One game doesn't make a season. What do the Sixers need most?
Drawing conclusions from the first game of the NBA season can be dangerous.
Remember when Michael Carter-Williams and the 76ers started the 2013-14 campaign by beating LeBron James and the Heat and then won their next two, only to finish 19-63? While that’s an extreme example, you get the point.
But the Sixers’ 107-93 victory over the Celtics on Wednesday night clearly showed that defense needs to be the calling card for a team with championship aspirations.
With newcomers Josh Richardson and Al Horford in the starting lineup, it’s going to take some time to get the offense in sync. And the absence of a constant perimeter threat since JJ Redick signed with the Pelicans is probably going to result in more 7-for-29 outings from 3-point range like Wednesday’s.
Expect occasional stretches in which the offense is stagnant and quality shots are difficult to find.
To keep winning, the Sixers are going to have to continue their high-level defensive work and utilizing their size/length to dominate the rebounding. They held the smaller, seemingly quicker Celtics to 36.7 percent shooting from the field (33 for 90), including 26.9 percent on 3s (7 for 26), and a 62-41 advantage on the boards.
“Every team that I’ve been with, offense needs to catch up to defense (early in the season),” Sixers coach Brett Brown said. “If you play hard and stick to simple rules and you have a team like I have, with the length that they possess, I would expect the defense to be quite good and our offense maybe not so (much). Had our defense not been our defense, we might have seen a different result.”
It’s similar to how pitchers are ahead of hitters in spring training.
The most important matchup for the Sixers on Wednesday was Boston point guard Kemba Walker, a 6-foot scoring machine who scorched Philly for 60 points on 21-of-34 shooting with the Hornets last November. Richardson and rookie Matisse Thybulle combined to hold Walker to a 4-for-18 night with just 12 points.
“I’m taller than him, so using my length on all his shots, trying to get my hands in his vision,” said the 6-6 Richardson. “He’s one of the best players in the league. Just trying to make it tough on him.”
In addition to being able to contest shots and play the passing lanes with their length, the Sixers’ starters are capable of being quite physical. Brown calls it “bully ball.”
They seemed to impose their defensive will on the Celtics, especially during a third quarter in which Boston managed just 20 points on 8-for-24 shooting (33.3 percent). Walker missed all five of his third-period attempts, while the Sixers blocked three shots in the quarter.
A one-point halftime lead became a nine-point edge heading into the fourth quarter.
“I think we want to be known as a physical team,” Ben Simmons said. “And it starts on defense. I thought everybody, defensively, was solid.”
Having Joel Embiid (13 rebounds, three blocked shots) as a rim protector is a huge reason why the Sixers believe they can be a top-5 defensive team in 2019-20. Embiid consistently makes his presence felt down low and deters opponents driving the lane.
“I felt like Joel was great covering for us in the back,” Horford said.
The importance Brown places on defense was the reason he cited for using Richardson, the starting shooting guard, as the backup point. Brown said during the preseason that he preferred not to do it, but Richardson’s defense is so much better than other candidates Raul Neto and Trey Burke that he couldn’t help it.
The only one of the nine players Brown called upon for more than four minutes who is not regarded as a quality defender is third-year swingman Furkan Korkmaz. Though Korkmaz drew an offensive foul, his primary role is to knock down jumpers. Korkmaz hit his only 3-point attempt to help the Sixers pull away during his 19-minute stint.
“I need to grow a bomber,” Brown said. “Really. Somebody’s going to emerge like lightning in a bottle where they can come in and go bam, bam, bam and make a 3. Why not Furk? We’ll look at it.”
The next challenge in a league filled with scorers will be Saturday night on the road against the Pistons, though Detroit is without injured star Blake Griffin.
Perhaps the offense will be slightly better than it was in the opener. Even if it is, the defense must continue to separate the Sixers from most of the league’s other clubs.
Tom Moore: firstname.lastname@example.org; @TomMoorePhilly