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October 16, 2018

Instant observations: Celtics continue dominance of Sixers in 105-87 victory

The Sixers had all offseason to stew over their defeat at the hands of the Boston Celtics last summer. Markelle Fultz had all summer to get up thousands of reps on his jumper in an empty gym to give the Sixers a boost from within. And yet, when push came to shove, Game 1 of the new season looked a lot like Games 1-5 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, with the Celtics pulling away from the Sixers in a 105-87 victory.

There's a lot of experimenting upcoming for this group in the months ahead, and they will surely play better than this. But there was a whole lot of bad in the opener, as you'll see below.

(We'll dive into the weeds for the usual, more in-depth film session in the morning.)

The Good

• Ben Simmons had more demons to exercise than just about any player on the Sixers roster on opening night. His one-point game against the Celtics in last year's playoff series was used to mock him all summer, alongside a flood of, "Shoot a three, coward!" memes from Celtics fans.

There weren't any threes, but Simmons' urgency was pretty much the only reason Philadelphia didn't get buried in the first quarter. The Sixers closed out the first period on a 7-0 run, and nearly all of that can be credited to Simmons, who attacked the paint, found teammates for easy looks, and was an absolute force on the defensive end of the floor.

Simmons was so indispensable to their effort, in fact, that he only got to sit the first 1:13 of the second quarter before having to spell Dario Saric, who left the game in foul trouble. I was half surprised Brown didn't ask him to play center with how bad Amir Johnson looked in his time on the floor.

• Speaking of Simmons, that special level of passing hasn't gone anywhere.

This kid is going to be pretty good, jumper or not. This is what the Sixers need to see from these two working off the ball, though it definitely helped that Kyrie Irving just didn't give a shit about defense on this play.

• One interesting wrinkle the Sixers rolled out that I will go into further detail on later: they intentionally used Joel Embiid to defend players other than the natural matchup at center with Al Horford. He didn't necessarily shut down the players he ended up on an island against, but it threw a wrench into how Boston tried to attack him last spring and forced them to adjust a bit.

Even shots the Celtics hit over Embiid — like a ridiculous stepback jumper Tatum made over him in the first half — were a product of great offense rather than any limitation of the young center. Boston has a talented group, but their offense struggled last year because they lacked individual creation ability. Embiid matching up on wing players highlighted that.

Brett Brown has been a bit slow to adjust in the past, so I think it was pretty encouraging that we saw him experiment more against a team many assume is a future playoff opponent.

The Bad

• Pretty much everything about the start of this game was horrendous. Both teams couldn't buy a basket on offense, fumbled the ball on routine plays, and looked like they hadn't played a real game in months. It did not exactly scream, "The NBA is back!"

Gotta get the jitters out at some point, I guess.

• The repercussions of playing two non-shooters in the backcourt together were already starting to make themselves clear in the first quarter of basketball this season. That is pretty obviously not good.

The thing is, the area where the Sixers were impacted was in the paint, and not necessarily on the perimeter. Boston did not show much (if any) respect to Fultz and Simmons on the perimeter, which allowed the guys guarding them to sink toward the paint and guard against entry passes to Embiid. Several different entry passes meant for Embiid were swatted away and either became turnovers or forced resets of the offense.

A lot of the argument for starting Fultz rested on the ability to get easier looks for Embiid, beyond the other obvious developmental reasons. If he can't even get the dang ball, that's a problem.

• Going to double down on the above because it is so important to the team's success this year: Fultz HAS to take open threes if they come to him. This is not going to work if teams can sag off two of their most played players, period.

• Joel Embiid may indeed be in better shape and primed for a huge season, but if he doesn't clean up the turnover problem, the ceiling for this team is going to be capped moving forward. He was "credited" with four turnovers at halftime, and I think even that number is generous to him — there were probably one or two more that he was culpable for that got credited to other teammates.

Embiid clearly thought part of this was a product of his teammates' inability to get to their spots because he screamed and pounded the floor in frustration more than once after tossing the ball out of bounds. That may indeed be true, but the turnover problem has been so persistent for him that he needs to ultimately take responsibility and take care of the basketball.

The tunnel vision has to stop. When Embiid is a willing and considerate passer, the Sixers are considerably better on the offensive end of the floor. No matter how talented he is, they can't survive as an offense if he just tries to play bully ball every night instead of picking his spots. Finding that balance is the difference between another good, ultimately fruitless season and one where they make real noise in the East.

• Dario Saric couldn't buy a jumper, was in foul trouble most of the game, and was ineffectual as a defender against Boston's smaller, more athletic wings. Not the best opening night for The Homie.

(If Brown was going to show off some lineup flexibility, by the way, tonight was a night where you bring Saric off the bench. The Sixers were thin up front and could have hit Boston with a smaller lineup that included Redick to start the game, and then the complexion of the game likely changes. They're trying to develop their normal rotation, sure, but a little creativity never hurt.)

• Amir Johnson scored on his own basket in the second half. I'm not sure he can be too involved in future matchups against the Celtics.

• The most revealing part of this game may go unnoticed by a lot of people, but I thought Brown revealed (without saying so) that his explanation for benching Fultz to start second halves is absolute nonsense.

If the idea was wanting to get Markelle Fultz more reps as the clear point guard and playmaker on the floor, that's at least semi-defensible given his history at the position and the need to put the ball in Simmons' hands. But Fultz sat the first eight minutes and change to start the second half, and when he did step on the floor, he was positioned in the backcourt next to T.J. McConnell, who is a point guard through and through.

I think there's a very obvious reason Brown is making the second half compromise: he is hedging against the decision to start Fultz now that we've seen him get more run through the preseason, and is trying to restore lineup consistency without killing Fultz's confidence. It's the most obvious explanation, though the team would never admit to it.

Fultz did not do much to impact the game, and the Sixers were wildly outplayed in his minutes on the floor. If he's just going to stand in the corner without the ball in his hands, what is his purpose?

The games matter now. Yes, Fultz deserves a chance to grow and figure things out. But if there's no logic to how he's being used (or not used), that deserves to come under scrutiny every single time.

• It is not a good sign for the team's depth that Simmons played 23/24 minutes in the first half and 40+ for the game. I don't care how young and in shape he is, that can't happen.

• Going to be tough for the Sixers to beat the Celtics, now or in the playoffs, if Aron Baynes and Marcus Smart outshoot Redick, Saric, and Robert Covington from three. 

The Ugly

• All preseason, officials called fouls on what seemed like every other play to enforce their new "freedom of movement" point of education. It made for a grueling watch, and nobody wanted that to carry over to the start of the season.

But, uh, it is still possible to call fouls in general, fellas. The first three to four minutes of the game were basically played with prison rules, where guys got away with contact on both sides as long as a shiv wasn't hanging out of the opponent's back. To go from such an extreme degree of calling fouls to letting everything go is a little nonsensical, but as predictable as it gets.

Just be consistent, that's all I ask. Otherwise, it's unwatchable.

• Aron Baynes morphing into a legitimate three-point shooter against the Sixers is one of the most ridiculous and inexplicable things I can remember seeing in sports.

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