PHILADELPHIA — Coach Brett Brown called his team’s defensive debut a “flavor,” one that left the Boston Celtics tasting blood and smarting Tuesday night on their way out of Wells Fargo Center.
The Philadelphia 76ers, as perimeter challenged as they may be, displayed a maturity in their 107-93 win that seemed to make an announcement of sorts.
“Who cares if we can’t shoot? You can’t score!”
It was a slugfest with way too many fouls and an offensive artistry that only the 1992 New York Knicks would love, but the team that watched a ball helplessly bounce once, twice, then a third time and finally a fourth before nestling into a Toronto net doesn’t seem intent on letting fate get in the way this time around.
The 76ers paid no mind to Celtics swingman Jaylen Brown’s new contract extension, harassing him into a nondescript night that had him lamenting foul trouble in the postmortem. Kemba Walker’s debut as the Celtics’ latest All-Star point guard saw him treated with the rudest of introductions — a rookie reserve named Matisse Thybulle bottled him up after a series of long arms and wide bodies obstructed every passing lane and every avenue to the rim.
Walker couldn’t find traction in the second half in a 4-for-18 outing that says more about the opposition than it does his ability to play on a team with real expectations.
He’ll rebound, but the 76ers would be wise to keep this unrelenting style, which forced the Celtics into a rare eight-second violation immediately following a timeout. It wouldn’t be shocking if they send a calvary of point guards to miserable nights with their length and girth, while their offense hopes to develop an identity.
The autopsy should be enough to make Celtics coach Brad Stevens think Halloween came a week early with his team’s 36.7 percent shooting — 26.9 percent from three — and 20-of-34 free-throw shooting.
The 76ers were handsy, at times overly aggressive but energetic, but now carry some necessary heartbreak that could benefit them in the long run.
“I’m skilled, I’m gifted,” 76ers guard Ben Simmons said. “I know there’s things I have to get better at. Everybody knows that it’s shooting. But I’m working. It is what it is.”
Simmons was referring to himself, but that statement encapsulates the possibilities of this team, even if we can admit the one-game sample size was the perfect setting for such optimism.
Having former Celtic Al Horford as a bully next to Joel Embiid allowed for an ideal gameplan, one that obscured a first half that saw the Celtics take a comfortable lead.
But the 76ers easily clamped down on the Celtics with new reserves James Ennis III, Mike Scott and Thybulle bolstering the NBA’s largest and longest starting five.
“There’s a flavor defensively that is extremely attractive to me, and it was driven to me, that motive,” Brown said, referring to the personnel decisions of leaving Trey Burke on the bench and giving Josh Richardson, the departed Jimmy Butler’s replacement, the backup minutes in Simmons’ stead. “Defensively driven.”
Embiid was the energetic irritant and interior boogeyman, while Simmons used his gifts to charge forward in the open floor. His lack of shooting can’t be ignored and will be a detriment some nights, but even with the glaring weaknesses and the scouting reports that repeat it all, he’s a dynamic force from end to end.
“You take that physical body and mentality, it’s a powerful combination,” Brown said of Simmons’ 24 points, nine assists and eight rebounds. “By and large, he had an excellent game tonight. I especially liked his mindset physically. Trying to put his thumbprint on the game physically.”
The Celtics are no pushovers, with Robert Williams showing some springs and Marcus Smart being as tough and irritating as always, but they weren’t ready for the physicality the 76ers brought in the opener.
Perhaps it’s because the upheaval that’s circled the organization for the past year has stabilized in the form of nine-figure contract extensions. Brown frequently stated he coached three teams last year: The one that started the season, the one that added Butler following his falling out with the Timberwolves, and finally, the one that acquired Tobias Harris from the L.A. Clippers.
Harris was active on both ends, grabbing 15 rebounds and scoring 15 on 11 shots. If there’s someone who could get more of a look while the offense shakes itself out, one would think it would be Harris’ number getting called.
Last year, Butler took the late shots and gave the 76ers an identity whether they wanted it or not. That spot is up for grabs.
“Game after game, we’re gonna continue to find our spots and what’s gonna work, whether it’s Joel on the block or movement,” Harris told Yahoo Sports. “We’re still figuring those things out right now, but we can be really dynamic with the pieces we have right now.
"If we wanted to go to Jo on the block all game, we’d have a bucket. Ben in the frontcourt, I can iso, Al on the block. We have those pieces, it’s just the balance.”
The final piece is the shooting, and not just Simmons — if it’s even fair to put that solely on him. Brown’s biggest task is developing a consistent bench and finding shooting in it, and if not it slides to a cash-strapped front office.
If the 76ers find one, they’re as real of a threat as anyone in California. If not, another May exit could be looming.
“I need to grow a bomber [3-point shooter], really,” Brown said. “Somebody has to emerge and go bam-bam-bam and make a three.”
Harris chuckled at the notion of getting more work until things settle.
“I’m gonna go off how we’re gonna play as a team,” Harris told Yahoo Sports. “If those opportunities are presented, they will be taken. I’ll go how Coach wants to run it. I’m always ready for it.”
And maybe, finally, the 76ers are ready to deliver a unique flavor to the rest of the league.
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