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October 18, 2022

Instant observations: Sixers drop season opener to the Celtics

The Sixers are back in the wild Philadelphia sports scene, having taken on the Celtics in the NBA's season-opening tilt. Unfortunately for the Sixers, they could not carry over the vibes that the Eagles and Phillies are cultivating in the city, losing 126-117.

With our Sixers beat writer Kyle Neubeck on his honeymoon (congrats!), I will be filling in for some games over the next week with my own instant observations. Given that it's literally the first game of the season, I'm going to look at things from a macro level and see what that means down the line for this team come the spring rather than getting bogged down on what specifically went right or wrong for them up in Beantown. 

In honor of the newlywed, I'll continue on with Kyle's great "the good, the bad and the ugly" theme...

The good

• After the NBA cracked down on shooters overindulging when trying to draw fouls on threes/jumpers, James Harden was able to get one called early in the first quarter, heading to the free throw line for three shots. There was this idea that that rule enforcement was because of Harden, but I'd wager Trae Young is way more frequent and egregious offender in that regard. Anyway, Harden showcasing the ability to bait defenders into that again bodes well for his perimeter game as the season progresses. 

That happened once more in the first quarter. Harden threw his hands up in the air in textbook fashion to appeal to the referees, got the call went to the line and sunk all three free throws. Harden's peak where he was averaging almost 12 free throw attempts per game is gone, but that "craftiness," to put a positive spin on it, can still be a big element of his game. 

Harden's de-acceleration into his classic step-back jump did look Rockets-level to me though. Smooth as hell. Harden finished with 35 points while making 5 of his 9 threes and going 12-for-12 on free throws. 

• The Harden and Joel Embiid pick and roll should be the Sixers' easiest path to a basket all season:

Easy money. 

• Fourth option Tobias Harris... his best role yet in Philadelphia? Harris looked polished early on, scoring in a variety of ways from a floater to a bruising layup to a spot-up three. It's that last quality that will come to define Harris in a Sixers world that has a clear Big Three in Embiid/Harden/Tyrese Maxey. 

Harris has had a case of the over-dribbles in the past, something that may have worked well enough during his Sixers peak in 2021 when he was the second scoring option behind Embiid (with Ben Simmons in a high-level facilitator role), but doesn't cut it now when he needs to mostly be a catch-and-shoot threat. Harris ISOs should be a thing of the past in big situations, so any signs of life in his off-ball game would be welcomed. 

The bad

• It wasn't the finest evening for the Sixers' franchise player. Embiid struggled with double teams in the post, lost his dribble at times and had six turnovers. It was a a microcosm of his struggles from the infamous 2018 playoff series against the Celtics that feels about 10 years ago at this point. I say all of this as someone who believes Embiid should've been the NBA MVP at least once of the past two seasons, but his scoring from the field looked extremely taxing. 

There's always going to be a baseline for Embiid, of course. The dude still had 26 and 15. His overall game just wasn't up to the MVP form he's established as routine and he should be graded on a curve as one of the game's elite players. 

Only the Celtics possess the reigning Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart, longtime Embiid kryptonite Al Horford and a defensive roster this stacked, so this certainly won't be a recurring theme. Nevertheless, these are not new issue for Embiid when it comes to this opponent. 

I say this not to alarm any Sixers fan three hours into the NBA season, but it's something that may rear its head again if Philly finds itself playing in Boston in May. If you're boiling the NBA down to its simplest element, this sums up the game: the Celtics' superstar played better than the Sixers' superstar. It happens. The Sixers are just hoping Embiid that bests Jayson Tatum's scoring punch four out of seven times in a hypothetical postseason series. 

• Matisse Thybulle's first appearance of the season came with just 1.2 seconds remaining in the first quarter, thrown out there just to ensure another player higher up in Rivers' rotation didn't pick up a dumb foul. He didn't play another second all night. If he can't get any run when Tatum goes off for 35 points and the Sixers are in dire need of any competent perimeter D, what path does he have to actually playing this season?

• Montrezl Harrell was the first big off the bench, looking to be the early favorite to be Embiid's backup center, a position that has more turnover than Spinal Tap drummers. He was the top option on this disaster class of an offensive possession:

Harrell finished with three fouls in one minute. Paul Reed did not see the court in this game. Harrell's key to a strong backup performance this season will be working on that pick and roll game with Harden and getting in a groove there. 

• Horford clapping after making a three in Celtics green has to be torture for Philadelphians to watch.  

• James... you can't shimmy if you're going to brick a three with the closest defender to you is in the Back Bay:

The ugly

• "F--K EMBIID!" chants rang out through the TD Garden after this tie-up between Embiid and Marcus Smart in the third ground:

Smart laying on the theatrics and dirtying things up? I can't believe it! Smart was charged with both a personal foul and a technical foul on the play.

Smart fouled Embiid once more fewer than 30 seconds later and both teams were chirping each other once more. Something tells me that a Sixers-Celtics postseason series would feature a lot of Ts!

• Blake Griffin looks terrible in a No. 91 jersey. He made that jersey number change as a hat tip to Dennis Rodman, an all-time great role player, as Griffin shifts to "a guy off the bench" at this stage in his career. It's jarring though for a guy whose heyday had him as a historic above-the-rim, never-ending highlight reel. 

• The audio on TNT was wayyyy ahead of the actual game action. You could hear the Boston crowd cheering before even seeing a Celtics shot go in. Ian Eagle's voice gave away the outcome of plays before they even fully unfolded. Great way to welcome the NBA back into our lives!

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