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January 25, 2018

5 observations from Sixers vs. Bulls

If this is how Ben Simmons is going to play when the Sixers honor the country that produced him, they should hold Australian Heritage Night every night.

Behind a dominant performance from their star rookie, the Sixers cruised to a 115-101 victory over the Chicago Bulls, righting the ship following a disappointing loss to the Memphis Grizzlies on Monday. With a road trip looming, the Sixers left the friendly confines of the Wells Fargo Center on a high note and prepare for a tough chunk of their schedule leading into the All-Star break.

Aggressive Ben Simmons is hard to stop

Philadelphia's uber-talented rookie is simply not wired to come out and impose his will as a scorer every night. He wants to get his teammates involved and sometimes will play that way to a fault, deferring in an effort to get the guys around him going.

But this was his game from the moment he stepped on the floor. Brett Brown noted pregame that while many people focus on Simmons' free-throw totals, his mind drifts elsewhere: the rebound count. Simmons' numbers have dropped on the glass in January, and there have been several games where he's a total non-factor on that front.

Simmons grabbed 11 rebounds in the first quarter alone — yes, you read that correctly — and the effect that had was fairly obvious. While on the surface it may seem like a small detail for Simmons to grab it himself or catch a pass from someone else's rebound, it really does make a difference to be able to haul it in yourself and explode out of your stance right away, instead of waiting for a pass from a teammate.

Beyond the focus on rebounding, Simmons was just relentless attacking Chicago's frontline. He wasn't even all that successful, shooting 6/15 on the night, but when he puts pressure on the opponent as a scorer it tends to open up the rest of the floor for him.

"I think in that environment where he's attacking, he's so big and he's so fast and he's deceptively strong," said Brett Brown after the game. "If he doesn't play fast, it's hard for him at times in a halfcourt game. It's foolish to not put him in an environment that's a track meet. That's what he does, you have to play fast, you're not going to walk it up with him...when he drives, the world sort of opens up for him and others."

The cross-court passes and the highlight-reel dunks are all well and good, but what matters for me as an observer of the team is Simmons playing purposeful basketball. There was one sequence in the first quarter that epitomized that for me. He grabbed a defensive rebound and got the ball to a shooter in transition rather quickly. But when the opportunity came and went, he attacked the rim with gusto, grabbing his own miss and eventually recycling the offense for a Dario Saric make.

The difficulty for Philadelphia right now is to have both Simmons and Embiid playing purposeful basketball at the same time. Stylistically, they need very different things to get going, and in a halfcourt set Simmons often impedes the space his big man needs if they're posting him up. That's a difficult problem to solve for the time being.

But the Sixers will take high-end production however they can get it, and that's exactly what Simmons gave them with his line on Wednesday night. When all was said and done, he joined elite company with the single-game outburst.

Put some respect on Steve Francis' name!

Dario Saric is Philadelphia's unsung hero

The Markelle Fultz saga has been a national crisis in terms of how he looks, but there's comparatively little dialogue about what it means for the Sixers this season. Without a guard who could create offense and score off the dribble, the options left on the table for the Sixers were almost all imperfect.

On paper, the starting units Saric is a part of shouldn't work. It limits the matchup advantages of building around a guy like Simmons, whose skillset at a power forward's size is a nightmare to gameplan for, if you build a team where an opposing four has to guard him.

But assign it to whatever overarching idea you want — he's tough, he's a winning player, he does whatever the team needs — Saric is having a heck of a season in an imperfect role. Asked to be a floorspacer when he has never truly been one, Saric is shooting 37 percent from three on almost five attempts per game. It's a minor step up in attempts from last year, and a major leap (six freaking percent) from what he shot there in his rookie year.

Saric had another great night at the office on Wednesday, shooting 4/5 from three against the Bulls. When he shoots that well it enables the Sixers to play funky lineups, and you're able to have a greater appreciation for his overall skill package.

There are very few players at his size in the NBA who are capable of delivering a full-court pass on the money. Frankly, there are few players in the NBA who can do that, period.

But Saric does it like it's just another day at the office, ho-hum. There is a significant difference between playing Saric at the four and the primary backup option at the moment, Trevor Booker. In a game the Sixers won by 14, Saric was a +31, and Booker was a -16. There are fit issues that play into that, but that should tell you everything you need to know about The Homie's present value to the Sixers.

Joel Embiid is capable of just having a "solid" game

Embiid is a man of extremes. He didn't play for two full seasons, and then he came back and was one of the most impactful players in the league his rookie year. He's a gregarious man, but he can hit his foes with the ether if they don't come correct with the trash talk.

So Wednesday night was a weird game for him, with Embiid just having a decent night of work. 22 points on 10/17 shooting is nothing to sneeze at, but he firmly took a backseat to Simmons for most of the game, and that's more than okay. Learning how to coexist with another high-usage player is important for Embiid's development, and he knows he has to impact the game in other ways.

Passing the ball is increasingly his avenue to doing so, aside from the usual defensive brilliance. He is getting better and better at feeling the double team coming, and it obviously helps when he feels trust in the guys around him to knock down shots.

Embiid joked about that fact after the game, claiming his willingness to pass is not just a charitable act.

"If you double team, I got to do my part and kick out, and I got to trust my teammates," said Embiid. "I want them to make it, because if they don't make it I'm going to stop passing."

A lot of big men around the league probably feel the same way, but not all of them are willing to voice the thought. Embiid is obviously a believer in honesty being the best policy.

Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot may have earned himself a bigger and better chance

Who knows how long he'll be able to keep it up, but TLC is having his best stretch of the season with JJ Redick and Jerryd Bayless on the bench. All you can do as a pro athlete is step up when your opportunity comes, and he's making the most of it.

After another great night shooting the ball — Luwawu-Cabarrot was 4/7 from three on the evening — he's up to nearly 36 percent from three on the year. He has closed the gap between he and Bayless on that front, pulling within a percentage point of the veteran guard. TLC is never going to rip Redick's starting spot away from him this season, but the battle between he and Bayless is real.

Only one of those guys has any real significance in the Sixers' future plans, and Luwawu-Cabarrot offers a lot more athleticism and length on the wing. Eventually, Brown will need to figure out if Bayless should get the backup two-guard minutes over his younger counterpart, and whether he's willing to live with the ups and downs of TLC on a regular basis. So far this season, he has leaned toward no on that front, but that all changes if he can rely on him as a bench shooter.

If I were a betting man, I'd say TLC's role will continue to fluctuate the rest of this season, because I've seen too much to believe this is going to be the new normal. But if he continues to rise up and knock down shots with confidence, suddenly the future outlook on the wing gets rosier.

Can the Sixers find a role that works for Trevor Booker?

I have nothing but respect for the sort of player Booker is, but I have absolutely no idea if he's going to work on this Sixers team. They probably need him to play him as a small-ball five to get any real value out of him, though it seems like that is not part of their plan at the moment.

He's not an awful shooter when he actually chooses to hoist it up, but his unwillingness to let that thing fly junks up Philadelphia's spacing more than it already is on its own. Often times he's entering the game into lineups already featuring Amir Johnson and Simmons, and those are almost completely unworkable.

It's not a whole lot better when he plays with Embiid, because he can't keep himself away from the areas Embiid likes to operate in. The guy works his tail off and by all accounts seems like a well-respected player in the locker room, there are just a lot of contextual things working against him.

If the Sixers were more willing to play Richaun Holmes as their backup center, maybe he would have a more realistic path toward helping the Sixers in his backup minutes. But that feels highly unlikely at the moment, and so the Sixers will have to hope more time to build chemistry will fix the problem. Going -18 in a 14-point win is hard to do.

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