KISSIMMEE, Fla. – The 76ers must get tougher.
That's one of the takeaways from the 127-121 loss to the Indiana Pacers as the Sixers' season restarted Saturday.
The Pacers (40-26) were physical and more aggressive. They had JaKarr Sampson, a 6-foot-7 former Sixer, guarding 7-footer Joel Embiid. Another former Sixer, guard T.J. McConnell, came off the Indiana bench and had 10 points, 8 assists, and 2 steals in 17 minutes. Yes, he had to be motivated about playing his former team. But Indiana was just so much more physical.
The Sixers (39-27) will face the San Antonio Spurs Monday night in the second of eight seeding games here at the NBA restart at Walt Disney World. But without being more physical, they will have a tough time advancing deep in the Eastern Conference playoffs that begin Aug. 17. Right now, they are a tall, finesse team.
"That is the thing that lets you put a crown on some team," Sixers coach Brett Brown said of toughness. "There is no team that I've ever been around in 20 years of this league that you say, 'Wow, that was a pretty team.' They just outran and outscored and outfinessed everybody, and they're champions.
"I've never seen that once. In fact, it's not even close."
'We were soft'
On Saturday, the Sixers looked no different than when they lost, 137-106, at the Miami Heat on Feb. 3. After that game, the Sixers' Ben Simmons told reporters, "We were soft."
It wasn't the first time he used that term after they were manhandled.
The two-time All-Star didn't speak to the media after Saturday's game. Nor did he speak during the team's media availability before Sunday's practice.
But the same message Simmons had following their 31-point drubbing in Miami still applies today.
Back then, he said the Sixers need to make sure they "don't get bullied, fight over screens, get through screens. You've gotta knock somebody, knock 'em over. You gotta hit somebody in the face and knock 'em down, make sure they don't score, hit 'em in the face."
On Saturday, Simmons had arguably the worst defensive performance of his three-year NBA career.
Pacers forward T.J. Warren had a career-high 53 points while making 9-of-12 three-pointers and shooting 20-for-29 overall. Twenty-four of his points on 9-for-10 shooting – including 5-for-5 on threes – came when Simmons guarded him.
Warren is a solid player, but not an All-Star. And the Pacers were not close to being at full strength. They were without All-Star post player Domantas Sabonis (plantar fasciitis) and guards Jeremy Lamb (torn ACL) and Malcolm Brogdon (neck injury).
Perhaps trying to find a positive, Brown spoke of the good and bad that occurred Saturday night. He talked about his team displaying defensive intensity at the start of the second half.
"I liked what I saw," he said. "I like watching Ben Simmons sit in the stance and get stuck into T.J. Warren, at times. I loved watching (Josh Richardson) stalk the Holiday brothers (Aaron and Justin) around."
But the coach also spoke of the Sixers surrendering 46 points in the fourth quarter, which wasn't acceptable to him. The Pacers shot 80% (16-for-20) in the quarter while making 6-of-7 three-pointers in addition to converting 8-of-10 foul shots. Nineteen of Warren's points on 7-for-8 shooting — including making all four of his threes — came in the fourth.
"You are not going to do anything of value unless you fix that," Brown said of the fourth-quarter defense. "So that's where my head is at."
The problem is that the Sixers lost two of their toughest players from last season's squad in Jimmy Butler and McConnell, and haven't come close to replacing them. Butler went to Miami in a sign-and-trade, and McConnell left as a free agent for a two-year, $7 million contract with the Pacers.
You can say that McConnell isn't a great shooter. But he's a winner. Even in the playoffs two seasons ago, he came in and won a game for the Sixers. He was inserted into the starting lineup with the team on the brink of playoff elimination in Game 4 of the 2018 Eastern Conference semifinals against Boston. The Sixers fed off his grit in the 103-92 victory. He scored 19 points on 9-for-12 shooting and added seven rebounds and five assists.
So he just wins and would be a better point-guard option than anyone on the Sixers roster now that Simmons has moved to power forward.
Shake Milton, the new starting point guard, struggles when defenders pressure him while handling the ball. That was obvious Saturday. He failed to score a point in 19 minutes, 17 seconds of action. He missed his lone shot attempt, had 1 rebound, 3 assists, 3 turnovers, and 5 fouls.
Milton didn't address the media following Saturday's game and declined to speak about the game before Sunday's practice. He said he wanted to keep the focus on the fight against racism and social injustice.
But the second-year player is more of a combo guard than a point guard. He's at his best stretching the floor and shooting threes.
Simmons can do the ballhandling as a point forward. But if the Sixers want him to be a traditional power forward, then they'll need a point guard who's good at running the floor.
But one of the biggest observations Saturday was Philly desperately misses their two toughest players from last season, Butler and McConnell. Heck, they also miss JJ Redick, who left for New Orleans as a free agent. The shooting guard didn't back down from anyone.
Right now, the Sixers are more of a finesse squad. And finesse alone won't work against the Boston Celtics, Miami Heat or, apparently, the Pacers in a possible first-round matchup in the playoffs.