PHILADELPHIA — The Philadelphia 76ers’ 107-93 win over the Boston Celtics on Wednesday was an ugly foul-fest at the Wells Fargo Center.
But it also confirmed the Sixers could be incredibly disruptive defensively. The shortest player in their nine-man rotation is 6-foot-5 Matisse Thybulle, who led all players (who played at least 50 minutes) in the preseason with 4.9 steals per 36 minutes. On Wednesday, the rookie contributed to Kemba Walker’s 4-for-18 shooting performance and finished with two steals and two blocks in less than 22 minutes.
The Sixers’ own offense was rough. Through three quarters, they had scored just 77 points on 78 possessions, even though they had attempted 31 free throws. They were 3-for-21 from 3-point range, struggling to find a rhythm against a Celtics team that had lost two of its most important defenders — Aron Baynes and Al Horford — this summer.
“Had our defense not been our defense,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said, “we might have seen a different result. I think our defense, by in large, was what I had hoped.”
The Sixers managed to hold a nine-point lead through the third. The Celtics closed to within four early in the fourth, before Philly finally found some offense, scoring 29 points over a 16-possession fourth-quarter stretch that put the game away.
The offense may continue to struggle as the Sixers figure out how to evolve without the movement of J.J. Redick and the off-the-dribble work of Jimmy Butler. They lack shooting, so much so that Brown used Furkan Korkmaz — who played 36 total minutes in the 2019 playoffs and has shot 32 percent from 3-point range over two seasons in the league — as his ninth man, in the hope that the 6-foot-7 wing can turn into a facsimile of Redick.
“I need to grow a bomber,” Brown said. “Somebody’s got to emerge where they’re lightning in a bottle, they can come in and go bam, bam, bam, and make a 3. Why not Furk? So we’ll look at it.”
The Sixers tried spacing Ben Simmons beyond the 3-point line when his teammates (mostly Josh Richardson and Tobias Harris) ran pick-and-roll with Joel Embiid. Simmons didn’t take a shot from outside the paint on Wednesday, but size helps on offense too, and the 6-foot-10 point guard got downhill enough (once while spaced on a pick-and-roll) to lead the Sixers with 24 points on 11-for-16 shooting.
With Embiid being double-teamed whenever he tried to post up, nine of his 14 shots came from outside the paint. That’s not a good number, and Embiid wasn’t the only Sixer to struggle from the outside.
The defense was plenty enough, though. It was also long and active inside (Boston shot just 19-for-45 in the paint), outside (keeping the Celtics from getting into their sets comfortably) and in the backcourt (where Richardson and James Ennis forced Boston into a third-quarter eight-second violation).
The defense is there and should continue to be there. Now that every player’s heights have been adjusted in the official ledger, the Sixers aren’t getting any smaller.
But to get to where they want to go, the offense must eventually improve. And really, an ugly first game shouldn’t be all that discouraging.
“You see it every one of my many years in the league,” Brown said, “offense needs to keep up to the defense, because if you play hard and you stick to the simple rules and there’s a high level of accountability early, and you have a team like I have with the length that they possess, then I would expect our defense to be quite good and our offense maybe not so.”
This certainly looks like a top-five defensive team, maybe the best defense in the league if Embiid plays enough games. League-wide, offense typically gets more efficient as the season goes on. The question for the Sixers in regard to their ability to compete for a championship is just how high the ceiling is on that end of the floor.
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