PHILADELPHIA — Friday night marked a fantastic debut for the Phantastic 5.
The Philadelphia 76ers beat the Denver Nuggets 117-110 as their new-look starting lineup of Ben Simmons, JJ Redick, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris and Joel Embiid closed the game on a 14-7 run as part of an impressive overall display from the most active team leading up to Thursday’s NBA trade deadline.
On a night when the Sixers retired Moses Malone‘s jersey, raising his No. 2 to the rafters at Wells Fargo Center, the current version of the team offered a glimpse of its potential to be the best this franchise has had since Malone’s 1983 title-winning squad.
“It was awesome,” said Harris, who finished with 14 points and eight rebounds in his first game since he was acquired in a blockbuster trade with the LA Clippers in the early hours of Wednesday morning. “In all seriousness, you couldn’t ask for anything more. Me personally, I’m just sitting here like, ‘Wow.’ … It was fun.”
It certainly wasn’t fun for Denver to try to do anything with Philadelphia’s star-studded starting five, especially with the Nuggets missing a pair of starters of their own in guard Gary Harris (right adductor strain) and forward Paul Millsap (right ankle soreness). In the 17 minutes Philadelphia’s starters shared the court, they outscored Denver by 14 points while posting an offensive rating of 124.1 and a defensive rating of 89.2, according to NBA.com.
More importantly, that group took over the game late. After Sixers coach Brett Brown got them all back on the court together with 4:09 remaining and the score knotted at 103, Philadelphia closed the game with a 14-7 run, going 4-for-6 from the floor and getting to the line seven times while forcing Denver into missing six of its final eight shots.
It was a reminder that, for all of the understandable focus on Philadelphia’s offense after landing Harris, the Sixers also have a team with length and athleticism all over the court to give opponents trouble defensively.
“I think they have a really dangerous team right now,” said Nuggets star Nikola Jokic, who had 27 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists for his 11th triple-double of the season, “and when they start playing a little bit more, I think they’re going to be really, really good.”
That said, the offense was working pretty well, too. While Embiid wasn’t himself, going 4-for-17 from the floor after nearly sitting out with an illness pregame, and Simmons had nine turnovers, the Sixers were buoyed by Redick having a huge game. He finished with 34 points on 11-for-15 shooting, including going 6-for-7 from 3-point range, while Butler had 22 points, including going a perfect 14-for-14 from the foul line. By comparison, Denver’s entire team took 13 free throws in the game.
Harris, meanwhile, fit in seamlessly, giving the Sixers a significant upgrade over the player he replaced, Wilson Chandler, as an option to either space the floor as a shooter — his first made basket was a 3-pointer in transition that came off a cross-court pass from Simmons — or put the ball on the floor and make plays for others, as he showed by picking up three assists with no turnovers.
Considering that the Sixers didn’t have an opportunity to hold a single practice prior to Friday’s game — their only time on the court together was a pregame walkthrough at the arena a couple hours before tip — there was plenty of excitement about what lies ahead after Friday’s game.
“I thought it looked great just coming off the court right away,” Redick said. “That was my initial thought.
“We have a lot of options, a lot of versatility, and you saw a glimpse of it down the stretch tonight where I think each guy made a play down the stretch, and that’s who we can be.”
Harris, after one game with his new team, couldn’t have agreed more.
“It was funny … after the game, somebody texted me and sent me a video of me smiling after a play,” he said. “They wrote, ‘This is literally the first time I’ve ever seen you actually smile in a game.’ And I was like, ‘You ain’t lyin.’
“It was cool to see that and just have fun out there. I really had a lot of fun tonight.”