Well, it really looked like the Sixers were gonna snap the season-beginning futility early on this year. Up 14 on the Orlando Magic at half, the Sixers had staved off multiple Orlando runs to hold a four-point lead with 90 seconds to go. Just about everyone was playing well. Embiid was Embiiding. The Magic looked out of gas. The Sixers were gonna win, and things were gonna be different this year.
Yeah, right — and the Ballers were gonna start the season with Embiid, Okafor, Noel and Simmons all in one big, happy, healthy frontcourt rotation. It might not be same old Sixers this season, but we haven't left those ghosts behind with Halloween. A couple botched Philly possessions later, and one chaotic Orlando sequence that ended with T.J. McConnell tackling Serge Ibaka like he was Taser Bro, and Brett Brown's crew had officially blown it. 0-3, here we come again.
It's pretty unfortunately the game ended so badly, because there was so much to feel good about before that. Sergio Rodriguez was a wizard in the half-court, ending with 12 points and 11 assists and making our offense look as coherent and professional as it has in the Sam Hinkie era. Hollis Thompson hit all four threes he took, including a couple huge momentum treys in the second half, ending one off his career high with 22 points. Dario Saric had a major bounce-back game, going 9-15 for a resounding career high of 21. Even Gerald Henderson took till about the third quarter to piss me off.
Complete coverage of the Philadelphia 76ers and their rivals in the NBA from NBC Sports Philadelphia.
And Embiid, I mean, c'mon. 18 and 10, his first-ever double-double, to go with new bests in blocks (four) and assists (three). He was about as pretty as basketball gets, at least for the first 47 minutes. Then he turned the ball over on consecutive possessions -- first a too-hype travel in the lane, then a bizarre exchange with Sergio at the top of the key that ended with him getting stripped by Elfrid payton -- and he deflected a loose ball that should've given the Sixers one more crack at the game-winner right to a wide-open Ibaka, who T.J. fouled with the utmost flagrance, effectively ending the game with a second and change left.
Still, the disastrous final minute can't totally harsh the Etta James-via-Flo-Rida-worthy good feeling of this one. This is probably the best Sixers squad since at least Hinkie's first year, and even though he's only played three games as a pro (and only played basketball on any level for about a half-decade), Embiid is very obviously already the best Sixer of the Process era. I still think win No. 1 is coming this month -- though perhaps not until its second half -- and the largely up-tempo, ball-moving style of the Sixers' offense through most of this one was really, really encouraging about what's to come after that.
Of course, I was struck at how much the offense seemed to be improved by who wasn't on the floor in this one. I'm not even talking about Jerami Grant, who was unceremoniously dealt to Oklahoma City yesterday afternoon for a super-protected first-rounder (best-case scenario: No. 21 in 2020) and the increasingly disposable Ersan Ilyasova. I'm talking about Jahlil Okafor, who sat in this one so he could be fresh for tomorrow night's game in Charlotte. It's hard to imagine Jah opening up the offense the same way Joel, Richaun and Dario did in this one, by running hard in transition, moving the ball decisively and making strong cuts to the basket on pick-and-rolls. I fear tomorrow night we'll feel the full brunt of the difference, as Okafor plays and Embiid sits. It could be a long night for Process Trusters.
Oh well. As frustrating as both are, hard to get to bummed by the losses of either Jerami or this game when we still have Joel — beautiful, beautiful Joel — to fawn over. He's still playing and his legs are still working: Successful first three games of the season as far as I'm concerned. See you on Saturday, JoJo.