WASHINGTON, DC – For the 76ers, Wednesday represented the starting point of a ride that the organization hopes will move forward in a positive direction. And while Brett Brown and his team might not have left Capital One Arena with what it came for, the general consensus among the group was that its showing in the nation’s capital symbolized an encouraging first step.
In a spirited, back-and-forth affair, the Sixers took the reigning Southeast Division champion Washington Wizards down to the wire in an eventual 120-115 loss. The visitors received balanced contributions from across their roster, as six players, including all five starters, finished in double-figures.
“I was proud of them,” Brown said in the aftermath of the Sixers’ narrow setback. “I think to come into this building and play a team like that, a veteran team, a team that’s been deep in the playoffs…that’s a good reason to be happy with a lot of what you saw.”
Despite trailing by 9 points, 32-23, after the opening quarter, the Sixers responded with a resounding 36-point outburst in the second, which helped them to a 59-56 advantage at the break. They then fell behind by 9 points again entering the fourth frame, only to grab the lead back several times midway through the period.
The Wizards summoned up a late spurt to go in front by 7 points at the three and a half minute mark, a margin that would barely be enough to withstand an upstart Sixers squad that clawed back within 2 points with 78 seconds left.
“To be in that situation is the thing I’m leaving the gym with,” said Brown. “We will go back and clean our world up, and tighten some things up.”
The fifth-year head coach’s pragmatic assessment of Wednesday’s defeat seemed to be shared by players inside the Sixers’ locker room. No, they weren’t satisfied with the outcome, but yes, they felt that there was a promising, early foundation established, against a quality opponent, taboot.
“The positives that I see after this game is [Washington] is one of the best in the [Eastern Conference], and we stacked up with them,” said Joel Embiid. “I think we’re right there. I think we just got to play more together.”
For starters, for a team that, under Brown, has made 3-point shooting one of its top three priorities (with pace and defense being the other two), Wednesday offered welcomed results. The Sixers knocked down 15 of 35 perimeter attempts for a stellar efficiency of 43.5 percent, a figure that becomes that much more impressive when accounting for the fact that in the first quarter, the team combined to go 2 for 9 from distance.
Robert Covington, in particular, was on point from the outside. In recent days, he’s expressed hope that the Sixers’ offseason personnel additions will ultimately lead to him getting higher-percentage looks. They came Wednesday, and Covington didn’t disappoint.
The longest-tenured Sixer matched a career-high with 7 triples, en route to tallying a game-best 29 points. Covington attributed his personal success to the collective flow of the Sixers’ offense.
“Their defense had breakdowns, and my teammates made them pay for it,” Covington said. “My teammates found me in open positions, and I was able to knock [threes] down.”
“He obviously caught it, shot it, and made it,” said Brown. “His efficiency was excellent. I think Robert at [power forward] is an unusual look for other four men. I thought he was good tonight.”
In respect to the Sixers’ outside attack, Covington had help. Free agent pick up JJ Redick, beginning his 12th season in the NBA, buried 4 of his 8 triple tries for 12 points. Jerryd Bayless, meanwhile, added 13 points, his boxline highlighted by a pair of go-ahead fourth quarter baskets – a three, then a floater on consecutive scoring possessions.
In the mix and tough to slow down throughout the entire evening was Ben Simmons. Making his first regular season appearance for the Sixers, the 21-year old point man emerged as another bright spot. He accounted for 18 points (7-15 fg, 4-6 ft), 10 rebounds, and 5 assists in a team-high 34 minutes.
“How about Ben Simmons’ first game in the NBA?,” Brown stated rhetorically. “I feel his first game was really exceptional; really, really exception. Physically, we all see what he is as an athlete. I think that his growth path, his improvement scale can be off the charts.”
With his output, Simmons not only became the second player in franchise history to register a double-double in his debut, but the first Sixer to post a 15-10-5 performance his first night in uniform.
Simmons sounded like he took the tilt in stride.
“It was just normal,” Simmons said of Wednesday’s experience. “It just felt like I’ve been doing this my whole life. Just better players now, better competition.”
Then, there was Joel Embiid. A Joel Embiid who logged nearly 27 minutes worth of action, en route to putting up 18 points (7-15 fg, 4-4 ft) and 13 rebounds. He manufactured a block as well, while starting his second campaign as a pro.
“I felt good,” said Embiid, whose double-double Wednesday was his 10th in 32 career games. “I was excited, I was happy.”
Markelle Fultz’s first regular season contest with the Sixers was also noteworthy. Used off the bench Wednesday, the 2017 No. 1 pick notched 10 points (5-9 fg), 3 boards, and 1 assist, his lone helper setting up a powerful second-half jam by Embiid.
“I think to where I wanted to go on both ends of the floor, defensively and offensively,” Fultz said. “It’s good to get a feel for it. Now the first game’s out of the way, that’s off my shoulders, and I’m just looking forward to getting better each and every day.”
“I thought for his first NBA game, given the limited practice time he has had, I thought he was really good,” said Brown. “There were a lot of positives.”
Fultz was playing Wednesday only miles away from his hometown of Upper Marlboro, Maryland. He, like the Sixers, had plenty of supporters in the stands. Several fans wore No. 20 DeMatha Catholic (Fultz’s high school) and Washington (his college) jerseys.
Before leaving the arena, Fultz was asked if he had any advice to pass along to local youth aspiring for a career in professional hoops.
“Just play as hard as you can, dream, and don’t let anybody ever tell you you can’t do something,” the 19-year old said.
In all, the Sixers and Washington, coming off a season that produced the club’s highest win total in more than decades, traded leads 12 times Wednesday. The score was tied on 13 other occasions.
John Wall paced the Wizards with 28 points, while his backcourt mate Bradley Beal racked up 25. Grizzly center Marcin Gortat had 16 points and 17 boards, and proved to be an impact presence down the stretch.
Arguably the top two-way sequence of the night for the Sixers, with two of their top prospects assuming starring roles.
A busy stretch to start the season resumes for the Sixers Friday, when they begin their first set of back-to-back games with a home-opener match-up against the Boston Celtics. Due to the unfortunate leg injury suffered by marquee free agent pick-up Gordon Hayward minutes into their first outing of the year, the C’s will look like a different opponent than the one the Sixers saw twice in the preseason. Following Tuesday’s loss at Cleveland, the Celts hosted Milwaukee Wednesday. After facing Boston Friday, the Sixers will fly to Toronto for a second straight Atlantic Division pairing Saturday.