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 on 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 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 by the Milwaukee Bucks in the season opener, a 127-104 loss. 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 Sixers 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 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 Blazers (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 on Wednesday, Embiid was listed as questionable for Friday’s game due to 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 because of 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, 7 rebounds and 4 assists. But when Philadelphia needed a bucket down the stretch, neither he nor 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 address that.
MRI shows no structural damage to knee of Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine
LaVine will be reevaluated early next week, the team said. LaVine did not travel with the team for its game Saturday night in Boston, and he will begin targeted therapy on his knee before the Bulls can offer a more definitive timeline.
“Well, obviously very optimistic and very grateful that it wasn’t something more,” Bulls coach Billy Donovan said. “That’s why they wanted to do the MRI, so he’ll continue to get therapy and we’ll re-evaluate him after a period of time. I don’t think it’s something that’s long-term, which is a good thing. So the biggest thing is how does he respond to therapy, treatment, those kinds of things.
“I think once they see how he responds to the therapy there will be a clearer view of when a return date will be possible.”
LaVine landed awkwardly while grabbing an offensive rebound during the first quarter of Friday’s game against the Golden State Warriors. He took an intentional foul on the next play before taking himself out of the game.
The Bulls were optimistic after Friday’s game that LaVine had avoided a major injury, but wanted to proceed with caution considering LaVine tore the ACL in the same knee in 2017 while playing for the Timberwolves.
In 38 games for Chicago this season, LaVine is averaging 24.9 points, 4.8 rebounds and 4.2 assists while shooting 49% from the field.
In addition to LaVine, the Bulls will also be without Lonzo Ball on Saturday night as he is experiencing left knee soreness.
“(Saturday) morning when we met he still had some soreness in that joint and just wanted to rest him and have him sit out,” Donovan said. “I don’t want to say day-to-day … when I say day-to-day, it’s not like this game, and he’s back for Memphis. I think right now for the Memphis game he would be doubtful until he goes through treatment and therapy and see how he feels and if the soreness subsides and how quickly it subsides.”
Dallas Mavericks get Kristaps Porzingis, coach Jason Kidd back from health and safety protocols
DALLAS — Mavericks power forward/center Kristaps Porzingis has cleared the NBA’s health and safety protocols after missing the past seven games and is expected to play in Saturday night’s home game against the Orlando Magic.
Mavericks coach Jason Kidd also cleared the protocols.
Dallas won six of the seven games missed by Porzingis, who is averaging 20.6 points, 8.0 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game. The Mavs went 3-1 during Kidd’s absence, when defensive coordinator Sean Sweeney served as the acting head coach.
A source said Porzingis felt well in recent days and had been able to do individual workouts.
Porzingis’ clearance makes center Marquese Chriss ineligible to play for the Mavericks while he remains on a 10-day hardship deal that expires Thursday.
Sources said the Mavericks are considering their options to sign Chriss for the remainder of the season, which would require a move to create an open roster spot.
Chriss has played in 12 games over three 10-day deals with the Mavericks, averaging 6.8 points and 3.9 rebounds in 11.8 minutes per game while shooting 63% from the floor.
Chicago Bulls star guard Zach LaVine to have MRI on injured left knee
LaVine did not travel with the team to Boston for its matchup against the Celtics on Saturday night, and instead will remain in Chicago to receive an MRI. There’s initial confidence that he hasn’t suffered a serious injury, sources told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
LaVine appeared to begin laboring after grabbing an offensive rebound with just under nine minutes remaining in the first quarter. On the next play, he took an intentional foul on Warriors guard Stephen Curry before taking himself out of the game.
He immediately walked toward the Bulls’ locker room with a team trainer, but LaVine was able to move under his own power.
“The MRI will tell a lot more once he gets that done,” Bulls coach Billy Donovan said after the game. “I don’t want to sit here and speculate … he kind of came down a little funny, and he’s got some discomfort there right now and they want to take a look. He didn’t feel like he could return.”
LaVine is averaging 25.6 points on 49% shooting (41% from 3), 4.6 rebounds and 4.3 assists in 37 games for the Bulls this season.
The Warriors took over following LaVine’s injury, closing the first half on a 64-37 run. The Bulls lost by 42 points on Friday after losing by 26 points to the Nets on Wednesday. It’s the first time a conference leader has lost consecutive games by an average of 30 points since the NBA went to two conferences in 1970, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information.
“These two games should be all the motivation that we need to step up, play hard, play for one another,” Bulls star DeMar DeRozan said. “It’s just another challenge that we got to face. We can’t complain about it. Can’t whine about it. Can’t look for no extra help. It’s on us.”
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