TORONTO, ONT – From before the preseason even started, it felt like, Brett Brown and his players, when asked about the prospects for the coming year, repeatedly preached that patience would likely be a necessary companion to the initial stages of the 76ers’ 2017-2018 campaign.
There would still be lots of youth, they pointed out, plus a handful of fresh faces to integrate into the mix, along with a demanding opening month of the schedule that would need to be navigated.
Those three factors surfaced at various times in the Sixers’ first two games – Wednesday at Washington, and Friday versus Boston – and did so again Saturday at Air Canada Centre in Toronto, where the Sixers bowed to the Raptors, 128-94.
2017 All-NBA selection DeMar DeRozan got the Raps going quickly, and finished the night with a game-high 30 points (8-12 fg, 14-16 ft). His fellow three-time backcourt All-Star, Kyle Lowry, supplied 17 points (6-12 fg, 4-10 3fg), while forward Serge Ibaka proved to be a difficult pick-and-pop match-up, pouring in 21 points behind 5 for 9 shooting from the outside.
Despite the Sixers encountering some adversity the first week of the season, Brett Brown expects his group to remain keep its sights on the big picture.
“I think it’s just going back to doing what we’ve talked about,” the fifth-year head coach said during Saturday’s post-game press conference. “We’re not going to do anything differently in relation to what we value, and to how we practice and how we preach.”
“We got to keep on fighting through it,” said Jerryd Bayless, the 10th-year guard who spent parts of two seasons with Toronto, and netted 16 points (5-7 fg, 2-3 3fg) against his old squad. “I’ve said since the beginning there’s going to be ups and downs, and right now we’re going through it.”
The Sixers were once again led by Ben Simmons, who flirted with a triple-double Saturday. By manufacturing 18 points (7-16 fg), 10 boards, and 8 assists, the Australian point man extended his career-starting double-double streak to a third consecutive game. Prior to this year, only six other players in NBA history had achieved such a feat.
“We got to stay together,” said Simmons of the Sixers, “talk it out, get through it, communicate on the court, and hold each other accountable.”
Inside the locker room following Saturday’s loss, the 21-year old was focused on his club’s collective needs at the moment, not his impressive production so far.
“It looks great, but I’d rather have a win, honestly, I’d rather have three wins,” Simmons said.
As for Brown’s thoughts on Simmons’ first three showings, the general impression the rookie has left has stood out more than any specific stats or figures.
“When you’re coaching and feeling the game, you’re feeling that he has the ability to be incredibly special,” said Brown. “You feel immediately, the stuff he does on a floor is very unique – his size, his burst of speed, his ability to get to the rim and take hits. All of those things is wrapped up to me in athleticism.”
Wrapping up their first back-to-back of the season, the Sixers received some quality bench contributions. At the head of the pack was Jahlil Okafor, who, in his first contest this year, posted 10 points (4-7 fg) and 9 rebounds in 21 minutes.
Also of note, third-year forward Justin Anderson added 12 points in 17 minutes of relief.
After staying close with Toronto at the outset of Saturday’s tilt, the Sixers watched the Raptors close the first quarter on a 19-3 spurt. The burst subsequently put the hosts in control of the scoreboard the rest of the way.
With DeRozan fueling its attack, Toronto got to the foul line frequently, and perhaps most importantly, early on. The Raptors went 14 for 16 from the stripe in the first quarter, and had doubled the number of free throws the Sixers had made, 24 to 12, by the time intermission rolled around. At that point, the game favored Toronto, 62-49.
The Raptors managed to establish key advantages on the glass, 51-41, and in the points off turnovers category as well, 23-12.
In multiple instances Saturday, Markelle Fultz – used as a reserve for the third time in as many games – was paired up with Simmons; however, in these scenarios, it was Fultz who was given the chance to initiate the offense. The 2017 No. 1 pick’s evening ended with 6 points and 2 assists.
“We completely get, led by me, that this start isn’t what we had hoped for,” said Brown, “but I have great faith in the people in the locker room and my coaching staff that we will keep hammering away, and continue to find ways to improve.”
In his regular season debut, Jahlil Okafor wasted no time getting involved. He deposited the first of his 7 field goals on the heels of an authoritative offensive rebound that came within 30 seconds of the big man subbing in midway through Saturday’s opening quarter.
The Sixers cap a brief 2-game, 3-day road trip with their first-ever stop at Little Caesar’s Arena, the recently-opened, downtown Detroit-based home of the Pistons. The sizable venue holds roughly 21,000 fans for basketball games, and carried a price tag slightly north of $850 million. For the past three decades, Detroit played at The Palace of Auburn Hills, located in the suburbs of the city. Monday’s match-up against the Sixers will mark the Pistons’ second regular season appearance in their new home.