If only the Philadelphia 76ers showed the same unified spirit as their fans, they might not have been welcomed to the NBA playoffs by an unrelenting torrent of boos.
In a postseason opener that was nothing short of disastrous, the Sixers fell to the Brooklyn Nets, 111-102, in Game 1 at the Wells Fargo Center on Saturday. The upset’s most striking feature was how deeply disjointed Philadelphia appeared in every aspect: from its pregame treatment of star center Joel Embiid, to its clunky play on the court, to an embarrassing midgame episode on the bench, to its conflicting stories at the postgame podium.
Embiid — who has been battling knee pain and had played just 10 games since the all-star break — was questionable to play until minutes before tip-off. While he opened the first quarter in aggressive fashion, the 7-footer quickly began showing ill effects.
He dragged up and down the court, couldn’t find the range on his jumper and moved less assertively than usual on defense. Embiid piled up 22 points and 15 rebounds, but he shot just 5-15, committed three turnovers and headed to the locker room early at halftime. Uncharacteristically, Philadelphia was outscored by 17 points in his 24 minutes as Brooklyn’s fast-paced spread lineups took full advantage.
“He looked like he hadn’t played for a while, but he was still dominant,” Sixers Coach Brett Brown said. “It was clear, the pace of the game, the speed of the game, you could see that he was tired.”
The game’s flash point came midway through the fourth quarter, when ESPN cameras caught Embiid and teammate Amir Johnson looking at a cell phone on the bench. NBA rules prohibit phones on the bench. Johnson departed for the locker room shortly after the incident before later returning.
Brown, reacting to the terrible optics of the situation, told reporters afterward that the incident was “completely unacceptable.”
“We will deal with it internally, I’m sure, very soon,” Brown said. “It’s not something that we are, and certainly don’t condone. The club will deal with it.”
Yet Embiid offered a different story in his explanation.
“I wasn’t on my phone,” he said. “I just looked down because [Johnson] said his daughter was extremely sick. He was checking on her.”
Apparently unmoved, Sixers General Manager Elton Brand swiftly doled out punishment, fining Johnson for conduct detrimental to the team. Philadelphia also issued an apology from Johnson “for the distraction this has caused.”
The conflicting versions of events encapsulated Philadelphia’s off-balance night. The Sixers shot 3-25 on three-pointers, regularly lost track of Brooklyn’s shooters and committed numerous unsightly turnovers. All-star guard Ben Simmons looked passive and struggled badly from start to finish, registering just nine points and three assists. Meanwhile, JJ Redick and Tobias Harris both no-showed, leaving Jimmy Butler as the Sixers’ only reliable source of offense.
Butler scored a game-high 36 points but contributed to Philadelphia’s puzzling night by suggesting that Embiid’s uncertain health was leaving the team in limbo.
“Yeah, he can help us, but at the same time he can hurt us if it gets worse,” Butler said. “Don’t get me wrong: We definitely want [Embiid] out there, but we definitely want him healthy.”
While Brown mulls how best to manage Embiid’s role, the Sixers players were left smarting about the rough treatment they received from the fans. Simmons said booing fans should “stay on that side,” while Embiid seemed to acknowledge that the negative reception could be impacting some of his teammates.
“It’s tough. I heard a couple people yelling that it felt like a road game,” Embiid said. “I understand why they boo, but the fact that it’s after every single miss. Some shots aren’t going to fall. Tonight they didn’t fall. For me, I’m fine, I’ll play through anything. But for some guys, it’s annoying. After every missed shot, you get booed, so you get the next one, it feels like, ‘Well, should I shoot it or not because I’m going to get booed?’ I don’t know. Some guys are like that. It’s hard. We’ve all got to do a better job. Us, the fans.”
Despite making their first postseason appearance since 2015, the Nets were fully prepared to take advantage of the Sixers’ mixed signals. D’Angelo Russell led the way with 26 points as six Brooklyn players finished in double figures. Afterward, the Nets’ key players smartly brushed off questions about Embiid’s health and the crowd’s reaction, sidestepping the possibility of bulletin board material.
Perhaps more than any other team, the Sixers entered the playoffs with questions about their chemistry and cohesion. Embiid and Simmons have never been the cleanest fit, and midseason trades for Butler and Harris have forced Brown to improvise as this season has unfolded. Although Philly’s hope has been that its talent-laden starting five will pull it through tense moments, nothing could have been further from the truth in Game 1.
The Nets are scrappy but eminently beatable, yet the Sixers played from behind for most of the night, rarely exploited their matchup advantages and looked like a collection of individuals rather than a team. Butler, Harris and Redick all hit free agency come July, a fact that hangs over every game and magnifies minor fissures.
Philadelphia — and especially Simmons — must respond in Game 2, or a team with NBA finals aspirations will be facing a breaking point.