The opening five games of the 2021-22 season have been tough for the 76ers. They have failed to be able to get into a rhythm, especially late in games, and have had to rely on trotting out Joel Embiid every game despite a sore knee that he re-injured in the opener when he banged knees with a Pelicans player.
Thursday night's win over the Detroit Pistons should have been able to come easier, but instead it took the Sixers down to the last minute to put away a winless Pistons team. That came despite a monster performance from Embiid, who finished the game with 30 points and 18 rebounds.
"We need to get way better," Embiid said after Thursday's win over the Pistons. "No disrespect to Detroit, but they haven’t won a game so we can’t be happy about our performance tonight. There’s nothing to be happy about. But as a team, we just played New York. It was a different energy level. They were tougher than us, more physical. They got what they wanted. We couldn’t guard our own men. We need to be way better defensively than we have been. We’ve got to guard our own men."
Late-game struggles have been a major issue for the Sixers in prior seasons, and that issue has carried over into this season as well. Just five games into the season, the team has already coughed up two 16-1 runs in the fourth quarters of games. The first one came against the Nets last Friday and cost them the game. The second time, luckily for the 76ers, came against the 0-3 Pistons.
The Sixers held a 100-78 lead after a Matisse Thybulle bucket with 6:34 remaining against the Pistons. All should have been fine and the starters, mainly Embiid and his banged up knee, should have been able to get a few minutes extra rest at the end of a blowout. However, the bench could not hold the lead, giving up the first eight points of a 16-1 Detroit run. Head coach Doc Rivers was forced to put the starters back into the game. The run continued against the starters until they were able to hit some free throws over the last couple minutes of action. Embiid knocked down a key shot from beyond the arc to seal the game with 13.9 seconds remaining.
The 76ers were fortunate that their second poor late-game stretch of the season came against the Pistons, currently winless and without top draft pick Cade Cunningham due to an ankle injury. Better teams (see: the Nets game from earlier this season) will be able to take more advantage of the team's late-game lapse and prevent the Sixers from coming out with a victory.
The late-game issues are not the only problem the 76ers have shown this season. The offense at times has looked out of sync, partially due to trying to teach Tyrese Maxey to play point guard on the fly, and they have been outworked on both ends of the floor. They have also fallen into the pattern of beating the bad teams and losing to the good ones, something that will obviously need to be corrected if this team is to come close to competing for a championship.
However, there are some bright signs to look at as well for the 76ers. Maxey, while struggling at times to adjust to running the offense, has had multiple games where he showed flashes of improvement. He, despite the four turnovers, had arguably his best game of the season against the Pistons, finishing with 16 points, six rebounds and six assists. Shake Milton returned from his ankle injury against the Pistons and did not miss a beat. He looked competent leading the second-unit offense, finishing with 13 points and five assists. Tobias Harris picked up where he left off last season, averaging 19.4 points and 8.6 rebounds and bringing a veteran savvy to the lineup.
The big Ben Simmons saga still is towering over the 76ers, but there is a fair likelihood that the situation gets better from here. Rivers said pregame Thursday night that Simmons was practicing with the team.
There are many ways that the Sixers can take the necessary strides and make some major improvements to help gear them up for a run at the championship. However, if they fail to make some key adjustments - especially in the fourth quarter - they will be in for a long season. The team finishes out a four-game home stand with games against the Hawks, Trail Blazers and Bulls.