Sixers Open Season Against Celtics
The Philadelphia 76ers open up their 2018-19 season tonight in Boston against the Celtics. Tip-off is set for 8:00 p.m. on TNT.
It's been a long offseason of attempted star hunts, rebuilt shots, TMZ features and workout videos, but the day is finally upon us - Opening Night.
Following a 52-win campaign just a season ago, the Sixers start fresh against the team that ended things last year. Both teams look a bit different though. The Sixers have a newly confident Markelle Fultz and a bench unit that is much better off than at the start of last season. Both Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid have another year under their belt and are poised for improvement. Meanwhile, the Celtics get back two of their best players in Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward and boast strong depth with young players including Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum.
Let's take a look at some things to watch for on Tuesday night:
Markelle Fultz Will Start: It wasn't too surprising when Brett Brown announced that Fultz would take the floor with the starters to open up the game. It's how things ran in the preseason and sets the team up nicely rotation-wise throughout the night. What we are going to look for from Fultz is a few things. First of all, his jumper. Duh. We saw what it looked like in preseason and it's a big improvement over what it was. With it being regular season now, it will be interesting to see if there's any hesitation to take shots or not.
Another thing to watch for with Fultz is the on-court chemistry with Joel Embiid. The two blossomed together on the court during the preseason and there's no reason that shouldn't continue. Lastly, it will be intriguing to see how Fultz reacts to the physical style of play from the Celtics. Last year in the playoffs, he had a tough time dealing with the physicality of the game, so we'll have to see if that causes an issue for the second-year guard.
Ben Simmons vs. Celtics Defense: We all saw what Brad Stevens' defense did to Ben Simmons in the postseason, limiting his game and making sure he didn't have room to drive to the rim. It worked and Simmons was pretty ineffective for a good part of the series. In the preseason, we didn't see a whole lot of different stuff from Simmons really. The Sixers, now with Markelle Fultz healthy, are still working on Simmons operating out of the post, so that might be one reason for his lack of offensive production during preseason play. That being said, he still has tremendous ability to find open teammates and be the team's floor general out of the gates.
Improvement From Dario Saric: Last year, Dario Saric made big strides in his game, shooting 45.3 percent from the floor and 39.3 percent from beyond the arc, well up from his 2016-17 numbers. With Markelle Fultz in the mix now, Saric looks to be taking a little bit of a backseat with regard to the role he had last season. Tonight from Dario, we'll be wanting to see any improvement from a preseason slate that saw him shooting 36 percent overall and 10 percent from three-point land. He missed the final preseason game due to back soreness, so with that now gone, hopefully we see more of what we did last season from Dario. Whether he's involved heavily on offense or not, we know Dario will be physical in the post and on the glass.
Sixers Depth Is Thin, But Still Better: The Sixers are going to be missing a pair of key reserves on Tuesday night with Wilson Chandler (hamstring) and Mike Muscala (ankle) both sidelined with injuries. That'll open up some minutes for guys that aren't projected to play a lot like T.J. McConnell and perhaps even Furkan Korkmaz. Brett Brown mentioned that with Muscala unable to play, it wouldn't be another big man to step in, but instead T.J. and Landry Shamet could benefit most from those vacant minutes. Shamet provided a great offensive punch off the bench during the season and he's stable defensively to where he'll excel on the floor with guys like Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid.
When you look at last year's bench to start the season, the leading guys in minutes as reserves through December were Jerryd Bayless, McConnell and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot. This season, even with injuries, the Sixers will have JJ Redick and Landry Shamet to provide scoring, McConnell bringing the energy and guys like Amir Johnson to provide steady defense. Once Muscala and Chandler return, the depth will be even better off.
Joel Embiid & Bully Ball: After going through three straight offseasons of rehab, Embiid went into the summer of 2018 completely healthy. Like 2017, Embiid worked out with Drew Hanlen in Los Angeles. The main things that he focused on were ball-handling in the post and having the ability to confidently pass out of double teams. In addition, Brett Brown has encouraged Embiid to instill some “bully ball” into his game, resulting in more free throws, and we got to see a bit of that during the preseason.
“It translates into free throws more than anything, to me,” said Brown. “He gets paint catches, he gets close. It’s bully ball. It’s one dribble, two dribble, gather-step. It’s Shaquille O’Neal. He has the ability to do that.”
Per Basketball Reference, just over 29 percent of Embiid’s shots came within three feet of the basket last season. He converted those at a 52.7 percent mark. We should expect and anticipate both numbers taking a jump for the 2018-19 season.
Sixers - Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz, Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Joel Embiid
- Injuries: Jerryd Bayless (out/knee), Wilson Chandler (out/hamstring), Mike Muscala (out/ankle), Zhaire Smith (out/foot)
Celtics - Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford
Check out our preseason takeaways and thoughts/predictions on the upcoming season in the latest installment of the Pick Swap Pod...
Brandon Apter is a Sixers contributor to 97.3 ESPN. Follow him on Twitter @bapter23.