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November 07, 2017

5 observations from Sixers vs. Jazz

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The Sixers won't want to play many games without him, but they showed they're capable of getting it done without Joel Embiid on Tuesday night. In a 104-97 victory over the Utah Jazz, Philadelphia got contributions up and down the roster to get a crucial road victory, and picked up their first five-game winning streak since all the way back in 2012.

This team talked playoffs in the offseason, and they're doing everything they can to back up the bluster.

Ben Simmons is getting it done on defense

Simmons had his worst offensive game of the season, by far, on Tuesday night against the Utah Jazz. He was far more careless with the basketball than we're accustomed to, and he couldn't get shots to drop for most of the game.

If you watched Simmons at LSU, that was a recipe for an overall disaster of a game. But that was not the case against Utah, and Simmons made his mark in a way that he never did in college: by playing defense.

The tools to be a plus-defender were never in question. Simmons' motor was always going to be what determined his defensive fate, and so far he has far exceeded expectations on that end of the floor. His athletic gifts are just as evident there as they are when he's bulldozing teams in transition. The recovery speed in a guy his size is tremendous, and it allows him to alter shots and make steals even as he scrambles to recover:

This is important for all the obvious reasons, but Simmons is also in a position to turn defensive stops into instant offense in a way many of his teammates are not. When the Sixers create turnovers, they are already a dangerous team in transition. If Simmons creates the turnover himself and gets the ball in his hands, good freaking luck trying to stop him.

Simmons had to deal with all sorts of questions about his competitiveness and character at LSU, and they all look very silly now. He competes at both ends of the court, he kept shooting open mid-range shots when Utah's defense gave them to him, and has been undeterred by pretty much any challenge thrown at him so far. Turns out when you pay an elite athlete instead of forcing him to go to college for a year, he'll reward you with effort.

When your best players compete like that, it has a huge carryover throughout the team. In the last game without Joel Embiid, the Sixers got absolutely rolled by the Raptors in Toronto. It was clear they did not want to repeat the same against the Jazz, and they played with the proper urgency from the opening tip onward.

Dario Saric is finding his groove as a starter

After capturing the hearts of Philadelphia in his rookie year, Saric's play to start this season was discouraging. He has looked like the odd man out at times because he's asked to space the floor a lot more than is probably equipped to at this point in his development.

The lid came off the basket for Saric on Tuesday, on a night when the Sixers badly needed it. Saric knocked down five threes and hit the game-clinching free throws in crunch time, pacing the Sixers with a cool 25 points on the evening. Brett Brown has made it a point to get him in the starting lineup lately, in a concerted effort to help the Croatian build some momentum and get comfortable.

Shooting is the key to everything for The Homie. "I feel that his true impact will be greatest felt with his three-point shot," said Brown at a practice last week. "He comes in and we get how tough he is, and he's learned how to take his level of athleticism and maneuver inside...I think that he can rebound and lead a break, he has guard-type skills. But his real ability to make a difference is going to be that, can you stretch the floor?"

The shot working on Tuesday made all the difference in the world for Saric. When he has it going as a shooter, Saric is able to have the ball in his hands a lot more on offense, using his threat to space the floor as a means to open passing lanes. 

Long-term, Saric's role is probably going to be as the sixth man, at least if we assume Markelle Fultz will eventually come good. For now though, Brown almost has to keep rolling with Saric as one of his starters, because empowering him early is paying dividends later in games. 

The Sixers are dominating in dead-ball situations

This has been an ongoing trend that began in the preseason, but the Sixers are carving teams to pieces with their sets out of dead balls. I have always leaned on the pro-Brett Brown side compared to most of the people following the Sixers, and I think you're seeing what he can do now that he has the personnel to execute plays.

You're going to see a common thread on these two inbounds plays: Amir Johnson. That may not have been the name you were expecting, but you can see the benefit of having a big man who actually is interested in setting a screen when he's called upon.

The first set you see is a little slower to develop, as it's a play where the ball is going back to the guy inbounding the ball. JJ Redick waits just long enough for Johnson to dump the ball off at the top of the key, and then Johnson turns and plants a hard screen on Ricky Rubio. Giving Redick this much daylight is almost unfair.

The camera angle here is not as great — and I have a personal vendetta against broadcast crews that try to get cute instead of just using the tried-and-true angle — but you can see the difference Johnson makes yet again. Covington uses Johnson to create separation from Rodney Hood, and from there all Ben Simmons has to do is make a simple pass to get a layup.

The action on these plays is not complex whatsoever, but it speaks to the team's preparation and improved talent level that they are getting buckets out of dead ball plays. Brown has his team firing on all cylinders on these plays, and maybe with a few more wins, fans will finally start to accept that this guy knows what he's doing, even if his career record does not reflect that. 

You saw why Jahlil Okafor doesn't play

To get it out of the way: it's not easy to jump back into the mix after not playing for a while, particularly with all the new pieces the Sixers have added this year. I do not envy Jahlil Okafor having to try to contribute against the Utah Jazz, a tough defensive team, in his first action since the Raptors blowout.

At the same time, nobody has more excuses made for him than Okafor. His rookie numbers get pointed to as if putting up stats on a 10-win team means anything. His health woes are noted as if they were the reason he's never given the proper effort on defense. There are other players on the Sixers whose minutes are completely irregular, and they don't get half the sympathy Okafor does regardless of whether they thrive or fail.

Here's the bottom line: this isn't good enough.

This isn't good enough.

This isn't good enough.

In the 3:09 he played against Utah, Okafor committed three fouls, was part of two turnovers, got blocked by a 6'3" guard, and looked completely unprepared to be an NBA contributor. If this was an outlier among his performance over two-plus seasons, it'd be fine to write it off. But Okafor has played 2700+ minutes as a professional basketball player, and the center he was up against (Ekpe Udoh) had been out of the league for two years prior to this season.

I'm tired of hearing excuses, and you saw quite clearly why the team is playing a 31-year-old veteran and a former second-round pick over him. You want playing time? A trade? A buyout? Go out there and act like you have something to prove.

It's getting old having to talk about the officials

I don't like to use this space to piss and moan about officiating, but I am rolling my eyes at a league-leading rate at some of the calls (and non-calls) the Sixers are dealing with this year.

Ben Simmons gets straight up tackled by Rudy Gobert on this inbounds play, and the officials don't even think about making a call.

The Sixers ended up getting called for 11 more fouls than the Jazz (33 vs. 22) and that felt completely against the run of play. The same physical play that was being rewarded for Utah was resulting in foul calls for the Sixers, and that's a theme that has been ongoing throughout the season. Players can't control how officials will call the game on a given night, but they can adjust their style of play based on how it's being called. The only officiating consistency in Sixers games, unfortunately, has been inconsistency, and that's how their three big men all ended up in foul trouble on Tuesday night.

Young teams tend not to get love from the officials, and the Sixers haven't helped themselves with some silly fouls on reach-ins. But it's not a lot to ask for officials to establish a baseline and stick with it.

A quick word on what Roy Halladay taught me

It felt wrong to let the tragic loss of Halladay go by without saying anything, even if you're just coming here for basketball thoughts.

When Halladay was acquired by the Phillies, I was just a college kid trying to figure out what it is I wanted to do with my life. At that age, everyone has the belief that they're going to be capital-g Great at something and be paid handsomely for it, even if it flies in the face of what reality is telling them. "Whatever, I'll be fine," is something of a rallying cry.

When you watched Halladay take the mound every fifth day, his job just seemed to come so easy, like it was just something he fell into. There's no better example than his second career start as a member of the Toronto Blue Jays, when he was an out away from pitching a perfect game.

Halladay's story is not that simple, of course. He was a couple bad months away from being out of baseball altogether at age 23, only saved and reborn because he refused to be outworked by anyone. Long after he'd established himself as the best pitcher in baseball, Halladay was still competing to beat his lesser-known teammates to the clubhouse to get his workouts in. As Tom Verducci noted in a story about Halladay at his apex, other pitchers tried to go through his post-start workouts and couldn't make it through half the program.

When greatness is the baseline expectation, it becomes weirdly monotonous for a lot of fans to watch. We lose our ability to be amazed by guys like Halladay, LeBron James, Aaron Rodgers, and we remark how "the game just comes naturally" to them, rather than reflecting on the work it takes to make greatness look so easy.  For you and I sitting at home, Halladay throwing nine innings of one-run, four-hit baseball was just a thing we expected him to do, rather than the sum of thousands of hours of preparation.

Greatness is not stepping on that mound every fifth day and winning a baseball game. It is showing up to the facility at 5:30 a.m. on your "off" days, it is treating every rep and every bullpen session like it matters, and in a strange way, it is your shoulder failing you years before you thought it might, because you've already exhausted everything your body had left to give.

I have seen a lot of amazing athletes in and out of Philadelphia during my lifetime, but watching and knowing the story behind Roy Halladay was the first time I was cognizant of what it means to be great. I am thankful to have seen him work, and I have a feeling I'm not the only person in Philadelphia who is better off having had him around.