PHILADELPHIA — Teams typically introduce their entire roster prior to their home opener. But as the Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers prepared to tip off at the Wells Fargo Center Friday night, only Philadelphia’s starting five was introduced to the crowd.
The reason was obvious: it would allow the Sixers to avoid either ignoring their star point guard, Ben Simmons, or introducing him in absentia to a chorus of boos.
It was yet another example of the space both Brooklyn and Philadelphia find themselves occupying this season. After they finished with the top two records in the Eastern Conference last season, only to each lose in the second round of the playoffs, they entered this season as the epicenters of NBA news because of the absences of Simmons and Kyrie Irving.
While the night ended in dramatic fashion, with Brooklyn storming back from a 10-point deficit in the final five minutes with a 16-1 closing run to claim a 114-109 victory, the fact that no return is in sight for either Simmons or Irving continues to hang over both teams. Both teams have plenty of star power remaining and plenty of other questions to answer besides when, or if, their point guards will return to the court.
Here’s a look at four questions with two games down and 80 more to go:
Brooklyn Nets (1-1):
Should the Nets be concerned there have been stretches when they have looked far from the team expected to win it all?
The Nets have gotten off to alarming consecutive slow starts and were outhustled and physically pushed around in the season opener by the Milwaukee Bucks, 127-104. In order to win their first game of the season in Philadelphia, the Nets needed a triple-double from Kevin Durant, a throwback game from LaMarcus Aldridge, a 16-1 closing run and multiple late 3-point airballs from guard Danny Green.
“It’s not going to be pretty for a little while here,” coach Steve Nash cautioned after the win.
Nash is preaching patience as he uses the start of the regular season almost like an extended preseason to experiment with big lineups and different rotations, all while guard Kyrie Irving sits out until he complies with New York City’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate. The Nets’ veteran-ladened roster is also building its conditioning as Brooklyn tries to stay healthy.
There have been a couple of early developments that might be big for the Nets. Guard Patty Mills looks like an early Sixth Man candidate making the most of Irving’s absence. He hasn’t missed from deep, drilling his first 10 3-point shots. And Aldridge won’t be the Trail Blazer (four-time All-Star with Portland) version of himself, but he is capable of a 23-point outburst like the one he had against center Joel Embiid and the Sixers and that is a massive difference-maker for the Nets.
How has Kyrie Irving’s absence affected Kevin Durant and James Harden?
When Nash was asked how Durant and Harden have adapted to playing with 10 new teammates, the Nets coach pointed out the glaring missing piece from Brooklyn’s championship puzzle.
“We lost a big piece,” Nash said in reference to Irving. “It is not just the new pieces, it’s the void that we are used to playing with. It is a lot for us to take on at this moment in time. But hopefully in the weeks coming, we start to clear some of the debris so to speak and figure out how we can best play together.”
Having two superstars in Durant and Harden to clear the path helps. Friday night was a perfect example of how Durant and Harden will have to adjust game to game without their starting point guard. Durant opened the game aggressively scoring. But then he said he felt the need to attack the paint and create for teammates due to what the Sixers defense was giving him. He finished with his second triple-double as a Net.
“Every game is different,” Durant said. “We all know some of these contending teams like physical play defensively, they’re so versatile defensively. So going into the game, I’ve got to just be prepared to do anything.”
Harden will be tasked with more playmaking. Nash said Harden might facilitate more with the starters while being a more aggressive scorer with the second unit. Through two games, Harden is averaging 20 points, 8 assists and 7.5 rebounds, and the feeling is he will only get better as he builds his way back from his hamstring injury last postseason.
Philadelphia 76ers (1-1):
Will oft-injured Embiid stay healthy this season?
It took one game for the one consistent theme around the 76ers in recent seasons — besides maximum chaos, anyway — to return to the fore: will Embiid be able to play?
After Philadelphia’s 20-point victory in New Orleans Wednesday, Embiid was listed as questionable for Friday’s game with right knee soreness. While Embiid wound up playing, he was clearly laboring during the game, and said afterward he probably should not have taken the floor.
“We will see,” Embiid said when asked if he’d have to miss games moving forward because of the knee. “I mean, after last game, that was a pretty good hit by the big fella, but we’ll see how it feels tomorrow but I’m not planning on sitting. I want to keep playing as long as there’s not any big damage on it.”
Embiid, on a per-minute basis, was arguably the NBA’s best player last season. If not for missing 21 games last season with various injuries, he might have won the league’s Most Valuable Player award.
With the status of Simmons up in the air indefinitely, Philadelphia needs Embiid on the court now more than ever. His health could be the difference between the 76ers having home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, or potentially being in danger of being in the play-in tournament.
Who will be Philadelphia’s closer?
This question has followed the 76ers around for years. It was one they briefly answered by trading for All-Star guard Jimmy Butler and Philadelphia has failed to find another since trading him away two years ago.
The issue of a closer certainly reared its head in this game, as Philadelphia’s offense sunk into quicksand down the stretch with Embiid hobbled. The Sixers missed nine straight shots to end the game, while Harden and Durant made plays to drag Brooklyn back into the game and to a win.
“We got the lead by playing,” 76ers coach Doc Rivers said. “We finished the game by holding the ball, and we’re just not that type of team. That’s not who we are. We don’t have the playmakers that can do that.
“[The Nets] have the ability to give the ball to Durant, he can dance 1-on-1, Harden can do that, we really don’t have that type of team, so we have to get ours through motion and movement and we have to keep believing that.”
That’s a bit of an indictment of Tobias Harris, whom the 76ers gave $180 million two years ago and, effectively, chose to keep over Butler. Harris had a strong game Friday, finishing with 23 points, seven rebounds and four assists. But when Philadelphia needed a bucket down the stretch, neither he or Embiid could deliver one.
It’s also one that Simmons, notoriously quiet in the fourth quarter, won’t solve, either, if he returns. If Philadelphia wants to be a true championship contender, it eventually has to.