PHILADELPHIA -- Buddy Hield was still in bed around 9 a.m. Thursday, unsure if he would need the Indiana Pacers' scouting report for that night's matchup against the Golden State Warriors.
Then, his agent, Diana Day, called with news that a trade was "75% done."
"For Philly?" Hield asked. "Well, I've been hearing that a long time. It never happens."
This time, it did. And by Friday night, Hield was already firing 21 shots as part of the short-handed 76ers' starting lineup. Ditto for point guard Cameron Payne, who also joined in a deadline-day deal with the Milwaukee Bucks.
Yet amid the abrupt career and life shift that Payne described as "kind of a whirlwind" and Hield called "wild," Coach Nick Nurse characterized their Sixers debuts as "very good." Both players totaled 20 points -- a season-high for Payne -- and six assists, and sank four three-pointers apiece, in a 127-121 home loss to the Atlanta Hawks that began as a blowout before the Sixers' fourth-quarter rally came up short.
"You could tell today we [were] out of whack," Hield said after the game. "We're trying to figure it out. But then as you get comfortable, everything calms down. We got NBA players. We start to figure it out. We start to talk, and we had a better second half."
Friday's group was not even close to who Hield and Payne will play alongside when the Sixers' roster returns to full strength. All-Star point guard Tyrese Maxey missed the game with an illness, while fellow starters De'Anthony Melton (spine) and Nico Batum (hamstring) remained out. And reigning NBA Most Valuable Player Joel Embiid is expected to be sidelined for at least several weeks following knee surgery.
But those absences also emphasized why Hield and Payne are needed as immediate boosters for a team that has now lost eight of its past nine games. To try to quickly prepare for Friday's outing, Hield watched film on Thursday night's flight from Indianapolis to Philly, recognizing some schemes from the Pacers' three previous matchups against the Sixers. Payne gave former University of Arkansas player Patrick Beverley, the now-former Sixers guard who went to Milwaukee in the deal that brought Payne here, a shout-out for completing his physical in time for Payne to play Friday.
The Sixers held a 4:30 p.m. walk-through at the Wells Fargo Center primarily focused on three or four offensive actions that Hield and Payne could run, plus typical scouting work with assistant coaches to go over defensive coverages. Yet Nurse was impressed with Payne's instant familiarity with some of the Sixers' plays, thanks to his 2019 training-camp stint with the Toronto Raptors and that former Bucks coach Adrian Griffin is a former Nurse assistant who used similar terminology in Milwaukee.
During a pregame press conference, Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey called Hield "exactly what we were looking for" in a career 40% three-point shooter. The lead executive also expected Payne to give the Sixers "solid minutes." And when Nurse took questions about Hield's and Payne's roles in their first game, the coach said, "We're going to try to turn them loose a little bit."
The first half, though, was "really, really shaky at times," Nurse said, because of the lack of on-court cohesion. Hield and Payne combined to shoot 6 of 19 from the floor (and 1 of 8 from long range) before the break. They were out of sync when Payne tried to deliver an early bounce pass to Hield, but he had already begun cutting toward the basket. And the unconventional lineups struggled to get back on defense, and allowed the Hawks to shoot 11 of 19 from beyond the arc. Nurse pointed out one stretch where four Sixers incorrectly gravitated toward one Hawk, leaving multiple shooters wide open.
"Everybody is all over the place," Nurse said, "and then some of that chemistry and communication starts to grow a little bit."
Hield and Payne were then crucial to the Sixers' second-half surge to slice a 22-point deficit to single digits. Payne's nifty step-back three-pointer -- which ignited a previously grumbling crowd and prompted a Hawks timeout -- got the Sixers within 109-100 with less than nine minutes remaining. Later, a fast-break finish by Hield cut Atlanta's lead to six points with less than two minutes to play.
"I thought we [were] about to win that game," Payne said of the moment he hit his key three-pointer. "I started feeling it. It was a great atmosphere tonight. I'm glad we fought back for the fans, even for ourselves. I'm glad we gave it all the way to the end of the game.
"Wish we would have came out with the 'W.' But, man, I love when the fans [are] rockin' with me. I feel like that's when I play my best."
By the end of the game, the Sixers had put up 45 three-point attempts, much higher than their season average of 31.4 per game even without deep threats Maxey, Melton and Batum. That is a statistic Nurse had regularly downplayed, citing Embiid's dominance through the bulk of the season. But the coach lit up with an, "It's awesome, isn't it?" when asked about Friday's instant uptick in that category.
Hield's and Payne's acclimation process continued after the final buzzer. Hield asked Batum, his new locker neighbor, if he returns to his native France during the offseason or stays in the United States. A few minutes later, a staffer approached Hield to inform him where he could pick up a meal before the team's short flight to Washington. Payne needed to be directed down the halls to the press conference room.
Payne anticipates a heavy dose of film study on Saturday before facing the Wizards on the second night of a back-to-back. Though the point guard already felt synergy brewing with Hield and Tobias Harris (who finished with 21 points and seven assists Friday), Payne knows he needs to get Kelly Oubre Jr. more opportunities to drive to his left. And Payne and Hield are both eager to share the floor with Maxey and, eventually, Embiid.
"It was pretty cool for my first day here," Payne said. "I just want to keep getting better. Keep learning the guys. Keep learning the offense. Keep learning the principles. Just ready to make this push, make this run."
Which means the whirlwind will continue. But Hield can now trust that he will need Saturday's scouting report, unlike the uncertainty that brewed when he woke up Thursday.
"I'm glad to be here," Hield said. "Glad to be a Sixer."