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October 22, 2021

Instant observations: Sixers collapse late to drop home opener vs. Nets

The Sixers snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in a brutal loss on Friday night, coughing up a fourth-quarter lead in their 114-109 loss to Brooklyn. A home opener that had so much going for it ultimately fell apart in painful and somewhat familiar fashion.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• If there are any bad vibes left in the fanbase following Philly's crushing Game 7 loss and the ensuing Ben Simmons saga that followed, you couldn't tell at the home opener. "The Center" was absolutely rocking from pregame warmups on, as Sixers fans prepared to lose their minds over this team once again.

MORE: Simmons meets with team, says he's not mentally ready to play

The Sixers did a good job of making sure they had something to get fired up about. Local broadcasting legend Marc Zumoff received ear-piercing cheers when he rang the ball before the game, and Joel Embiid offered a pre-game address to kick off the year that included one important message — a plea to support their "brother" Ben Simmons as they work to get him back into the fold.

And then there was the basketball game, which featured a scintillating start for the home team after Danny Green nailed back-to-back transition threes off-the-dribble. Welcome back, everybody.

• One thing stood out about the Sixers as a group early in this one — they were aggressive hunting threes as a unit in a way that stood out from the average Sixers game. Seth Curry and Tobias Harris both took pull-up threes with defenders in their faces and plenty of time to work with on the shot clock, plays that would have qualified as rare occurrences last season.

For Curry, it was a major return-to-form after a quiet opening night in New Orleans and it couldn't have come at a better time/against a more formidable opponent. The Sixers put him in both pick-and-rolls and dribble handoffs with Joel Embiid, and on a normal night those plays might have led to some more touches and buckets for Embiid. But Curry was calling his own number early and often, and rightfully so, the other Curry following up his brother's brilliant Thursday night performance with 16 points of his own in the first half vs. Brooklyn.

Harris got to his buckets in a different way, but he was no less effective. It was the type of Swiss army knife game Harris flashed at his best last season — he attacked smaller players on switches, shot over defenders who conceded too much space to him on the perimeter, and he got busy in transition, providing the tip of the spear for a fast-break attack missing Simmons' talents. His lob to Matisse Thybulle midway through the fourth helped punctuate a critical Sixers run, staving off the Nets somewhat against the run of play.

In a different section we might point out that bucket, with 5:33 left, was the Sixers' final field goal of the game.

It's easy to focus on and praise the aggressiveness from these guys when your shooters have it going, as Harris and Curry did on Friday night, but it's something both of them should be encouraged to do more often. It's a borderline organizational mission to get this out of Curry, who the Sixers would probably tell to shoot almost every time he touches the ball past halfcourt.

• Every one of these passes from Andre Drummond buys him the opportunity to make two passes he probably shouldn't attempt in the first place, but you have to admit, this is a hell of a dime from a big man.

The real crime was watching Georges Niang clang an open three that came as a result of an insane behind-the-back pass from Drummond, who was quite clearly feeling himself after executing some great pick-and-rolls with Furkan Korkmaz. 

It has been said several times already, but Drummond gives the Sixers a different dimension than Dwight Howard did last season, even if that dimension sometimes leads to him biting off more than he can chew.

• I must reiterate that I don't think the Point Korkmaz experiment is something they should rely on in the long-term, but you have to give him credit for how he's looked as a pseudo lead playmaker through the first two games. Having Drummond out there with him has helped — he's a big dude who can create you some space as a screener and a threat to dunk on the roll — but that's only part of the story. Korkmaz has used pass fakes and solid reads as a passer to manipulate opposing defenders, and it has helped Philly get away with the lack of a true point guard on the bench.

Will the power of the pass fake hold up if Korkmaz continues to get these reps and teams get film on him? I'm not sure, but he has balanced the fake pass with actually finding his roll man well in the opening two games. Nic Claxton was in hell trying to figure out what Korkmaz was going to do against him, trying and failing to walk the tightrope as the Korkmaz-Drummond combination put points on the board or drew enough attention to open up a shooter elsewhere.

Being able to run this much offense through Korkmaz is a huge early-season win for Philly, even if he tails off at some point.

• Watching the first half of this game, it never felt like Tyrese Maxey was playing poorly, he was simply coming out on the wrong end of some plays. Maxey was competing hard on defense, often drawing an ultra-tough assignment on Harden, and putting pressure on the rim when he had the chance to initiate.

And just like he did in the second half of the opener against New Orleans, Maxey came to life in the second half, given more opportunities to go at defenders in the halfcourt. There was a particularly nice sequence to open the fourth quarter where Maxey cashed a runner on their opening possession and then drilled a side step three moments later, sending the home crowd into hysterics as a bench-heavy group tried to keep Philadelphia out in front.

It is not an indictment of Maxey to say he may be best suited as their sixth man right now — the backups seem to need the juice he brings off of the dribble more than the starters, his one-on-one scoring ability showing up more when the offense isn't centered around Embiid. But he's going to have (and deserve) a big role this year regardless, and it is exciting watching him problem solve in real time, finding his way even when results aren't going his way early in games.

(That said, if you are going to use him as a starter/closer, let him create more when it matters! He's the best pure handler in the group.)

• Matisse Thybulle did some excellent defensive work in this game himself, on-ball and away from the ball to deny Brooklyn's two stars from getting the basketball. When he can come up with a steal by reaching into traffic and plucking the ball out, it creates highlights that stick in your mind, but Thybulle's grunt work was more important on Friday. When you can prevent James Harden from getting the ball back after running an initial pick-and-pop while preventing the shooter from getting an open look out of the set, you're doing something right.

(Another unsung hero job from Thybulle on Friday: transition defense. There were a few potential outlet passes that Thybulle prevented by simply running hard to get back, and with Brooklyn closing in on the lead midway through the fourth, Thybulle got an extra hand in Kevin Durant's face on a transition jumper, ultimately preventing him from knocking it down. The dirty work matters.)

The Bad

• This was, to put it lightly, not Joel Embiid's best performance on the offensive end of the floor. He did a little too much dribbling at times, getting himself into sticky situations, and his jumper simply wasn't there in the early stages of this game. 

Embiid had opportunities to erase some poor shooting down the stretch, serving as Philadelphia's go-to guy for most of the closing moments on Friday. And he did absolutely nothing with those opportunities — the Sixers played slow, deliberate offense, possessions often ending in rushed shots late in the clock or with jumpers clanging off of the rim. Brooklyn is a team that is in many ways tailor-made for him to attack and dominate, and he could not create a physical advantage regardless of who was defending him.

Did the knee soreness he was dealing with impact him there? I'm sure it did, but that's not an excuse for a guy who is still on the floor. Either you have enough to go out there and get the job done, or you shouldn't be on the floor in the first place. Doc Rivers seemed to contemplate leaving Embiid on the bench with Philly up 10 midway through the fourth, but as the lead dwindled, he rethought that position, and it didn't end up making a difference.

Embiid is going to eventually have to kick it into gear on offense for this team to get where they want to go. Hot-shooting everywhere else won't last forever. The good news is that his bad games can only be so bad because of the floor he sets for them on defense, but he'll tell you himself this was nowhere near good enough. He was a big reason the Sixers melted down, and there's no spacing issue or Ben Simmons to point the finger at for this L.

(I know Harris got praise up top, but I want to be clear that he didn't exactly steer them away from the rocks late in this one. Given that he saved them in a handful of close games last year, I'm slightly more inclined to give him a pass, but the record should reflect his own role in this loss.

• Doc Rivers not using a coach's challenge on one of the controversial calls in the final two minutes was pretty crazy, even for a coach who routinely refuses to use his challenge. My guess is that his explanation will be that he wanted to preserve his timeouts to draw up plays and keep them in the bank during the free-throw battle, but you might not have been in a position to need those if you didn't let the full meltdown take place. You are going to have to gamble with the challenge from time to time, and it does not seem that reality has set in for him yet after several years of the rule being in place. 

• Seriously, I can't believe Niang missed the open three that Drummond created for him with the behind-the-back pass. The roof would have gone off of the building if he had managed to knock that down. Have to hit the momentum threes.

• Would Ben Simmons' presence have been enough to slow down the Kevin Durant hit parade? Broadly speaking, I don't think Durant really gives a shit about the guy guarding him every night. But without an A1 option to throw at Durant, he was an absolute nightmare for the Sixers to deal with, causing breakdown after breakdown once he got going.

Durant is in a class of scorer basically all by himself, the sort of player who is so dangerous that teams will throw bodies and abandon assignments out of fear that he's going to beat somebody, which is the trap the Sixers fell into on Friday. Yes, he justified that fear by knocking down a ton of shots and drawing some fouls when he made his way to the basket, but you'd almost be better off just letting him cook whoever was guarding him rather than allowing his heater to create open looks for teammates.

There were some nice individual efforts against Durant sprinkled throughout the game, but it never really ended up mattering, with Durant going around and through guys for most of 48 minutes. That dude is a hell of a basketball player, so hard to hold it against the Sixers.

• Controlling the defensive glass was a problem for the Sixers throughout the night on Friday, undercutting what was a mostly good performance against the Eastern Conference favorites. It was hard to pinpoint exactly what went wrong — there were some unfortunate bounces, certainly, but the Sixers were also let down by their own effort and positioning on some possessions, and Brooklyn often made them pay for it, turning plays that should have been stops into another three points on the board.

It's the sort of thing you want to avoid even against the lowliest opponent, but it's especially critical against teams like the Nets, who are absolutely loaded with offensive talent. It's not like this was a product of size, either, with most of Brooklyn's rotation (including Joe Harris and Jevon Carter) coming away with at least one offensive board for the evening. 

• Shooting woes aside, this is the sort of game that makes you dubious of Georges Niang's ability to impact the games that really matter. The Sixers ultimately didn't pay the price for it, but the Nets were forcing him to switch and defend smaller, quicker players in big moments during the second half. If Joe Harris hadn't been mostly cold, Niang's inability to slide around screens and defend in isolation probably would have been a much bigger deal.

The Ugly

• Seeing Embiid walk gingerly off of the floor to end the first half in the second game of the year is, shall we say, not great. I understand this is a marquee matchup, and he probably would have needed to have a limb missing in order to not play in this one, but it's not good seeing him already dealing with knee issues after coping with one at the end of last season.

Regardless of what you think about this team's ceiling with or without Ben Simmons, almost nothing matters if they can't keep this dude healthy. And while I know his health is a storyline every single season in one form or another, it's a bummer to have it pop up this soon, especially with the team playing reasonably well around the big guy. 

• Airballing several threes in the fourth quarter, in the biggest stretch of the game no less, definitely gets Danny Green in this section.

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