A pair of losses to the previous two Eastern Conference Champions, the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks, didn’t provide much reason for concern. Sure, both teams were missing key starters in Robert Williams III and Khris Middleton. But an 0-2 start when the schedule was announced seemed completely plausible for the Philadelphia 76ers. Boston and Milwaukee are good teams without those dudes and great teams with them.
Yet after a loss Saturday to the San Antonio Spurs, who traded away All-Star Dejounte Murray this summer and field a rotation full of young, developing prospects, reason for concern has justifiably swelled. Joining Philadelphia at 0-3 are the Orlando Magic, Los Angeles Lakers, Oklahoma City Thunder, Sacramento Kings and Houston Rockets. That is not the company the Sixers anticipated keeping, likely at any point in the season.
As the 1-2 Indiana Pacers stroll into Wells Fargo Center, the Sixers will aim to emerge from that NBA cellar. Last year, Philadelphia won the season series over Indiana, 2-1, with its lone loss coming when Embiid was in health and safety protocols on Nov. 13.
Daniel Theis (right knee soreness) and Myles Turner (left ankle sprain) are both out for the Pacers. The Sixers, as of 12:30 p.m. EST, do not have anyone listed on their injury report. While Embiid has enjoyed considerable success against Theis and Turner offensively throughout his career, their absences leave Indiana even less equipped to contain him. It’ll likely rely on a trio of young bigs in Isaiah Jackson, Jalen Smith and Goga Bitadze. None of them are well-suited to stop the superstar center, who finally found his offensive form with a 40-point outburst Saturday against the Spurs.
Both teams rank in the bottom eight in defensive rating through three games. They’ve shown similar levels of miscommunication off the ball, struggles maneuvering around screens effectively and accruing stops in transition. This could be a high-scoring affair, though the goal for Philadelphia should be to utilize the opportunity to begin correcting its woes against a young, lottery-bound club. At Media Day, there were were talks of wanting to have the NBA’s top-ranked defense and that’s by no means materialized thus far. It’s early, though, and Monday could help steer them in the proper direction.
Offensively, the Sixers’ Big Three of Embiid, James Harden and Tyrese Maxey are still trying to sync up their standout games. Harden was sensational against Boston and Milwaukee, but the jumper went missing Saturday when he dropped 12 points on 4-of-18 shooting. Maxey was excellent against Boston and San Antonio, but struggled somewhat against Milwaukee. Embiid’s first big outing came against the Spurs. They haven’t harmonized to be the prolific offense optimists figured they could (24th in offensive rating). Running more Harden-Embiid pick-and-roll, an action that routinely bears fruitful possessions, would benefit the offense as well.
To make necessary defensive strides Monday, the focus shifts to slowing Tyrese Haliburton’s pick-and-roll and shot-making craft, along with the versatile off-ball scoring of Buddy Hield and Bennedict Mathurin.
Dealt from Sacramento Indiana last winter, Haliburton has dazzled to open 2022-23, averaging 25.7 points (63.8 percent true shooting), 9.7 assists, 3.7 rebounds and two steals per game. Mathurin’s close behind, dropping 24 points (65.9 percent true shooting) and 6.3 rebounds. His slashing, long-range shooting (52.4 percent beyond the arc on 21 attempts) and finishing touch have impressed. Hield’s off to a slow start (11.7 points, 53 percent true shooting), but his quick trigger and heady off-ball movement warrant astute defensive attention and communication. Those are areas the Sixers have lagged behind, so Hield could prove a tough cover.
The nature of an 82-game season produces surprising results or stretches, a la Philadelphia’s loss Saturday and 0-3 start. But an 0-4 start, given the presumptive gap between the Sixers and these two opponents, would only heighten the worries to begin 2022-23. Led by Haliburton, Indiana’s fashioning an intriguing young core and the offensive creativity in this perimeter-based system from head coach Rick Carlisle is commendable. Regardless, Monday, just as Saturday was, is the type of game good teams — something Philadelphia aspires to be (and more) — win.
When: 7:00 pm ET, Monday, October 24
Where: Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia, PA
Watch: NBC Sports Philadelphia
Radio: 97.5 The Fanatic