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April 19, 2019

Five star review: Ben Simmons responds with brilliant Game 3 performance against Brooklyn

Everybody likes awards. Five Star Review is our way of catering to that, spotlighting key sequences and performances, in-game oddities, puzzling quotes, and everything in between from each Sixers game. This space offers a chance to reflect further on observations from the night before using video, quotes, and good old-fashioned logic.

You should all know how a five-star scale works: a five-star performance is the best of the best, a one-star performance is the worst of the worst. Mistakes take precedent in defeat, excellence takes precedent in a victory. You get the picture and are encouraged to submit your own set of stars in the comment section below.

Today's game: a massive Game 3 win over the Brooklyn Nets on the road. 

Ben Simmons dominating in every way

We spend so much time talking about what Simmons can't do that sometimes it is forgotten that there are so many things he can do. As he did when Joel Embiid missed the final stretch of the regular season last year, Simmons rose to the occasion and drove the Sixers to a road playoff win.

There were shades of the LSU version of Simmons in Brooklyn on Thursday night. I don't mean that in a bad way — rather than asking him to initiate the offense on every possession, the Sixers turned him loose as a screener, which allowed him to leverage his size and athleticism on the move instead of having to bully people on the low block every trip down the floor.

Late into the fourth quarter with the game still on the line, the Sixers were still running gorgeous plays with Simmons at the heart of things:

A lot of Simmons' best work was done without the Sixers having to design intricate sets. Simmons and JJ Redick kept bringing feedback to the sideline, and the coaching staff allowed two of their best players to influence the gameplan with what they were seeing on the floor.

"Whether you look at his confidence, his body language, just walking to the line or the things he did with organic play, I give Ben a tremendous amount of credit," Brett Brown said after the game. "He did it all tonight, particularly without Joel Embiid."

His nine assists on the night probably should have been in the 12-15 range if Greg Monroe had been able to deposit a few bunnies near the rim. The Sixers misdirected the Nets away from the ball quite nicely all night, and when you give Simmons larger windows to hit as a passer, it's over. With the Nets letting their eyes drift toward Philadelphia's shooters, Simmons was able to find guys near the hoop for easy looks or foul shots.

There are not many players like him in the league, for better or worse. Thursday night, it was clearly better. 

Tobias Harris cleaning the glass

We have had to wait far too long to see this version of Harris after he got off to a scorching start with the Sixers following the trade:

Harris' reputation as a Swiss army knife on offense has almost been to his detriment since arriving in Philadelphia. Since he's comfortable and confident doing just about everything, it has been easy to push him aside and expect him to light up opponents in a smaller role. That's not always easy for a scorer to do. Feeling your way through the game is essential as you try to get to your spots and find the weaknesses in a defense on a given night.

So instead of relying on other people to get him going, Harris made sure he was creating his own touches by aggressively hunting defensive rebounds for all 48 minutes. Some of those were easy pulls like the one you see above, but as the game wore on they became tougher and tougher, with Harris helping the Sixers survive when they had to go small late in the game.

It was no surprise when he ended up the team's plus-minus leader by the time the game had finished.

"Isn't that the holy grail of a team," Brown said of Harris' versatility on Thursday, "when you can find personalities and spirits and just a good person that can play, like wow, what am I missing? He has all that, and tonight you don't have Joel, he's coming back to New York, I'm proud of him."

MORE: Embiid's absence in Game 3 forced Sixers to band together | Twitter tries to solve gaseous mystery on Sixers bench | Instant observations: Sixers coast past Nets in Game 3 behind dominant Ben Simmons

Killing Brooklyn with side pick-and-roll

Unless you're using him exclusively in dribble handoffs, it's hard to get Simmons involved as a screener (as mentioned up top) if he constantly has the ball in his hands. The Sixers solved that problem by giving Butler the ball throughout the night, and a lot of Philadelphia's three-point success can be credited to how smooth things went out of these looks.

The encouraging thing for Philadelphia is that they were able to get good looks out of slightly different designs here, using previous plays to set the Nets up later in the game. Watch Redick's movement on the first play here, where he gets almost all the way to the weakside corner before ducking through traffic in the lane to spring free for a shot.

Less than a minute later, the Sixers used the memory of that play to toy with Brooklyn. With Joe Harris face-guarding Redick in an effort to prevent him from getting to the weakside, Redick feints when he gets halfway across the lane and then uses a Simmons pindown to get free.

There are a lot of people to credit here. Redick for his shotmaking and movement, Butler for the attention he draws when the Sixers force a switch up top, Simmons for buying Redick some separation, and Brown for facilitating all this from the bench. There was a time when people were shouting about their lack of pick-and-roll use, and now they're using it to set up counters in the middle of a playoff series.

Philadelphia's pieces may not all fit together perfectly, but this series has been a showcase of exactly why they went out and got Harris and Butler. The Sixers simply have more options available to them from a playcalling perspective, and it has allowed tactical adjustments to shine through more than ever. 

Boban Marjanovic, coming up large

I may have faded "Playoff Boban" as hard as any writer on the beat over the final two months of the season. He was exploited in so many different ways by so many different teams that it seemed like a matter of time before the Sixers would pull the plug.

Credit Brown for sticking with him because he has been a difference maker in this series. There was a genuine feeling of dread when he fouled out of the game early in the fourth quarter on Thursday night, and while that may be a reflection of the team's other options, give the man credit for his production through three games of this series.

In Game 1, Brooklyn's small-ball lineups flummoxed the Sixers, who did not do a good enough job of pounding the Nets inside when they got their chance. They did not make the same mistake on Thursday. Boban shot over Brooklyn's smaller defenders like they weren't even there, and he did an excellent job of leveraging his size on the defensive side of the ball, too.

Without their franchise player available, Boban has done as good a job as you would have hoped at filling in. He may not hold up in other matchups in these playoffs, but he has been everything they've needed in round one.

Greg Monroe

The Sixers took a player they signed at the beginning of April as emergency depth and asked him to start a playoff game for their injured franchise center weeks later. That they weren't punished more for it is shocking, and while Monroe certainly played as hard as he could, he simply isn't cut out for this sort of role in today's NBA.

Monroe has all the same weaknesses as Boban Marjanovic on the defensive end of the floor, but he doesn't have Boban's otherworldly size or ability to tilt the game on the other side of the ball. He came up with a couple of nice effort plays on defense against Brooklyn, but on this night the plus-minus said it all. The Sixers beat Brooklyn by 16 points, and Monroe was the only rotation player who finished with a negative plus/minus (-9). 

That he still managed that in spite of being on the floor for their strong push to open the second half really says it all. Brooklyn's guards scored over him at will when Monroe dropped in pick-and-roll coverage, with Monroe offering token contests in the event he was even close enough to attempt them.

Look, it's not his fault that he was thrust into this role. In Thursday night's observations, I laid out my grievances with Brown, who I think should have been better prepared for this backup center question after an 82-game season. If Embiid can't go against a team like the Raptors, in round two, the Sixers are not going to survive if they turn to Monroe once again.

Maybe that's putting the cart before the horse with Philly only up 2-1, but everyone with two eyes could see Monroe's deficiencies. 

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