Sixers’ waiting game

For a first three and a half minutes of the fourth quarter, the Sixers finally looked ready to pull away. With top dogs Joel Embiid and James Harden clicking on offense and the Spurs throttled by solid coverage, they swiftly turned an eight-point deficit into a one-point lead. Things appeared to be heading in the right direction, to the delight of the 19,822-strong crowd. Unfortunately, they could not sustain their momentum, and once again found themselves staring at the backsides of the determined opposition. And when the battlesmoke cleared, they were treated to a familiar sight: a loss — their third straight to start the season.

In the aftermath, Embiid was candid enough to admit that his bout with plantar fasciitis in the summer prevented him from being at his conditioned best to date. Even as he has managed to break 36 minutes in each of his matches, scheduled between rest days, a mere eye test will show the obvious: He gets winded quickly. It’s no coincidence that he currently sports a negative-5.3 plus-minus line, a clear 10-point turnaround from his norm in the previous campaign.

So, yes, Embiid’s right when he says the Sixers “have to connect better [on defense]. We’re not guarding the ball well.” All the same, what he didn’t say is equally true: Their effort on that end of the court depends on how well he anchors it. And if he continues to be a step slow in contesting players funneled to him, they’ll keep being in close matches, and seeing these end in disfavor. The good news is that he knows he’ll be more fit over time, with increased understanding of roles by new recruits contributing to better results. “We’ll be fine.”

Certainly, there was no excuse for yesterday’s setback. The Sixers should not have bowed to the supposedly overmatched Spurs on the second night of a back-to-back set, and at the Wells Fargo Center to boot. Still, Embiid seems confident the Sixers will improve as the 2022-23 season progresses. His emotion fuels his game, and if he’s happy, they should be on the upswing sooner rather than later. That said, he hasn’t been engaged at times on offense, and whether this is due to Harden hogging the ball in the perimeter for significant chunks remains to be seen. It’s a developing story that may or may not ring alarm bells depending on how they trend. Meanwhile, all and sundry will play the waiting game, trying to read between the lines and wondering whether the preseason favorites live up to expectations or crash and burn in spectacular fashion.

Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and Human Resources management, corporate communications, and business development.

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