Sixers Show Frightening Defensive Potential in Opener vs. Celtics

Philadelphia has plenty of size, and Wednesday's opener against Boston shows exactly how physical the 76ers plan to be this season.
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PHILADELPHIA – Let’s not talk about the game.

Seriously: Put the Sixers-Celtics opener out of your memory. If you watched the game, go watch something else. If you DVR’d it, delete it. Then throw your DVR out the window. Then run over it. Twice.

There was plenty of energy in Wells Fargo Center on Wednesday night. More than 20,000 packed the building to see a Sixers team that enters this season as honest-to-god contenders. The deconstruction of the Warriors has created a void; Philadelphia has the talent to fill it.

The Sixers have size. They are big. Joel Embiid had the best preseason he had in five seasons with the Sixers. He’s in shape (sort of) and has a new frontcourt mate in Al Horford, who Philadelphia gleefully poached from Boston last summer. Tobias Harris is 6’9.” Josh Richardson is 6’6.” The point guard, Ben Simmons, 6’10.”

They are physical. The opener was a foul-filled mess (a whopping 63 whistles) but it illustrated how Philadelphia wants to play. Embiid and Horford controlling the paint. Richardson, acquired from Miami in the offseason, jostling Gordon Hayward and helping to hold Kemba Walker to a nasty 4-18 shooting night.

The Sixers have frightening defensive potential. They can switch most positions and can bring defenders in waves off the bench. Mattise Thybulle, months removed from playing in the Pac-12, hopped in and forced Walker into a couple of bad turnovers and a few more bad shots. James Ennis gave Philadelphia 17 minutes. Mike Scott, another versatile wing, gave 16 of his own.

The numbers told the story: The Sixers held Boston to under 40% shooting (36.7%), under 30% from three (26.9%) while crushing the Celtics on the boards (62-41).

Said Sixers coach Brett Brown, “There’s a flavor defensively that’s extremely attractive to me.”

“That’s what we want to be known as—a physical team,” said Simmons.

Philadelphia’s defense is championship level. The offense? Different story. Some of the bumps are expected. The Sixers are incorporating two new players into the starting lineup. But the scouting report on Philly is they will kill you in the open floor, bully you in the paint and brick everything from beyond the three-point line.

On Wednesday, that held largely true: The Sixers shot 54% from inside the arc and 24% from beyond it. The starting frontcourt accounted for four of Philly’s seven threes. The backcourt attempted four and made none.

That includes Simmons, but holy hell is he good. Simmons is a 229-pound freight train. He is downright dangerous in transition, as he showed on several coast-to-coast layups. Matched up with the 6’8”, 225-pound Hayward, Simmons was overpowering. He punished Hayward in the paint, flipping in lobs, muscling in layups at the rim. He made his final stat line (24 points, eight rebounds, nine assists) look effortless.

“I think we’ll have a chance to see that frequently,” said Brown. “He’s just so gifted. Obviously physically, but now it’s starting to morph into a mentality. You take that 6’10” body, and that athleticism and physical, tank-like mentality and it’s a powerful combination.”

Indeed. Simmons didn’t need to make outside shots on Wednesday. But to win at a championship level, someone does. The Sixers jumped on the Celtics early in the third quarter, swelling a one-point halftime lead to 12 four minutes in. But then they went cold, allowing Boston—a team that looked equally out of synch—to cut the lead to three late in the quarter.

In the fourth, Philadelphia found some shooting and (surprise!) pulled away. A Furkan Korkmaz three pushed a four-point lead to seven. Moments later, Harris drilled another to make the lead 10. The Sixers defense did the rest.

Brown knows the Sixers need to find shooting. “I need to grow a bomber,” said Brown. Harris should be reliable—he’s a career 36.4% three-point shooter. Richardson is shooting nearly 37%. Horford, too.

Simmons? There’s an oversized focus on what Simmons can’t do, always has been. Simmons knows it. “I’m skilled, I’m gifted, I think I’m pretty good at what I do,” said Simmons. “There are things I got to get better at—everyone knows in the room. It’s shooting. I’m working.”

Does Philadelphia need Simmons to be a shooter? They didn’t on Wednesday, and while Boston isn’t the title contender it was a year ago, the Celtics are still a solid playoff team. The Sixers blew the game open late, but what happens in tight contests? Does Simmons have the perimeter game needed to assume the role Jimmy Butler seized last season? Will stronger defenses be better at exploiting Philly’s biggest weakness? Are Korkmaz, Harris, Scott and the 76ers other would-be shooters enough?

We’ll see. Philadelphia didn’t dissuade any of its supporters with its performance on Wednesday. The Sixers probably didn’t win a bunch of converts, either. A championship window is open, if Philly can bully its way through it.