October 23, 2017
If you've ever gone through the adventure of playing pick-up basketball in foreign territory, there's a default strategy to go by when selecting teammates: seek out the biggest guys. This philosophy can get you burned with Shawn Bradley-esque stiffs from time to time, but it's a simple acknowledgment of how basketball works. If the scoring area is hanging 10 feet in the air, you go and get guys whose limbs reach that space easier than others.
As the rest of the NBA trends smaller and smaller, the Sixers' path to winning seems very clear. They have two players that are bigger and more talented than most of the people who will end up guarding them, and they can bully teams behind that two-pronged attack of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
Before we go any further, it's worth mentioning the Sixers did get strong contributions from other guys in the lineup. Robert Covington, in particular, came up with a bunch of big-time plays on both ends to help preserve the Sixers' lead until the final whistle, and JJ Redick came up with seven rebounds, which seems preposterous and is still somehow true.
But the two guys who won this game and pushed the Sixers to a big lead in the first place were Simmons and Embiid, the readymade leaders of this young squad. They did it by doing what they do best, Embiid dominating in the paint and Simmons acting as the jack-of-all-trades.
Let's start with Embiid. As he noted following the game against Boston, Embiid needs to get the ball in the post more. He made sure his teammates had no option but to feed the big fella in the paint on Monday night, establishing position early and often. Even his face-ups carried him deeper into the paint against Detroit than they had in recent games, as Embiid attacked the rim with cruel intentions in this one.
Andre Drummond is 6'11" and roughly 280 pounds. Yet even as he's blowing by him with quickness, Embiid makes Drummond look minuscule by comparison.
After a guy that large blows by you like that, you mentally and physically prepare for the possibility it will happen again. Drummond was forced to account for that sort of move, and it opened up space for Embiid to thrive from the spots he loves. After he sets up against Drummond in this second-quarter possession, all it takes is a little jab from Embiid to get separation, and then the jumper is easy money.
When Embiid gets going and feels confident, he's also going to let you hear it. After another first-half finish over Drummond in the paint, you can see Embiid motioning to Drummond as he motors back up the court. Pause it at the end of this clip, and you can catch Embiid in the midst of signing to Drummond that, "You can't see me!"
He was prepared to bust Drummond up from minute one, based on what he claimed after the game. The Inquirer's Keith Pompey caught up with Embiid after the Sixers' first victory, and Embiid held nothing back about what he thought of his opponent.
Defensively, he doesn't play any defense. When we started the game, he was being aggressive and he was talking, too... So what I was like [in my mind], 'You want to do that? I'm going to kick your ass then.' So that's what I did.
He owes a huge thanks to Simmons, who made his life easy as can be for most of the night. Simmons' ability to see over the defense allowed him to feed Embiid deep in the paint on several occasions, and all the center had to do was deposit buckets. Turns out he's pretty good at that.
There is nothing fancy about this, even if the pass is a little more difficult than it may look on TV. This is what it looks like when you have two matchup nightmares who can eat teams alive in the paint. If one of them establish position, it's game over for opposing defenses, so long as the pass is on point.
At times, this connection and their collective size has hilarious results. Simmons looked for Embiid again in the fourth quarter, and in the process of being fouled, Embiid took 40 percent of Detroit's lineup to the ground just by existing in the same space they were.
And with the Sixers seeking to close the game out in the fourth quarter, the two franchise pillars went back to the well one more time, in a play that earned Simmons his first career triple-double and put the game on ice with just over a minute to play.
The success of the partnership did not go unnoticed by their coach. Brett Brown highlighted their synergy in his post-game chat with reporters, explaining how it helped them get past the crunch-time struggles they've dealt with through the first four games.
"Ben and Joel teamed up together to—we put them in pick and rolls those two whether it was in the middle of the floor or on the side—and Ben with his height can drop stuff over to Jo rolling," said Brown. "And I thought that in crunch time we did a pretty good job in executing the stuff we're trying to do."
None of this really does justice to the performance Simmons had, either. He was in total control of the game, which is crazy to say for a 21-year old rookie. Yet there he was, making pinpoint passes to shooters that most players wouldn't even think to make.
Simmons' court vision is so A+. pic.twitter.com/AOR5qRw7PE— Justin Russo (@FlyByKnite) October 24, 2017
At their age and with so little time played, these two have no business looking this good together. In fairness, they won't on many nights, as they go through the usual ups and downs inexperienced players do as they try to make names for themselves in the league. But they laid out a challenge to their opponent on Monday night: we're going to play smash-mouth basketball, and we dare you to stop us.
Detroit had no answer for it. Embiid and Simmons shot a combined 19/26, producing 51 of the teams 97 points, and adding 21 combined rebounds, 10 assists, and 3 steals for good measure. Basketball may be evolving, but sometimes the Chip Kelly school of player evaluation still holds up: bigger people beat up little people.