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December 31, 2017

Ben Simmons dominates crunch time to earn Sixers win in Phoenix

Sixers NBA

Philadelphia's New Year's Eve win was following a script that has become a little too familiar for Ben Simmons. After doing some damage early, Simmons settled into a more passive mode, setting up teammates and not really looking for his shot.

And then a funny thing happened in the fourth quarter: Simmons absolutely took over the game, daring Phoenix to find a way to stop him. They had no answer for him, and for the first time in a while — maybe the first time professionally — he was the guy who owned crunch time for Philadelphia.

There was nothing subtle or even out of the ordinary with the way Simmons got his buckets down the stretch. He barreled toward the basket with bad intentions over and over again, treating Phoenix's defenders like traffic cones in the final quarter.

Perhaps that was part of the equation for Simmons. Phoenix's roster isn't exactly littered with defensive stoppers, and Simmons saw the opportunity ahead of him while guarded by Marquese Chriss and TJ Warren. Even still, he's had some favorable matchups in other games this year and never showed the inclination to take over the game by himself.

Maybe his success at the free-throw line on Sunday night empowered him to go into that attack mode. The volume was inflated a bit due to some hacking from the Suns late, but Simmons was better than usual from the charity stripe, dropping 7/11 there against Phoenix. He showed absolutely no fear attacking Phoenix's backline, and going up strong directly resulted in more trips to the line.

His inability (or aversion depending on your point of view) to draw contact and shoot free throws has had a dramatic effect on what the Sixers can do in crunch time on a typical night. They run a ton of two-man action with JJ Redick and Joel Embiid, which works well enough but lacks a player with any real ballhandling pizzaz. Defenses can load up on the post-up and hug Redick tight on the perimeter, and you've all but locked the play up.

But when the Sixers can run a two-man game with Simmons and Embiid, everything changes. Simmons has the speed and handle that Redick lacks, and he used it to great effect when Brett Brown called his number down the stretch.

The final line looked a lot closer to what we came to expect from Simmons early in the year: 21 points, 10 rebounds, six assists, three steals and three blocks in just 32 minutes. The production all over the board was great and is the reason Simmons should still be the frontrunner for Rookie of the Year. But it was the decision to keep attacking down the stretch that set this performance apart from others this season, and it offers a glimmer of hope heading into 2018. If an assertive Ben Simmons is here to stay, watch out.

That Joel Embiid guy wasn't bad either

Even for a guy who consistently puts cartoonish lines on the board, Embiid's box score against Phoenix is insane. He ended up a +32 in only 31 minutes played, foul trouble the only thing holding him back from improving upon his 22 points, nine rebounds, five assists and an ugly seven turnovers.

One of the most important developments in Embiid's young career has been his ability to impact the game while he's in foul trouble. He picked up his fourth foul early in the third, and his coach pulled him with the Sixers up a comfortable 18 points. That lead evaporated with Amir Johnson taking over the center spot, and so Embiid had to reenter the game with 5:12 remaining in the third to stem the tide.

He did exactly that, doing just enough to keep the Sixers in front with the foundation of their lead crumbling around him. To open the fourth quarter, scoring on Philadelphia's first two possessions of the quarter with a nifty post move and a feathery mid-range jumper. Many players lose their intensity when they know they're in foul trouble and end up playing worse defense as a result, but he did everything he could to keep Philadelphia battling on the defensive end.

There was a downside to that fight, of course. Embiid tried to get his mitts on a pass intended for Devin Booker, and he went crashing to the hardwood in the process. He remained in the game, but Embiid continued to flex his right hand throughout the rest of the game.

The good news? X-rays on the hand came back negative. But that doesn't mean everything is hunky dory, and once again we'll have to wait for further updates to see if the big guy will miss any time. As you saw when he was on the court Sunday night, just having him available makes all the difference in the world.

Dario Saric, third banana

Until Simmons went on his scoring barrage to win the game in the fourth quarter, it was Saric who had the most assertive offensive performance against the Suns. He closed the game as Philadelphia's lead scorer with 27 points, and you can see the difference for him on offense when he has it working from the outside.

The outside shot remains the key to unlocking the rest of the game for Saric. He is more than capable of being a solid role player regardless of the shooting stroke, but when he has it going on from three — he was 4/5 from outside against Phoenix — it makes life so much easier for him on offense, and helps erase whatever limitations are in place due to his athleticism.

Guarded by a vastly superior athlete in Chriss throughout most of the game, Saric nonetheless turned his opponent into barbeque chicken. He forced Chriss to guard him all the way out at the three-point line and used his defender's eagerness against him to earn free throws and easier shots by the basket.

I would venture a guess and say that's one of the best offensive games, at least as a pure scorer, that Saric has ever played. He popped up in good spots as a cutter, was lights out from deep, and seems to have finally established himself as a consistent contributor to Philadelphia's offense. Having one more high-level player would make all the difference in the world for a Philadelphia playoff push, and Saric looks increasingly like the guy who can give them that boost.