WASHINGTON — There’s an argument to be made that basketball is the purest of the team sports. It requires the least amount of equipment, the least amount of space, and, when it is played at its highest level, it is among the more beautiful things to watch. On Wednesday night, the Sixers played basketball at that level, and while it is far too early to what that portends in terms of wins and losses, it is hardly premature to say that this winter is going to be a fun one in the city of Philadelphia.
That the Sixers walked out of the Capital One Arena with a 120-115 loss is a fact worth noting, because the games are supposed to mean something this season, as opposed to all of the other 0-1 starts in recent seasons. There were plenty of loose threads for a head coach to clean up, a fact Brett Brown acknowledged afterward. There were too many turnovers, including two on back-to-back possessions that could have tied the game with under a minute left, and too many second-chance possessions allowed to a quality opponent. The Sixers are not a perfect team, and it showed. They do not have much experience playing with each other, and that showed too.
Really, though, none of that mattered. In Game 1, we were looking at process, at means, at the way all of the individual parts look when playing together in a game that counted. What mattered most is that the Sixers looked good, against a good team, in a loud environment, after less than a month of playing together full time. This was everything Brown and Bryan Colangelo want their team to be: fast-paced, aggressive, resilient. They were fun, and as long as the health holds, it seems likely to stay that way.
“My immediate thoughts leaving the building,” Brown said, “is there were a lot of positives.”
There were negatives, no doubt, several of which we’ve already glossed over. Afterward, though, Brown seemed to be in the same place that all Sixers fans should have found themselves, with an understanding that this season really is going to be different, not only from the ones immediately preceding it but from all of those mediocre ones that came before.
They knocked down 15 three-pointers, including seven from Robert Covington, whose seventh from downtown cut the Sixers’ deficit to 115-113 with just over a minute remaining. Turnovers on the next two possessions proved to be the death blow. But, man, was it fun.
There was Kelly Oubre flashing three fingers at the Sixers bench after Bradley Beal knocked down a shot off a careless pass by Embiid. Then there was Covington knocking down a three in Oubre’s face on the subsequent possession, which prompted a little back-and-forth between Oubre and the Sixers bench. There was Joel Embiid facing up and then double crossing over Wizards big man Ian Mahinmi at the foul line. There was Markelle Fultz playing a surprisingly solid game in his NBA debut, and Ben Simmons showing flashes of the player he seems destined to become.
There were rookie moments, Simmons dribbling a ball off his foot midway through the third quarter. Fultz hesitating in traffic and getting stripped a couple of times in the first half. Rim protection was a huge problem outside of Embiid. You could almost see Brown deciding to set fire to the minutes restriction after a particular brutal series of possessions in which Johnson was manhandled by Marcin Gortat on both ends of the court in the third quarter.
Still. . .
They scored 115 points on a playoff team that has been on the court together for years. Along the range of potential outcomes, what happened in the nation’s capital on the opening night of the Sixers’ season was somewhere near the top.
“I was proud of them,” Brown said. “I think to come into this building and play a team like that, a veteran team, a team that’s been in the playoffs, deep in the playoffs some years, and on opening night look up and with a minute-and-30 left be down two, that’s a good reason to be happy.”