It was supposed to be Dame Time.
With Damian Lillard in town and Sixers fans frothing over the remote possibility of trading for him, it was a love fest from the moment the six-time All-Star was introduced. It reached a crescendo when Lillard stepped to the free throw line for the first time.
Sixers fans chanting loudest for a player on the other team pic.twitter.com/uWA52SV8Op— NBC Sports Philadelphia (@NBCSPhilly) November 1, 2021
He heard you, Sixers fans.
“City of Brotherly Love, they showed a brother some love,” Lillard, who reiterated his loyalty to Portland, said postgame. “I know what it is and what it’s about. I appreciate the love, I appreciate the respect they showed, the desire or whatever.”
But that’s pretty much where the Lillard storyline ends — at least for now.
It was the trade acquisition Daryl Morey added ahead of last season that came up big late in the game. It was also his two free-agent additions — spearheaded by Doc Rivers — that played huge roles. And don’t forget the efforts of the team’s draft picks, both from this regime and previous ones.
On a night that was supposed to be about Lillard — and when the Sixers were down their three-highest paid players — it was the team’s depth that shined through.
“I was joking with [Sixers limited partner] Michael Rubin,” Rivers said. “I said, ‘You only had $105 million not in the game tonight.’”
Without Joel Embiid (rest), Tobias Harris (health and safety protocols) or Ben Simmons (personal reasons) — and losing Danny Green (hamstring tightness) in the third — the Sixers took down the Portland Trail Blazers, 113-103. Don’t look now, but the Sixers, who have had as weird a start to the season as anyone, are 5-2 — and should probably be 6-1.
We have to start with Seth Curry, who the Sixers acquired from the Dallas Mavericks for Josh Richardson, who’s had a tough time since leaving Miami, and a 2020 second-round pick which became Tyler Bey, who is currently not on an NBA roster. Think Morey won that trade.
Wilson balls be damned, Curry is off to a preposterous start. He’s averaging 16.1 points a game and has a true shooting percentage of 75.8, an outrageous number for a perimeter player. While he was only 3 of 10 from three Monday, he was 7 of 7 from two, a number that shows Curry is not simply a catch-and-shoot player.
Curry hit from the midrange, finished on a Euro step, got a fastbreak layup on an overaggressive closeout. He was most impressive in the fourth quarter. With the Sixers clinging to a lead (gulp!) it looked like it might be about that time for Lillard to do his thing. Instead, it was Seth Time. Curry hit a pair of floaters and a dagger three to help seal the win.
“Just playing basketball,” Curry said of his clutch shot-making. “We had a different style of play tonight — moving the ball around, playing aggressively as a team. We pass the ball, we’ll get good shots the majority of the time tonight. But it was just picking my spots and when to just move it on.”
Then there’s the two new guys, Andre Drummond and Georges Niang. Drummond, a two-time All-Star, signed a veteran minimum deal. Niang, a career 40 percent three-point shooter that was a rotational player for the West’s top seed last season, was inked using part of the Sixers’ non-taxpayer mid-level exception.
On Monday, they combined for 35 points, 20 rebounds, 12 assists, and just one turnover. Both players were recruited heavily by Rivers — a point he’s not likely to let us forget.
“It’s funny, this summer we had two pickups and no one talked about them,” Rivers said. “To everyone that was around me I said, ‘We have two really good pickups and nobody knows, in Drum and Georges.’”
And we can’t forget about the Sixers’ homegrown talent.
Tyrese Maxey, a steal at pick 21 last year, is being asked to do a lot as the team’s starting point guard, including defending elite guards. Over the past two games, Lillard and Trae Young shot a combined 6 of 17 when guarded by Maxey.
Furkan Korkmaz, a first-round pick of Bryan Colangelo(!) in 2016 and re-signed by the team twice, nailed two big threes in the fourth. Shake Milton, a late second-round choice in 2018, had his third straight solid performance since returning from an ankle injury with 10 points and three assists. Matisse Thybulle, perhaps the best move of the Elton Brand era when he moved up in the draft to select him in 2019, continues to do Matisse Thybulle things with three steals and a block.
It was a team win from a team that’s actually built pretty damn well.
“It’s one of those games where I thought every single guy did something to help us win the game,” Rivers said. “They kind of stayed within their roles. They understood what we needed getting into the paint and creating plays.”
So, while Lillard toils away in Portland, playing for a team that looks destined for a play-in game, the Sixers are fighting through holdouts, injuries, load management, health and safety protocols, fans chanting for opponents and whatever else comes their way to win more games than they lose.
“I don’t think that has anything to do with me, honestly,” Drummond said when asked about the Lillard chants. “I know our team got a good win tonight. I’m happy with the guys we have on our team right now.”
Dame Time didn’t come Monday and it might not ever come to Philadelphia wearing red, white and blue.
But the Sixers move.