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Embiid, Simmons-less Sixers beat Pelicans in season opener

Joel Embiid looked like Joel Embiid as the Sixers kicked off the 2021-22 campaign with a win in New Orleans.

Philadelphia 76ers v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Finally, a basketball game.

After a drama-filled offseason, the Sixers opened the 2021-22 slate with a convincing 117-97 win over the Pelicans at Smoothie King Arena Wednesday.

With Ben Simmons serving a one-game suspension for conduct detrimental to the team, the rest of the Sixers took care of business on the road. Shake Milton (right ankle sprain) was also out, leaving the Sixers woefully shorthanded at point guard. Star forward Zion Williamson (right foot fracture) was out for New Orleans.

Joel Embiid got off to an outstanding start, looking lean and showing off his playmaking prowess. Tyrese Maxey, starting in place of Simmons, started slow, but turned it on in the second half. The much-maligned Doc Rivers’ all-bench unit — led be Furkan Korkmaz — was shaky early, but settled in and provided optimism for the reserves this season.

Guards Brandon Ingram (25 points) and Nickeil Alexander-Walker (23 points) paced the Pelicans.

The Sixers return to Philadelphia Friday for their home opener against the vaunted Nets.

Here are a few observations from the win.

Point center Joel Embiid

Embiid, who put an emphasis on his health and fitness prior to last season, looked nimble and active to start the game.

Embiid hit a pair of early threes, including one off the dribble after bringing the ball up the floor.

He got veteran Jonas Valanciunas to bite on a couple pump fakes, one allowing him to have a nifty finish in traffic. Embiid talked throughout training camp and the preseason about wanting to be more of a playmaker. He looked good in that capacity early, dishing out four assists to just one turnover in the first half.

The MVP candidate had a tougher time in his second stint as the ball seemed to stick with the starting group and he was forced to settle for a few contested jumpers late in the shot clock. He had a game-high 14 points at halftime.

Then Embiid came out firing in the second half, making his first three baskets.

It’s always nice — even in the first game of the season — when you can get the big man to the bench early. Embiid had 22 points, six rebounds and five assists in just 25 minutes.

New and improved bench feat. Point Furk

I’m sure many Sixers fan were muttering “here we go again” as Rivers deployed his all-bench lineup. The results were not pretty early, but that unit settled in and extended the Sixers’ lead to 10 in the second quarter.

Furkan Korkmaz had a couple nice moments as the point guard, using Andre Drummond screens well and finding Georges Niang for a pair of corner threes.

The ball movement was excellent from the lineup of Korkmaz, Isaiah Joe, Matisse Thybulle, Niang, and Drummond. Though it’s fair to note that ball pressure gave Korkmaz and the rest of the group trouble. The lack of true point guards was noticeable.

The newcomers, Niang and Drummond, had very different first halves.

Niang looked like a natural fit, making the smart passes, firing when open and even making a midrange floater. Niang finished with 11 points, including 3 of 4 from three.

After a strong preseason, Drummond had a rough first stint, committing four turnovers and very clearly trying to do too much. The veteran big was solid defensively throughout, pulling down 17 rebounds to go along with a pair of steals and blocks.

Korkmaz hit threes on back-to-back possessions early in the fourth and was 4 of 4 from beyond the arc in the quarter, helping extend the Sixers’ lead to 19.

His red-hot shooting put the game away. He finished with 22 points and five assists.

The bench was actually the difference in the game. The Sixers’ reserves outscored the Pelicans’, 45-17.

Maxey and the starters

Maxey was fine in the first half, but didn’t stand out. He got off to a much better start after halftime and it appeared that the Sixers were making a concerted effort to get Maxey to his spots.

Maxey hit a midrange jumper and had a nice drive using his speed, both off Embiid screens.

He also hit a wing three off good ball movement.

It wasn’t the best night defensively. The second-year guard’s lack of experience showed at times, as Alexander-Walker was able to get going against him.

For his first game as the team’s starting point guard this season, it was a solid performance. He finished with 20 points, seven rebounds and five assists to just one turnover. A stat that should excite Sixers fans: 2 of 3 from three.

Tobias Harris was just quietly very good. Health was somewhat of a concern as Harris missed action during the preseason with knee soreness. The veteran forward appeared to be moving well, especially in the third quarter where he was taking the ball into the chest of Naji Marshall. Harris had 20 points and 12 rebounds.

Seth Curry didn’t have a high-volume night (10 points on 2 of 3 from three) but did hit a couple timely threes.

It was a tough night for Danny Green, who got in early foul trouble and went scoreless.