When I landed in Philadelphia a few days ago, I turned on 94 WIP, a local sports talk radio station. A caller going by Angry Al—which frankly could be any and every fan named Al in this town—did an excellent job trashing the Sixers. He was dubious about their chances against the Brooklyn Nets in the first round of the playoffs. He said the Sixers didn’t know how to play together and advised them to “go somewhere and run some guys off a street court,” though he sounded skeptical about their chances even in that hypothetical pickup game. Al was very angry—and now he’s got plenty of company around these parts in feeling that way.
Game 1, a stunning 111-102 Nets victory at the Wells Fargo Center, was … not ideal for the city. It was a nice start to the series for Brooklyn and something quite the opposite for Philly. As highlights go, Jimmy Butler played well (a game-high 36 points, nine rebounds, two steals, and two blocks), and Joel Embiid played. That last part was in question. Embiid missed 13 of the team’s last 23 regular-season games due to “load management” and, more recently, what he and the team are calling tendonitis in his left knee. He went through warm-ups with a brace, then took it off for the game. Embiid had 22 points, 15 rebounds, five blocks, and four assists. It’s a monster line, though Embiid didn’t always look like a monster in the game. Brett Brown said that even though Embiid was dominant at times he also “looked like he hadn’t played for a while” and seemed “tired” toward the end. Embiid didn’t disagree. After the loss, he called himself “out of shape.”
Aside from the very beginning of the game, it never felt like the Sixers were really in it. “If you look at the starting five,” Brown said, “Ben had a down game. Tobias had a down game. JJ had a down game.”
It was a good summary. Not much went right for the Sixers. They attempted 25 3s—and made three. It was ugly offense. Ugly defense, too. They’ve gotten torched all season by opposing guards; Saturday wasn’t any different. As Brown put it, they were “exposed.” D’Angelo Russell, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Caris LeVert roasted Philly. It felt like those three scored roughly all the points, but I checked: They scored only a combined 67. Meanwhile, the Sixers had just three players put up double-digit points—Butler, Embiid, and Boban Marjanovic. That is probably not how the Sixers wanted it to go. Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson said “slowing down” Tobias Harris and JJ Redick was “a big part of our plan.” The plan worked. Those two—arguably the two best shooters on the team—took only seven shots each. There were also long stretches of the game when I forgot that Ben Simmons was on the floor. My kind coworkers had similar thoughts and picked the perfect time to express their Simmons-related concerns.
The Sixers won more than 50 games for the second season in a row. It’s the first time that’s happened in more than three decades, and yet civic confidence is waning. It’s only one game—everyone around here keeps repeating that to each other, like a parochial Gregorian chant—but there’s genuine cause for concern with the Sixers right now. Embiid’s questionable health alone is reason to worry. Beyond that, Philly is facing a team whose chemistry has the Sixers looking like a pack of strangers in comparison. It’s not just optics, it’s reality: The starting five of Simmons, Redick, Butler, Harris, and Embiid played only 10 regular-season games together. They went 8-2 in that stretch and had a 119 offensive rating and a 101.4 defensive rating, according to NBA.com/Stats, which would make them the best five-man lineup in the league by a wide margin if only we could overlook that they averaged just 16.1 minutes per game as a unit. In the run-up to the series, the Philly media and fans did a lot of hand-wringing about the team not knowing how to play together yet. That initially felt like the usual provincial fatalism—this city has led the league in that metric for as long as I can remember—but after Saturday, it’s hard to blame people for fretting.
The Sixers haven’t been shy about their expectations for this season. They publicly declared their “window is now.” That’s obviously what the Butler and Harris trades were about. And they came into their first-round series as the heavy favorites to advance. ESPN’s predictive model gave the Nets roughly one shot in four to beat the Sixers. FiveThirtyEight was even less bullish on Brooklyn and had the Nets’ odds of advancing at 6 percent. I don’t think anyone around here is feeling too good about those forecasts now.
Before the Sixers hosted the Nets on Saturday, Brown predicted the series would be “a fistfight.” Atkinson thought that was amusing when the remarks were relayed to him.
“The head coach of Philly saying that doesn’t surprise me,” Atkinson quipped in what he meant to be some very light, good-natured teasing of the town. Atkinson had a good laugh at that—and then he and the Nets had another in Game 1. A few of them, actually. When Redick fouled out with more than five minutes left (he had one more foul in the game than he had points), Russell was delighted. He smiled and waved goodbye to Redick. The crowd was less enthused about any of the evening’s proceedings.
The boos are boos of encouragement. Boos of LOVE.— Jawn Gonzalez (@JohnGonzalez) April 13, 2019
I bet Al is pretty angry right about now.