OAKLAND, CA – Maybe sometimes, to fully understand the caliber of a bona fide championship team, you first have to experience playing a bona fide championship team.
Before taking the floor Saturday, neither Joel Embiid nor Ben Simmons had faced the Golden State Warriors, winners of two of the NBA’s last three titles. Reminders of those achievements, the first from 2015 and second from 2017, were hanging from the Oracle Arena rafters in the form of blue and gold banners.
And while Embiid, Simmons, and the rest of the 76ers enjoyed an encouraging first half in Oakland, by the end of the night, they were reminded that 24 good minutes aren’t enough against an opponent as talented, deep, and precise as the Dubs.
Behind an explosive third quarter, Golden State fended off the Sixers, 135-114, en route to their sixth consecutive victory. The Warriors were paced by the mega-star trio of Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, and Klay Thompson, which combined for 74 points.
The Sixers stayed close with Golden State throughout the entirety of Saturday’s opening stanza, down only 65-64 at the break. By that point, there had been 16 lead changes and seven ties.
The Warriors flicked the switch in period three, outscoring the Sixers by 15 points, 36-21.
“You realize that there is zero margin of error,” said Brett Brown. “There is so much firepower on that team.”
Via a thunderous, right-handed putback dunk from Embiid, the Sixers snagged a 66-65 edge 33 seconds into Saturday’s second half. Curry (22 pts) answered with a jumper, and Golden State never trailed again.
The Sixers tied the tilt at 74-74 on a Robert Covington three, but the Warriors were ready with yet another response, this time dialing up a 20-4 blitz. Last year’s title winners – with their defense clamping down, and 3-pointers falling aplenty – flexed their might, and the muscle was decisive.
Embiid found the third quarter instructive, despite its ramifications.
“That was my first time playing against them,” said Embiid, who accounted for 12 points (4-11 fg, 4-4 ft), 7 rebounds, and 2 assists in 25 minutes. “We just said we can’t relax. One mistake, and the game is basically gone. We got to do a better job next time.”
That Golden State boasts so many options beyond just Curry, Durant (29 pts), and Thompson (23 pts) – vets like Draymond Green (10 pts, 10 reb, 7 ast, 5 blk), Nick Young (13 pts, 3-4 3fg), Shaun Livingston, and David West (not to mention Andre Iguodala, who missed Saturday’s game for rest) – makes trying to contain the reigning champs that much more challenging.
“That’s what’s scary about this team,” said Covington, who chipped in with 11 points and 4 rebounds.
“We’ll be better prepared next time. Guys haven’t played against them yet. We know where they game got away from us, we got to go back and see how the game got away from us. That’s one thing about this team – we learn from our mistakes.”
For Simmons, Saturday’s visit to soldout Oracle Arena marked a first-hand introduction of sorts to a squad with plenty of attributes that he and the Sixers consider worth emulating. The Warriors, of course, are a selfless, skilled bunch, one that plays with pace, passes, shoots threes, and defends at the league’s highest levels.
“There’s not much to say,” said Simmons. “They’re a championship team, they have a great offensive system, they have a lot of great players. It opens up a lot. It’s a great teaching lesson for us.”
After missing each of his first six shots Saturday against the Warriors, all of which were taken seven feet out or farther, Simmons found his offensive groove in the second quarter. He went on to sink his next four field goal attempts, a string that was highlighted by a steal and runout dunk that nudged the Sixers’ lead to 47-43 midway through the frame.
No doubt, the Australian was a vital component to the Sixers’ strong first half finish. He also delivered a hook shot that pushed the club’s margin to a game-high five points, 61-56, a minute and a half before intermission.
“We felt good,” said Simmons. “We were in a good place, moving the ball well, defensively playing well. It then just came down to the second half.”
Simmons thought that Golden State did a good job throughout the evening of clogging the lane, and cutting off his driving lanes. The Warriors’ mission was to force Simmons into scoring situations in which he had to go over the top, and that’s what they did. He wound up with 13 points (6-17 fg), 5 rebounds, and 8 assists.
“It’s a championship team,” Simmons said of the Warriors. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”
Beforehand, the man responsible for helping Golden State scheme against Simmons had complimentary things to say about the dynamic rookie.
“This guy’s a bulldozer, like LeBron [James], Magic [Johnson], just powerful and springy,” said Dubs head coach Steve Kerr. “He finds angles, he finds different ways to score the ball that are unorthodox, and difficult to guard.”
Kerr added too that he was glad to see Simmons and Embiid both healthy, and making an impact for the Sixers.
“I think it’s fantastic,” Kerr said. “It’s so good for the league, and fun to watch.”
The Sixers were led Saturday by JJ Redick’s 17 points (7-13 fg, 2-6 3fg). Brown was particularly pleased with the efforts of Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, who pitched in with 15 points off the bench, and Dario Saric, the supplier of 14 points on 6 for 11 shooting
The Sixers shot 46.8 percent from the field Saturday, and 12 for 28 from 3-point territory, two respectable figures. Across the board, though, Golden State, hitting 58.5 percent of its attempts while going 14 for 27 from the perimeter, had the edge.
“That’s why they are the gatekeepers of our league,” said Brown. “They are the NBA champs, and we will walk away learning things from this game.”
The Sixers and Warriors will meet for the second and final time this season next Saturday at The Center.
It came fast and ferociously to start the third quarter, the dunk being one of the Sixers’ most emphatic plays of the night.
Los Angeles might be the final destination on the Sixers’ current trek, but the club will be in town for a couple of days, first facing the Clippers Monday, before wrapping up their trip Wednesday against the Lakers. As for the Clips, they enjoyed an auspicious start to the post-Chris Paul era, prevailing in their first four games. Since then, however, LA has dropped six of seven, including four in a row.