.”
The Sixers selected Green with the 41st overall pick in the 2003 draft. He played the first seven of his 12 seasons in Philadelphia. Green went on to play for the New Orleans Hornets, Atlanta Hawks, Los Angeles Clippers, and Orlando Magic. He played for Rivers during the 2013-14 season with the Clippers.
Rivers wanted to hire Green following the end of his playing career in 2016. However, he ended up being an assistant with the Golden State Warriors.