The Sixers were hoping to pick up a quick win hosting the Oklahoma City Thunder on Thursday night before heading West on a five-game road trip.
That’s not how it went down, with the Sixers falling 133-114 to the visitors.
Thursday night’s contest served as a highlight reel for Thunder star guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who is already having a career-high averaging 31 points per game. Gilgeous-Alexander dropped 37 points on the hosting Sixers. The worst part is that he didn’t face much confrontation in doing so, and Sixers head coach Doc Rivers knows it.
“Blow-bys, getting into the paint,” Rivers said. “They got whatever they wanted. I thought they came with the right spirit and we didn’t.”
If the spirit Rivers is referring to is the drive to command the paint, then it’s hard to disagree. The Thunder put up 52 points in the paint, mostly courtesy of Gilgeous-Alexander being able to charge right through the Sixers’ defense to the cup with little to no resistance.
“Shai beat our best defenders tonight over and over again — got rejected, we lost coverages,” Rivers said. “We tried to tell them, ‘This team plays hard. They move the ball. This is not the team you just played; this team has players. Not just Shai, but [Josh] Giddey — all of them. And they play right. And if you’re not prepared to play this team, you’re going to lose to them.’ And I didn’t think we were ready for that.”
Even worse, when the Sixers began to react to SGA and collapse into the paint, it just left the rest of the Thunder open for uncontested shots and easy points, with Josh Giddey being one of the benefactors. The 6-foot-8 guard put up 20 points on the Sixers Thursday night.
The Sixers ran a starting lineup of Tobias Harris, P.J. Tucker, Joel Embiid, Tyrese Maxey and James Harden, a lineup that looked defensively unfocused from the jump. They left lanes open to cover non-threatening long range shooters, left threatening ones wide open, and overall seemed lost on how to stop the Thunder, at least without fouling. By the end of the game, Embiid had five fouls, Maxey had four and Harden had three.
Harden mentioned postgame that the lack of early defense is the biggest thing the Sixers’ starters need to get figured out.
“Our defensive presence from the jump. It’s difficult, man,” Harden said. “This league is so good, and guys get hot early and get confidence, really. It’s difficult to slow that down. Shai’s been going well. He’s the engine of that team and he got going early, making everybody else better, and we couldn’t really get a grip on the game.”
Philadelphia is fourth in defensive rating in the league, but this isn’t the first game of the season where the Sixers’ defense has been questionable at best. Rivers, however, isn’t ready to call it a pattern.
“We’re a good defensive team, but we didn’t defend tonight,” Rivers said. “I guess the one common theme overall is just getting beat off the dribble into the paint. On those nights, we struggle. And honestly, on those nights, every team struggles. They got into the paint over and over again. That leads to offensive rebounds. That leads to helps that leave them wide open for threes. And I thought they got all that tonight. And honestly, I thought a lot of them were just straight-line, individual defensive drives. Our individual defense tonight was so poor that our team defense could not help.”
Part of why that individual defense may have suffered was foul trouble, at least in the case of Embiid. Three early fouls sent him to the bench for most of the second period. It wound up being a relatively quiet defensive night for the big man, with just one block and no steals.
“I got in foul trouble, so I barely played 30 seconds in the second quarter and they got the big lead going into halftime. From there, we just kept chasing. I guess I’ve just got to stop fouling,” Embiid said. “But on the other end, it’s still about defense. If you can’t guard your own men — all of us —if we can’t guard our own men, we’re not going to be good defensively. No matter how tight we are with our schemes and executing whatever we have to do with the game plan, it’s just not going to work out.”
It certainly did not work out Thursday night.
The Sixers will have a chance to get back in the win column on Saturday night as they kick off a five-game road trip at the Utah Jazz.