Opener a reminder Sixers have ‘old habits,' familiar issues to overcome


BOSTON — Tuesday night at TD Garden surely felt much more familiar than the Sixers envisioned. 

Though four players made their Sixers debuts, problems the team knew too well last season factored heavily in a 126-117 season-opening loss to the Celtics. 

“Long way to go,” Joel Embiid said following a 26-point, 15-rebound outing. “Defensively, we were not good. Offensively, I thought the ball didn’t move much. It stuck and we went back to our old habits. It’s all on us. All of us, we’ve just got to be better.”

One recurring issue: The opposing bench had better ball handling, more scoring pop, and more positive impact than the Sixers’.

Malcolm Brogdon gave the Celtics 16 points on 7-for-11 shooting and Grant Williams added 15 on just five field-goal attempts. The Sixers’ second unit collectively posted 11 points on 4-for-13 shooting. In the 2021-22 campaign, the team was 28th in bench scoring. 

“I like how our starters played overall,” Sixers head coach Doc Rivers said. “I didn’t like how our bench played overall.”

Though the Sixers used 10 players, Matisse Thybulle only saw the floor for approximately 24 seconds as an end-of-quarter defensive specialist. Montrezl Harrell backed up Embiid and Paul Reed didn’t play. 

“Just I thought Montrezl earned it,” Rivers said of that decision. “I thought he played well in the preseason. We liked the matchup tonight because they go small and Trez usually has a great effect. But Trez has to play better.”

The Sixers also struggled, as they frequently did last year, with defensive essentials. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum were fantastic in combining for 70 points on 27-for-44 shooting, but P.J. Tucker, De’Anthony Melton and Danuel House Jr. did not strikingly elevate the Sixers’ defense in Game 1. 

“I just think we got beat off the dribble a ton — just open-court blow-bys — and that breaks you down,” Rivers said. “Then the next guy helps, and that leads to a shot. I thought honestly, just controlling the ball, we had a poor night. Just keeping the ball in front of us. That led to so many other mistakes.”

Embiid emphasized a common weakness for teams incorporating new players. 

“Communication,” he said, “especially if we think they’re going to play with that lineup and have me guarding Al (Horford) spacing out in the corner where I can’t really help on those actions that they ran at the end of the game. We’ve just got to communicate better. We’ve just got to be on the same page; we’ve got to be together.”

Again, the Sixers’ transition disadvantage was stark. At a certain point, it seemed every one of the team’s 14 turnovers was bound to have disastrous results — a crowd-thrilling Tatum slam or back-breaking Marcus Smart three — and the outcomes weren’t far from that perception. 

The Celtics scored 24 fast-break points and the Sixers notched just two. Boston had 169.2 points per 100 transition plays, according to Cleaning the Glass, while the Sixers had 75.0. 

James Harden looked very threatening when going downhill — and in most other situations, too — on his way to 35 points, eight assists and eight rebounds. He didn’t have a ton of legitimate opportunities to attack backpedaling defenders, though. 

The Sixers couldn’t string together stops. And, while they plan to play more disruptive defense this season, they forced a modest 10 giveaways on Tuesday. 

“Every team preaches we get defensive stops, we get out in transition, and we’re a better offensive team,” Harden said. “Everyone feels like that. But I think for us, we have a chance of being really good on both ends of the ball — like, top-five is the goal. Right there, you give yourself an automatic chance to be the last team standing. 

“Defensively, we weren’t great for the course of four quarters tonight, but we’re working our way in that right direction. Limit our turnovers offensively. Defensively, in transition we can be a lot better, and (then) we’ve got a really good chance.”

On the other end of the court, the Sixers hope for fewer slow-developing possessions and “my turn, your turn” stretches.

There’s clear room for improvement. Rivers stressed entry (and re-entry) passes to Embiid heading into the season, but the Sixers prefer when their focus on getting him the ball doesn’t contribute to minimal ball and player movement as the shot clock dwindles.

“It’s a tough balance,” Rivers said. “We’re not like most teams that are guard-oriented, popping and all that, so you’re going to the post. I thought it was pretty good overall. I thought a couple of times … when Joel puts the ball on the floor and turns his back to the defense, they’re coming every time. I think we’ve got to handle that better. 

“They fronted him once and no one flashed to the nail in time. They came, but it was 10 seconds late. So there were a couple of things that made us stagnant there. But overall, I’d say I’d take it.”

Embiid’s assessment of the Sixers’ offense was less generous. He’d like the team to explore more of the possibilities that stem from his pick-and-roll with Harden.  

“We’ve just got to keep playing off of each other,” Embiid said. “We’ve just got to have multiple actions. I thought at times they defended that pick-and-roll pretty well. But then again, what’s next? The ball can’t stick. In those situations, we’ve just got to keep moving the ball, going to the second action. It just doesn’t stop at the pick-and-roll. Even if they stop it, we have a second and third action, whether it’s playing with him and myself, changing sides and all that.

“There’s so much we can do out of that, but we just can’t let the ball stick.”

The brightest part of Tuesday for the Sixers is that Harden’s showing was not what the team came to expect last season.

But, with the Bucks up next in Philadelphia on Thursday, the 33-year-old redirected a question about himself. 

“I feel pretty solid,” Harden said. “We’ve got a long journey, long way to go, but it’s not about me individually. I know what I’m capable of. It’s about doing the right things to try to help this team win. For us, we feel like we had stretches where we were playing very, very well, and then times where we allowed them too many easy points. Especially on the road, it’s going to be difficult to recover. Learning lesson. Watch the film, get better, be ready to go Thursday.”

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