NEW ORLEANS — The 76ers didn’t have it on this night.
Their standouts struggled to make shots. The Sixers also struggled to match the New Orleans Pelicans’ intensity and to avoid untimely turnovers. That combination led to 101-94 setback to the undermanned Pelicans Friday night at Smoothie King Center.
“It was a just a bad loss for us,” Tobias Harris said. “I thought we didn’t bring the physicality.”
The loss dropped the Sixers to 35-17 and a game behind the first-place Brooklyn Nets atop the Eastern Conference standings. Philly will look to have a better effort Saturday night against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
Saturday’s game in OKC is a makeup contest for a game that was originally scheduled on Jan. 17. It was postponed because the Sixers didn’t have enough available players due to contact tracing.
It won’t be hard for the Sixers to play better than they did Friday night.
They shot 41.1%, were outscored 66-34 in the paint, and committed 19 turnovers. Oh, and they didn’t have any answers for Zion Williamson.
Doc Rivers said repeatedly that he thought the Sixers were mentally weak on this night. He was asked the cause of their mental weakness.
“If I was that smart, man, I could probably triple my salary,” he said. “You know it happens. It just does. It’s a long season. I thought we had great preparation yesterday and today.
“If I could have bet the bank today, I would have and lost on execution, because I thought we did a great job on that. Then tonight, literally, even the last play, we didn’t execute right.”
Williamson, the second-year point forward, finished with a game-high 37 points, a career-high 15 rebounds, and eight assists. Unfortunately for the Sixers, their standout players were unable to match Williamson’s play.
Joel Embiid had 14 points and nine rebounds, making just 5 of 16 shots. Ten of his points came on 3-for-6 shooting in the first quarter. He became a nonfactor after that due partly to his teammates not taking advantage of mismatches.
“You know, I was really upset with our team in the first quarter,” Rivers said. “We get two early fouls on [Steven] Adams. I think we went five minutes with Adams off the floor and a 6-foot-9 guy [James Johnson] guarding him. I had to call a timeout to get the ball to Joel. That should never happen, and it did tonight.
“Again, I keep going back to we were very mentally weak team tonight.”
Harris finished with a team-high 23 points on 7-for-16 shooting. He made 5 of 14 shots through three quarters. Ben Simmons had 10 points, nine rebounds, six assists, and five steals, but also committed six turnovers. And Seth Curry was held scoreless for the third time this season. The shooting guard missed all seven of his shots, including two three-pointers.
“I don’t worry about one single game,” Rivers said. “You know, Seth has been playing well the last couple of games.”
Rivers added that he isn’t going to draw new stuff because Curry had an off night. He believes in shooters. That’s because guys don’t forget how to shoot.
“They’ll have a bad game here and there, everybody will,” he said. “It’s human nature. I mean Dustin Johnson didn’t make the cut at the Masters. What can you do? It’s just a human game. It always will be. That’s what sports is.”
Rivers said he doesn’t know if Embiid will play on Saturday against the Thunder. Nor does the coach know the status of the center’s left knee. Embiid fell to the floor on Friday night. After getting up, he touched the knee a couple of times. Friday was his third game back after missing 10 games with a bone bruise in the knee.
The knee didn’t stop him from shooting jumpers for 30 minutes — still in his uniform — following the game.
“All plans were to play Joel [Saturday],” Rivers said. “But he fell awkwardly. So now, we will have to wait and see.”
New Orleans (23-29) welcomed back Brandon Ingram (17 points) and rookie Kira Lewis Jr. (two).
Ingram missed the previous five games with right toe inflammation. Lewis missed the past three with a strained calf.
The Pelicans, however, were without Josh Hart, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, and Lonzo Ball.
Hart had surgery on his right thumb. It marked the fifth straight game the former Villanova standout has missed. Alexander-Walker missed his third straight game with a left high ankle sprain. And Ball was sidelined with a left hip flexor soreness.
Ball’s absence comes after the point guard had missed seven games, from March 21 to April 2, with a right hip flexor strain. He came back to play in three games before missing Friday’s contest.
“I don’t think they saw any structural damage, so that’s good,” Pelicans coach Stan Van Gundy said when asked if there’s concern with Ball suffering these injuries.
“I know it’s frustrating for Lonzo to be back for such a short period of time and be sidelined, again. It’s frustrating for us. You never like to lose players.”
The injuries have left the Pelicans without continuity since beating the Boston Celtics, 115-109, at TD Garden on March 29. Since then, they had lost four of five games before facing the Sixers.
The Pelicans led, 23-22, after one quarter as the Sixers made just 36.8% of their shots. Embiid was one of the few bright spots with 10 points and four rebounds in the quarter.
Harris (1-for-5), Curry (0-for-1), and Furkan Korkmaz (0-for-2) combined to shoot 1-for-8.
The Sixers’ shooting woes continued as Curry missed all three of his second-quarter shots. Harris went 2-for-6 and Embiid missed three of his four attempts. But the Pelicans also struggled from the field and the teams went into the locker room tied at 50.
The Pelicans went on to extend their lead to 15 points (86-71) on Williamson’s foul shots with 9:49 remaining.
The Sixers closed the gap to six points on Harris’ jumper with 1:43 left, but that was as close as they would get.
“I just felt, as a group, and this is even myself speaking,” Harris said, “our energy wasn’t where it needed to be as a whole group.”