NEW ORLEANS — Joel Embiid ran from the bench to meet Furkan Korkmaz on the court as the Pelicans called timeout, flashing sheer exuberance after his teammate buried another one of his four three-pointers in the fourth quarter.
Then Tobias Harris and Danny Green waved their towels at Korkmaz to metaphorically cool off their flame-throwing teammate, who scored 18 of his 22 points in that final period to push the 76ers to a dominant 117-97 opening-night victory.
“That’s us,” Embiid said following the game. “That’s how we’ve been this whole summer, since everybody came back. That’s the attitude everybody has had. But that’s the definition of us: being together, having fun with each other.”
It was a drastically different tone for Embiid, who one day prior said multiple times that he was not being paid to babysit disgruntled teammate Ben Simmons after he had been kicked out of practice by coach Doc Rivers. The ongoing Simmons saga has set the table for what looks poised to be an interesting, unpredictable and sometimes weird Sixers season. But the way they emphatically pulled away in the fourth quarter to blast the Pelicans brought a sense of normalcy to what had been chaotic week.
“There’s never been any doubt for me,” said Embiid, who also finished with 22 points, six rebounds and five assists in 26 minutes. “ ... It was good to kind of get off to a good start, get a win and kind of forget about the off-the-court stuff.”
The scene in New Orleans throughout Wednesday was much less of a frenzy than the one in Philadelphia the past couple days. Throngs of reporters showed up Sunday through Tuesday, first to catch a glimpse of Simmons partaking in team activities for the first time since his holdout, then to hear the disgruntled All-Star speak publicly for the first time since it was communicated through his camp that he wants out of Philly.
Simmons squashed those best-laid Tuesday plans when he was sent home early by Rivers and suspended for Wednesday’s opener.
That means Simmons was not with the team at the Smoothie King Center, just as he has not been around for the bulk of the past three weeks since training camp began. And the Sixers prepared accordingly.
Harris described a “laser focus” at shootaround — which took place as ESPN’s First Take debated the impact of Simmons’ practice dismissal and what the Sixers should do next — that carried throughout the day.
As the team returned to the arena and the clock crossed into the 5 p.m. hour, Tyrese Maxey repeatedly drove to the basket to get loose for his start at point guard. Less than a minute before the national anthem, the veteran coach Rivers dapped up Willie Green, who made his NBA head-coaching debut with the Pelicans. While the Pelicans’ video intro played, the Sixers bounced up and down in unison before breaking their huddle.
Without Simmons, Rivers and various players maintain that team chemistry continues to build.
Rivers on Monday: “The spirit has been so good, and so we’re just gonna keep going. … I think overall our chemistry is phenomenal right now, and we want to keep it growing.”
Embiid on Tuesday: “Our chemistry has been excellent, despite everything that has been happening over the last few months,” star center Joel Embiid said. " … As a team, we’re gonna be fine. We love playing with each other. You can see in practice the way we move the ball, we talk to each other.”
Harris on Wednesday: “I love the players that we have, and we got a lot to prove as a collective team, organization, all the way down the line. I still believe that we have a very good chance to be very successful in this league.”
That’s a benefit of having continuity on the coaching staff and roster entering the season. Embiid and Harris have been lauded for their leadership, both with their voice and willingness to embrace a style predicated on ball movement.
On the court, Harris said his younger teammates are inspired by the opportunity to make up for Simmons’ absence. Off of it, he has attempted to keep the locker-room mood light by cracking jokes. With COVID-19 restrictions easing for vaccinated players this season, teammates can bond over meals on the road — including a team dinner at Paladar 511 Tuesday night — to build the cohesion that becomes critical during crunch time. Embiid called that an “evolution” for him, sharing how he used to spend nights on the road in his hotel room playing video games or on his phone.
“It goes a long way,” Embiid said. “When you got that type of relationship with teammates, you can trust each other on the court. When I’m being doubled, I can trust those guys got my back and they’re gonna make the game easier for me.”
Added Harris: “Those things hold a team together through the year. Late in games, being able to hold each other accountable as teammates is key, so those moments are always important building blocks.”
Rivers did not get any game-specific questions until his news conference 90 minutes before tip-off, when he said he hoped to see his team generate easy baskets, rebound collectively and tighten their transition defense. He acknowledged the no part of the Simmons saga is enjoyable. But he said it is not difficult for him to put all that aside when he steps to the bench to coach.
“I’m doing my job, regardless,” Rivers said. “I’ve always been able to compartmentalize. I’ll just say, trust me, I’ve had tougher issues to deal with before games, and I’ve had the ability thus far to get in the game and it’s about the game.
“The other stuff you put [aside], and you focus on the game. There’s times up into the game I’m dealing with the other stuff, but when the game starts, it’s about the game.”
A weeknight game, in a football-crazed city, with star Zion Williamson sidelined, did not give this opening night much juice. Empty blue seats in the upper and lower levels overwhelmed the filled ones as tip-off neared. Smatterings of fans booed about midway through the first quarter, when Harris backed down Josh Hart for an and-1 jumper. They chanted “Where’s Ben Simmons?” and “We want Simmons!” at various points during Sixers free throws or breaks in play, but the taunts never gained traction or created momentum for the home team.
One can expect a much different atmosphere for Friday’s home opener against Brooklyn.
The Nets are the definition of a sexy opponent, even without the unvaccinated Kyrie Irving. The last time the Sixers played at the Wells Fargo Center, news broke mid-game that Simmons had abruptly shown up to take a COVID-19 test and enter league protocols, prompting a small group in the stands to chant “[expletive] Ben Simmons!” during on-court action.
Whether Simmons is in the building or not Friday, an undercurrent will surely be present within the arena. His status remains arguably the biggest storyline in the NBA, and will linger until it reaches resolution.
But he was out of sight, out of mind during Wednesday’s victory. That brought a sense of normalcy to the Sixers’ opening night.
“Sometimes adversity makes you stronger,” Maxey said. “It makes the bond closer. We’ve got to just keep building and getting better day by day.”