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January 05, 2018

Aggressive Ben Simmons sets tone in dominant Sixers win over Detroit Pistons

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There was a surreal moment in Friday's Sixers-Pistons game, the sort of thing that could only be inspired by tens of thousands of people all winning a free prize simultaneously. Detroit's Henry Ellenson bricked his second consecutive free throw with 8:12 to go, and the Wells Fargo Center went ballistic at the prospect of a free Wendy's Frosty, bellowing out a chant of "Frosty! Frosty!" for a good 15 seconds.

With icy roads outside and your breath visible in the bowels of the arena, it was a surreal moment for a crowd in need of some reason to care about the fourth quarter. That sort of reaction to a cold treat was only possible because of the work done by Ben Simmons, who led the Sixers to a 114-78 beatdown of the Pistons with all the grace of a sledgehammer.

The rookie point guard never gave Detroit a chance to get rolling. He was responsible for scoring or assisting the basketball on Philadelphia's first four possessions, and that number easily could have been six if JJ Redick and Dario Saric had knocked down a couple threes in transition. It didn't really matter because Simmons was the best player on the court Friday night and played with a purpose.

Perhaps the biggest change we've seen in young Simmons since the New Year's Eve game against Phoenix has been the mentality he has played with. He has been no less effective as a passer — he piled up nine dimes against the Pistons — but he has cut down on some of the mid-air passes that were turning into turnovers. Simmons is playing with an intent to score, and it is the sort of mindset this Sixers team needs him to have.

Detroit sent a number of smaller defenders at Simmons early on, and it set alarm bells off in his head. When posting up and backing guys down didn't work, he reset the offense and went back to work, not content to let the matchup advantage go to waste.

Lately, Simmons is playing like a guy who knows he's bigger and stronger than most of the competition in front of him. His coach loves it, and raved about the edge Simmons played with during his post-game availability.

Ben starting the game out the way he started the game out, he came out and made as dominant a statement as I've seen him start an NBA game ... I think some of it needs to be associated with his confidence going to the line. I think that when people aren't confident shooting free throws, it can't help but drip feed into your aggression in trying to get there ... I thought that at the start that he was on a mission.

Simmons only ended up shooting one total free throw, but Brown's point is well taken when you look at how he played. He just kept going to the rim and daring Detroit to stop him, and they proved unable to slow him down for most of the night.

It would be an oversimplification to say he just bulldozed the Pistons, however. There was plenty of finesse on his jaunts toward the rim, including some nifty spin moves that got him out of trouble and put him into wide open spaces.

When Simmons gets going like that as a scorer, it makes his life so much easier as a playmaker. Defenses can't cheat into passing lanes or hug onto their man if they have to consider Simmons a credible threat to score.

You won't find many occasions where teams leave Joel Embiid on defense to stop another Sixers player. But Simmons had it going on to the degree that Detroit started overhelping on his drives, leaving the big man free for easy buckets in the painted area.

Simmons' opening outburst was not lost on his teammates, and Embiid, in particular, expressed joy at the way his running mate opened the game.

"I was excited. When he plays like that, that's good and that's how we want him to play. We want him to be aggressive and keep attacking," said Embiid. "I was happy that he did that, and that just set the tone."

What's just as impressive on Simmons' end is the way his defensive attentiveness and impact has remained the same whether he is balling out or fading into the background. A decent portion of the offense he generated against Detroit was a product of work he did on the other end, turning turnovers and missed shots into buckets the other way.

Despite this, he doesn't have a whole lot to say about the clear gear switch he's made as the calendar turned toward 2018. Simmons isn't much of a talker, choosing to let his actions speak whether he's on the court or in front of the microphones in the locker room. When you ask him about any changes in mentality, he tends to shrug it off and paint it as a situational thing. 

"I think I'm at the point where I know where I can score, I know I can attack different defenders with who's guarding me, it just depends," said Simmons after the game. He briefly agreed with Brown's assessment of free-throw comfort helping him, but otherwise just chalks it up to, "being aggressive."

He is probably never going to be the guy who comes out after a game and trash talks a rival the way his buddy Embiid does. He is definitely never going to lose the unselfishness within him, that instinct to set up his guys when he sees good looks for players around him.

But even when he's not playing as he did against Detroit, it seems unfair to stick labels like "passive" on him. The team's offense is predominantly in his hands, he has a big responsibility on defense, and his ownership stake in this team's success is large and apparent. He is feeling his way around, as a scorer, as a passer, even just as an adult, and when he puts it all together it's a pretty special package.

There's a lot of work left in front of him. But any player who can have fans screaming for ice cream in the middle of a blizzard is worthy of a bit of celebration, and anticipation for what's to come.

Odds and ends

Don't look now, but the Sixers are suddenly right back in the mix to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. Their recent roll has them back at .500 with a 19-19 record, locked in a dead heat with the Indiana Pacers for the eighth and final playoff spot.

For a team that has already dealt with a good deal of adversity — not to mention a brand-new rotation to start the year — this feels just about right as they near the halfway mark. They're still an inexperienced team looking to cut down on silly mistakes, but they're slowly becoming a more cohesive unit.

Brown believes a big part of their recent success simply comes down to health, which has either limited or removed key pieces of the lineup for stretches at a time.

"You take Redick out of this for a few games, or Covington out for three games, or TJ or Saric or Joel, we don't have the luxury of looking down the bench and looking at a bunch of senior players, veteran players," said Brown. "You're vulnerable, and it's the NBA, and you're kind of a .500 team to begin with ... when we're healthy, then you can truly talk about getting into a rhythm, me subbing it, them playing it, you can feel it."

The upcoming London trip should help the Sixers get some R&R, at the very least. They'll need it, because the schedule doesn't get any easier coming up. Dates with the Celtics, Raptors and Bucks loom, all teams ahead of them in the standings. It's a key stretch for a team that may finally be finding its footing.

Embiid is already a world-beater in his current form, but that doesn't mean he can't get even better. His tunnel vision has been a large chunk of his turnover problem, and so one of Brown's development directives has been to make sure Embiid gets some of his offense without having to create it.

The focus here has started to pay dividends, though there is an unsung hero in his success: JJ Redick. Most Sixers fans notice him when he's curling around screens instead of setting them, but he has proven to be a pretty effective backscreener when the Sixers are trying to get their bigger guys looks at the rim.

Pardon the shortness of the clip here — NBCSP was cutting away prior to the play — but Redick eliminates Andre Drummond from the play altogether, and from there it only takes one pass to get Embiid a dunk.

I highlighted this play while recapping the Spurs game from Wednesday night, but Redick's backscreening is an increasingly useful tool to get Embiid dunks and layups. Teams are so terrified by his ability to run off screens that it almost comes as a shock when he intentionally gets in your way.

It saves a lot of wear-and-tear on Embiid's body if they can get him the ball without having him back guys down in the post on every possession. It's thrilling to see him catch the ball and go to work on some poor sap, but it often leads to mistake-prone basketball and a lack of movement around him. That offense should be part of the arsenal rather than the whole thing.

With more of his work done away from the ball on Friday night, Embiid only registered one turnover against Detroit, a number Brown has to love. Embiid often makes the game easier for his teammates, so it's only right the team returns the favor.