December 26, 2017
The Sixers returned to the Christmas stage for the first time since Allen Iverson was at his peak, and they did not squander the opportunity. Having close to a full roster made a difference, and the Sixers picked up a 105-98 victory over the Knicks, which will loom large if they end up battling for one of the East's final playoff positions.
The Sixers have been missing JJ Redick and Joel Embiid for most of the last week. In their victory over the New York Knicks, Redick and Embiid were two of the most impactful players on the court. Breaking news: having good players helps you win basketball games.
There is no exaggeration necessary to say the Sixers won because of that 1-2 combo. Embiid and Redick finished a combined +50 during their minutes together, absolutely dominating New York whenever they were on the court. What's more, the Sixers attempted 30 free throws against the Knicks — a number far higher than their season average of 23.4 — and every single attempt came when Embiid was on the floor. They didn't generate a single trip to the line without him.
That's an indictment of the supporting cast, sure, but it also gives you an idea of the pressure Embiid puts on a defense. He forces teams to foul him constantly, and even when he's not going to the line he's sucking defenders toward him and forcing last-second closeouts toward his teammates. Those rushed rotations often end up in fouls drawn.
Embiid didn't have an A1 defensive game against New York, if only because Enes Kanter did some of his extensive damage against Philadelphia while Embiid took him on in the post. But the Sixers were a completely different team with Embiid anchoring things on the back-end, and his ability to haul in rebounds after contesting shots helps separate him from some of his peers on that end of the floor.
In fact, I would say Embiid's rebounding this season may be one of the most undersold stories of the year. It's not as simple as pointing to the climbing minutes count and saying he has more time to collect rebounds, because his defensive rebounding percentage is over three points higher this year vs. last. So while he has more opportunities to clean the glass, he's also done a better job at taking advantage of them.
That ability to finish the possession after a good shot contest is what separates a very good defensive player from an elite one. When Embiid is at his best, there is very little wasted motion, and he sinks back on his hips until the moment he needs to strike.
Redick may not have been the two-way force Embiid was, but he did more than his fair share to get Philadelphia over the line. He punctuated his return to the lineup with a 4/8 shooting performance from three, and he was perfect from the free-throw line when the Sixers needed to ice the game late. He doesn't offer you a ton as a ballhandler, as you saw on a couple late turnovers, but he gives you enough that he can help keep the offense moving if there's not a shot available when he catches the ball. That little bit of craft makes a big difference.
Now the Sixers will just have to hope they can keep these guys on the floor together.
For some inexplicable reason, the backup-point-guard-who-could lives to torture Knicks fans. A handful of his signature moments as a Sixers player have come at the expense of New York, and he delivered another gem on the national TV stage.
There were two stretches of play where McConnell pulled the Sixers' asses out of the fire. Late in the third quarter, the Sixers were fighting to stay in front of the Knicks, desperately clinging to a lead despite a whole lot of stagnation on offense. McConnell sensed his chance to step up, and he ripped off eight straight points for the Sixers to keep them afloat. The final three came on a big shot from the corner, where he needs to continue making teams pay moving forward.
That shot is crucial for McConnell because respectability from the corner makes him a safer play in crunch-time situations. If you can count on him to hit open shots — or at least as much as you could count on other options like Jerryd Bayless — you roll with him in this setup every time.
And when that offense empowers you to play him late in the game, he's able to make his trademark, pain-in-the-butt defensive plays that endear him to the Philadelphia faithful. He came up with a massive steal with the Knicks about to tie up the game, and the Sixers quickly turned it into a fast break the other way. They never looked back from this moment on:
TJ steals it! Ben jams it! pic.twitter.com/ykIovD7Rvo— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) December 25, 2017
I will pull back on the reins a bit here and say this one game shouldn't be used to blindly play McConnell big minutes. He has struggled to shoot the ball from deep (28.6 percent), has coughed up his fair share of turnovers in the month of December, and his limitations are still there.
At the end of the day, I'd still rather live with those when it matters vs. playing Bayless in crunch time. The latter has shown little to nothing in big spots this season, and while McConnell won't always have it, there is at least some history of rising to the occasion.
Even in a win, one of the biggest questions I had following the game has to do with someone who couldn't get on the court. And no, I'm not talking about Markelle Fultz.
If ever there was a matchup where you could justify playing Holmes at two different positions, it was this one. The Knicks murdered Philadelphia on the offensive glass, and though Holmes started his career as a poor defensive rebounder he has steadily improved there over the last two seasons. He also offers some quickness and size in the event Brown would have asked him to check Kristaps Porzingis, which would have been better than watching Porzingis shoot over shorter defenders most of the afternoon.
But his call never came on Christmas Day, with Amir Johnson taking all of the backup minutes behind Embiid. Those did not go well for Philadelphia, with Johnson snagging exactly zero rebounds in the 14 minutes he was asked to play. It all starts there and was a big reason the Sixers were a -18 with him on the court.
At the very least, there should probably be a healthier competition for that backup five spot. I think both Johnson and Holmes come with significant weaknesses and don't get as bent out of shape about one guy getting more time than the other, but this was a game where it seemed criminal to keep Holmes on the bench. I believe Brown generally does a good job of sitting a guy down if he's not offering much — wave hello, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot — but it's hard to get a grasp on the Holmes freeze-out.
Maybe there's something intangible here beyond Brown trusting Johnson as a defender more, but that's an answer to a question you're never going to get Brown to address on record. A lack of trust on the defensive end would be enough for many coaches to send you to the bench, it just can't be used as a blind excuse when your other option isn't performing at that end.
What is the cost of running a majority of your offense through Embiid in the post? The answer is complicated, but it certainly includes the team's rookie point guard. Simmons can't do a whole lot to thrive off-ball alongside Embiid without a reliable jumper, and his numbers will be artificially depreciated when all eyes turn to the center.
Yet even as he averages ridiculous numbers, I think the average game ends without Simmons' impact being properly conveyed by the box score. With a different, or even more effective set of teammates around him, Simmons would see his assist totals rise at the very least. As it stands, it feels like a lot of his passing genius is being squandered by a lack of finishing from all over the court.
The big problem for Philadelphia when they don't hit outside shots is they don't have many guys who are capable of ditching the perimeter to score at the rim. Outside of Embiid (who constantly mistimes his jumps on lobs) and Holmes, the Sixers have nobody healthy who can play above-the-rim and really take advantage of cutting off of Simmons with the ball in his hands. Too many players forgo shots at the rim for passes in traffic, and you can chalk a portion of their turnover problem up to this tendency.
While understanding it's not a fun thing to challenge Porzingis at the summit — he has been one of the best painted-area defenders in the league this year — the Sixers do this sort of stuff against rim protectors who are much worse. The unselfishness the team plays with is great, but sometimes you need to put your head down and force contact at the rim. This certainly applies to Simmons, too, who doesn't have the same lack-of-athleticism excuse some of his buddies can fall back on.
Too often, Sixers players go up for their shots near the basket without proper conviction, and they end up throwing stuff up while falling or fading away from the hoop. The results aren't often pretty.
There is a bit of good news on this front: Justin Anderson claims he is aiming for a return on Thursday. Anderson comes with plenty of question marks, but he's athletic and not afraid of playing through contact. They'll also presumably get Markelle Fultz back in the near future, and while Fultz isn't an elite athlete or finisher at the rim, he does have a level of skill around the basket that far outstrips the current wing rotation.
On my end, I don't worry too much about Simmons being "passive" at this stage, in part because of the responsibility his coaches have handed him. His coach takes the designation of point guard seriously, and Simmons plays in a way that makes it clear his No. 1 responsibility is getting his other guys going. That means finding open shooters, looking for cutters, and on some possessions, giving the ball to the big guy and getting the hell out of the way.
And even on these nights when the box score numbers aren't there, Simmons has to compete and use his versatility on defense. He spent a decent chunk of the game dealing with Porzingis and probably did the best job of anyone on the team at handling him one-on-one. Beyond that, he shouldered the responsibility of playing two-way basketball well, and his effort valleys that we saw a lot in college are not all that common anymore.
He did not play a good game against the Knicks, and he will have more ups and downs in his rookie year. Just remember we can learn as much about him and his team on down nights as we do when he's dropping triple-doubles.