By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)
Last night, NBA Opening Night gave us a Spurs-Mavericks game that felt like Game 8 of last year’s playoff series, and an Anthony Davis performance that was one block shy of a triple-double, but zero plays shy of announcing he is ready to take over the league (just in case you weren’t already paying attention). Now, we’re highly unlikely to see such intense play or as earth-shattering a performance as the Sixers open up their season tonight in Indiana. However, for two teams who will be starting one starter combined from last year’s opening night line-ups, there should be plenty of intriguing storylines to command our attention.
First looking at the Pacers, we’ve known for months that this would be a lost season for them ever since Paul George collided with the stanchion during a Team USA scrimmage and suffered a multiple compound fracture to his right leg. Indiana made noise about soldiering on and continuing to compete, but without their superstar in addition to their 2nd-best playmaker as free agent Lance Stephenson headed to Charlotte, everyone already knew their focus would (or at least, should) shift to 2015. Now, George Hill is out at least three weeks with a knee injury, and David West will miss at least three games with an ankle injury, leaving Roy Hibbert as the last man standing from a starting 5 that was once viewed as the best chance to ascend past Miami’s former Big 3 in the Eastern Conference.
Hibbert will be the key this season to whether the Pacers tread water in a weak conference or completely bottom out. It remains to be seen whether he’s closer to the player that’s put up 20 and 10 numbers during stretches of his career, or the guy who was getting goose egged in the playoffs last spring and had people questioning everything from his mental fortitude to his relationship with his teammates in the locker room. For a team that was already a bottom-10 offense a season ago, an increased diet of awkward Hibbert post-ups may not be what the doctor ordered. The likes of Rodney Stuckey, C.J. Miles, and Luis Scola are nice enough players to slot in as bench contributors, but they don’t move the needle at all when thrust into the starting roles they’ll occupy tonight.
Of course, those players are still a more polished group than the line-up that will take the floor for the Sixers tonight. With Michael Carter-Williams still recovering from shoulder surgery and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, yet to return from Cameroon after joining Joel Embiid for the funeral of his younger brother, we’re looking at a starting line-up of Tony Wroten, Hollis Thompson, Nerlens Noel, Henry Sims, and a mystery 5th (likely either K.J. McDaniels, JaKarr Sampson, or Chris Johnson). That’s precisely zero holdovers from the starting unit that took down the world champion Heat in the opener in year ago. More concerning from an actually trying to win the game perspective, the Sixers will have no outside shooting aside from Hollis Thompson, and with the 7’2″ Hibbert patrolling the paint for the Pacers, things could get real ugly for Brett Brown’s offense tonight.
Still, the Sixers aren’t going 0-82 (hot take!) and with the number of injuries on the Indiana side, this contest certainly qualifies as a game Philly could steal on the road. Here’s the three keys to how I see that going down:
- Tony Wroten needs to look like a competent point guard – With Alexey Shved the only other healthy, capable ball handler on the roster, the ball is going to be in Wroten’s hands a lot. He should have no problem blowing by the Pacers guards, but he has to avoid those wild shots and passes once he gets into the lane. He also needs to avoid going straight up into a vertical Roy Hibbert and allow the Pacers big man to have one of his patented 5-block games.
- Get Hibbert into foul trouble – Speaking of Indiana’s center, if the Sixers can pick up a couple early fouls against him, the Pacers will have nothing beyond an Rodney Stuckey off the dribble game to try and create offense. This task will fall to Henry Sims, who has displayed flashed of a skilled post game in the past. If the Sixers get the version of Sims that had three 20-point games toward the end of last season, they can send Hibbert to the bench, and themselves off with a victory.
- Someone, anyone get hot from the perimeter – Maybe Chris Johnson drains three triples, Wroten has one of his once-in-a-blue moon 4-6 nights from behind the arc, or Hollis Thompson ties a career-high with 6 threes and sends fantasy owners everywhere scurrying to the waiver wire. Regardless, the Sixers need to keep the Pacers honest from the perimeter in some way, shape, or form. If they have one of their classic 3-20 nights from downtown, it doesn’t matter how bogged down the Pacers offense looks, the Sixers won’t be able to put up enough points for it to matter.
Prediction: Sixers 96, Pacers 91 – The Sixers win an ugly game as everyone laughs at the team starting undefeated again after the league tried to change the lottery rules because of how blatantly they’re trying to lose.