February 15, 2018
After scoring just 39 points in the first half of Wednesday night's game, you would have been forgiven for checking out of Philadelphia's final contest before the All-Star break. With Joel Embiid scratched late due to ankle soreness, it looked like the rest of his teammates were on the verge of packing it in.
A funny thing happened in the second half: the Sixers scratched and clawed their way back into the game, coming all the way back from a 24-point deficit in the third quarter to beat the Miami Heat 104-102. They did so with strong performances from the some of the usual suspects, but an equal amount of help from some unsung heroes along the way.
It all starts with Ben Simmons, who very quietly had one of his most impactful games of the season. He came away with his sixth triple-double, notching 18 points, 12 rebounds, and 10 assists to go along with four steals, but it was his defense that was most critical to Philadelphia's win without Embiid.
Without the franchise center anchoring the backline on defense, it was up to the guys on the wings to be more active and close off driving lanes before their opponent could get going. Though the Sixers struggled to do that in the first half, Simmons was a big part of turning off the spigot in the final 24 minutes. His one-on-one defense was sublime, and he used his length and reaction time to come up with some big stops in the final minutes.
You can still see some young player habits that need to be beaten out of Simmons, but even when he overextends a bit his recovery time allows him to get away with it. Screeners aren't strong enough to deter him too much, and most players aren't fast enough to turn the corner against him.
With Donovan Mitchell surging in Rookie of the Year conversations, Simmons has been derided as being a product of Embiid's greatness. Games like these, silly as it is to have the conversation at all, can put to bed any chatter of that nature.
But Simmons wasn't happy to take all the credit for his team's win — not that he ever is — and he made sure to echo his head coach's sentiment that it was a collective victory above all else.
"Knowing [Joel] is out, I had to be more aggressive and try to get my teammates involved, as I do most games," said Simmons. "But I think everybody played their role, and we played well as a team tonight."
Before we get to the sparks off the bench that got the Sixers over the line, we need to have a discussion about the officiating crew from Wednesday's game. They were as bad as it gets for the duration of the 48 minutes, and while officials are human just like everyone else, there were some downright baffling calls made.
At the top of the list: veteran official Tony Brothers calling a shot-clock violation on the Sixers, despite his whistle going off before the buzzer sounded and the light went off to signify the possession was over. It was one of the most egregious calls I've seen in person this year, and looking at it from the broadcast angle I have no additional sympathy for Brothers.
Thankfully, the call did not end up costing the Sixers as the officials would go back and change the result following a review, but it was symptomatic of how the game went. Players were called for touch fouls and then got away with hacking and shoving moments later, officials called fouls from the opposite side of the court of a play, and the Sixers picked up a few quick technicals that felt more like refs flexing their power than anything.
Being an NBA official is a tough job, just nowhere near as tough as this crew made it look on Wednesday. They should be embarrassed by this performance.
If there's a better way for a bench player to introduce himself that doesn't involve giving fans his paycheck, I haven't seen it. Belinelli was thrust into a pretty sizable role after Justin Anderson was knocked out of the lineup with an ankle sprain, and he took to it like he'd been in Philadelphia for years.
The Italian swingman caught a heater in the fourth quarter, delivering 13 points in the final frame just when the team needed it most. He was in total heat check mode at the start of the fourth, knocking down three consecutive attempts from downtown and making a fourth that was waved off thanks to a foul on a screener. With both JJ Redick and Robert Covington struggling to get anything going from deep, the scoring barrage was a much-needed bolt of lightning.
It only took them until January, but the Sixers finally have a bucket-getter on their second unit. Bench scoring has been a major issue all year, and Belinelli was able to basically mirror the sort of sets the Sixers tend to run for Redick, curling off screens and running two-man game with various Sixers bigs.
He was not just a shooter, however, and Belinelli's circus-shot layup with around two minutes remaining absolutely brought the house down.
After the game, Belinelli seemed as though he was almost taken aback by the opportunity in front of him in Philadelphia, and he was outwardly grateful for the chance to play for a team that has a shot to do some damage in the playoffs.
"One thing I really love about this group, I was looking at the team when I was a free agent, they want to win so bad," said Belinelli. "That's why I think we won this game ... I want to be in this team so bad, just play with guys that they really go on the court and they try to be better, they try to play together, and they want to win so bad. That's something I really missed in the last couple years. I'm really happy."
It's quite a change of pace for the Sixers to be looked at in this way by a guy who had a number of suitors, but for at least this night, both parties were lucky to have each other. If Belinelli can offer these sort of scoring bursts with any regularity, the Sixers will be an even more dangerous team come playoff time.
The Sixers have struggled to find a role for Booker that doesn't junk up lineup compositions, and Holmes has had to look on as Amir Johnson has taken the bulk of the backup center minutes. As it turns out, these two guys might have needed to play together from the very beginning.
Lineups should strive for one or both of two goals: build the most well-rounded group possible, or play guys together who amplify each other's strengths. A Booker and Holmes combo isn't the cleanest fit in the world, but both guys are junkyard dogs, attacking every rebound and chance to mix it up with gusto. When you put two guys like that on the floor together at the same time, it's only natural that the team might benefit as a result.
And boy did they on Wednesday night. The Sixers absolutely murdered Miami on the glass, outrebounding their opponent 60-29 on the evening. That's a downright comical margin, with Holmes (three offensive rebounds) and Booker (five offensive rebounds) routinely creating second chances throughout the game.
For as much flak as I've given Booker (mostly through no fault of his own), it always pays to have guys on your bench who come in playing like they got shot out of a cannon. Booker and Holmes were relentless against the Heat, with the former telling reporters after the game that's simply what they're there to do.
"That's what we do, we both bring energy," said Booker. "When both of us are on, it's tough. We provide that energy and just try to get the team going."
Holmes, in particular, deserves a lot of credit for his role in the victory. Heading into the night he probably would have expected to receive a DNP, but Embiid's absence forced him into action. He took full advantage of it, flushing a couple dunks to keep the crowd on life support in a brutal first half, eventually taking over as the guy at center in crunch-time.
The same concerns remain for Holmes and Booker in the rotation, but this offered a nice preview of what these guys can bring to the table in the right setting. If there's any criticism I'd have of Brown, it would be his unwillingness to try different combos with his bigs and bigger wings as he has with his guards and smaller wings. If they can make Holmes-Booker work, wing-heavy lineups with Covington at the four should definitely get a test drive before the regular season ends.
Saric is used to being a sub-headliner on this team by now, but his performance was critical to the Sixers getting back into the game at all. He took it upon himself to get the team going in the third quarter, launching from deep or barreling toward the basket depending on the possession.
Shooting has helped everything come together for Saric. Now that teams have to respect him out to the three-point line, his lack of a quick first-step can't be punished as much and he can create high-value opportunities to score. He manufactured enough contact to earn six trips to the free-throw line in the third quarter alone on Wednesday, making up for some of Embiid's lost production.
The surge this guy is on is almost beyond comprehension at this point. His three-point percentage has gone up every month this season, and he heads into the All-Star break shooting an unbelievable 46.3 percent from three in February. Yes, he has only played seven games this month, but it would have been unfathomable just last year for Saric to go on this level of hot streak from three.
Quietly, Saric is having a breakout second season: 15 points, seven rebounds, and three assists per game on 45/39/90 shooting splits is nothing to sneeze at, and Saric is absolutely thriving alongside the talents of Simmons and Embiid. It's easy to take him for granted, but he has taken a major leap as a scorer and it unlocks the rest of his game in a big way.