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May 02, 2021

Instant observations: Ben Simmons tip-in earns Sixers overtime win vs. Spurs

A Ben Simmons tip-in the dying seconds of overtime was enough to power the Sixers to a 113-111 win on the road against the Spurs, saving Philadelphia from what would have been a devastating loss. 

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• Simmons was an absolute disaster on offense for most of the night, but he came up with the biggest play of the game when it mattered, giving the Sixers a win and helping them avoid double overtime:

• If the Sixers had just run the offense through Joel Embiid all night, there's a good chance he would have set a new career-high. The Spurs had absolutely no answer for him except to hope he would miss open jumpers from three, and Embiid made sure not to linger on the perimeter and give them what they hoped for. Well, at least that was true early in the game.

There's nothing too complicated in this story. The Spurs were short on big bodies, and anytime Embiid has been presented with this type of matchup all season, he has punished the opponent for it. Sunday's game was no exception, though it was unique in that it featured an unusually low number of self-created baskets for Embiid.

One look was particularly fruitful for the Sixers in the first half against San Antonio — the Tobias Harris/Joel Embiid pick-and-roll. Embiid has never been known as a great finisher as a roll man, and Harris' best work out of that look is as an attacker. But with Harris showing increased patience and a good feel for the defense, Embiid was able to walk into some delightfully easy baskets, the sort of points he has rarely been able to come by in past iterations of this team.

I wouldn't read too far into that given the quality of the opponent, but that would be a major development if Harris and Embiid can ever establish real chemistry out of that look, overcoming their individual limitations to make each other better. Harris is more dangerous than he has been at any point in his career, and that makes it the perfect time to try to make the next step as a passer.

• There are a lot of reasons the Sixers are much different culturally this season. Their MVP candidate center is taking business more seriously than ever, the head coach has been former than the previous one, and yeah, it's a lot more fun to come to work when the pieces all make some sense together.

Dwight Howard being a tone-setter, though? That's more of an upset, at least based on his full career. Perhaps we should have seen this coming after a successful run with the Lakers last year. Watching him do the dirty work and inject the second unit with energy is unbelievably refreshing after watching Al Horford stand in mud as lobs went over his head.

He's in a groove right now, and nothing sums up his year like the shot of him tipping the ball back up onto the rim over and over again in the first half Sunday, an effort that would have made former Sixers great Moses Malone proud:

(Harrison and I were clearly of the same mind on the Moses name drop. Don't see many plays like this anymore.)

With more sensible lineup combos around Howard thanks to the George Hill trade, the veteran center is in the perfect role with the attitude to match. It's a joy to see him go to work lately.

• Seth Curry is the under-the-radar barometer of this team. When he's aggressive hunting his shot and (more importantly) knocking down the looks he's fortunate to get, it's usually a sign the Sixers are going to walk to a victory. And the younger Curry brother was feeling himself something fierce on a Sunday evening in Texas, so much so that Doc Rivers let him keep rolling with a bench-heavy group in the first half.

That was an opportunity to see Curry with a group I thought was sort of interesting: Hill-Curry-Milton-Thybulle-Howard. Though there are defensive mismatches to exploit, all three of those guards are able to handle the ball or serve as a catch-and-shoot outlet in transition, which makes them a dangerous trio if they manage to get stops. Curry was the primary beneficiary of that setup, getting some early-clock jumpers after teammates pushed the tempo and he settled into his usual spots around the perimeter.

Even without that stint, it's just good to see Curry shooting without overthinking the decision. You're on the floor for one primary reason, my man.

• The Sixers do not win this game without Danny Green, even though he shot like crap. He made two absolutely essential plays in transition defense in the fourth quarter, turning a near layup into a block and a Spurs run out into a Sixers possession the other way.

Look, there's a reason he has won at every level with a variety of different teams. Yes, he has been fortunate to be on good teams with elite players. But he's the quintessential "does the little things" guy on a team that desperately needs ones. Don't sleep on him.

• There were a lot of complaints on social media about the final possession in regulation, but your best player got a clean look off and didn't allow the opponent a chance to win it. Far down my list of gripes.

• Doc Rivers made an important challenge in overtime, and it was one of the only times all year where it felt like he pulled the trigger on the review with everybody in the fanbase begging for it. Better late than never.

The Bad

• The Sixers absolutely cannot afford to play transition defense in the playoffs at the level they've played it in the regular season. They are only slightly better there than the league-worst Rockets, and the other teams in the mix for that dubious title are either nowhere near a playoff berth or defensive messes across the board.

Rivers has trotted out a line all season claiming all young teams are bad in transition, and it has been a strange remark every time he says it because this is not exactly a group of rookies. The Embiid-Harris-Simmons trio has plenty of experience. Green, Curry, Howard, and Hill all have an abundance of reps in the regular season and playoffs. That's seven of their top rotation guys, and while I'll grant that Milton, Korkmaz, and Thybulle are still working through their developmental phase, I also wouldn't pin most of the blame for the problem on that group.

Maybe this is just something that will magically be fixed with playoff-level effort. But this is who they have been all year, so I'm not going to bank on a change.

• Embiid may have had a good night on offense, but I would point the finger at him for at least part of the transition defense problem, and certainly for his inability to close out to Gorgui Dieng beyond the three-point line. The latter part is arguably more worrisome than transition defense — teams with good stretch bigs in the playoffs are going to hope they can dampen Embiid's impact by making him sprint out to the line or concede open threes if he doesn't.

This is not exactly a new development, and it's a topic we touched on following their recent battle with the Bucks. Gotta prepare for this in the playoffs. 

• Simmons was scoreless in the first half against an NBA team starting Drew Eubanks at center. There were other guys rolling, so there was no need to force the issue, even if it seems impossible for someone as involved as he is to put up a goose egg for a half.

Unfortunately, the Sixers responded to that (at least from my view) by trying to force-feed Simmons far too much. Simmons post-ups provide much less value than a lot of people seem to think they do, yet the Sixers spent a lot of time and effort in the third quarter trying to get him going down there.

I don't need to go on my usual meandering rant about What It All Means for Simmons or why I feel the way I do about his offensive contributions. He is who he is. You can't get wrapped up in him having a couple of games where he looks "aggressive" and ends up scoring 14 points just because he says he's refreshed in a postgame presser. We will see what he has to offer in the playoffs and will make the ultimate judgment on his year there. Everything else is just a bunch of wasted air between two camps of people who are never going to agree. 

My beef is with wasting the time to try to play through him from a tactical perspective. The Spurs didn't distort the court all that dramatically even with him offering nothing on offense, so there was no need to try to get him going in a low-value area of the floor.

• Speaking of guys who offered very little as scorers on Sunday, Tobias Harris took all the goodwill gained with his passing and flushed it down the toilet with his lack of touch and some downright ghastly possessions. He was the face of their struggles in the fourth quarter — instead of trying to play team-centric offense, it devolved into a series of hero ball possessions without much thought put to who should get the ball and where.

Who is to blame for all of that? All of them, I suppose. A point guard/playmaker should probably get everybody organized at that point, but Embiid and Harris are of the mind that they're going to win the battle vs. whoever is in front of them, so the responsibility is shared for the wet fart fourth quarter.

• There are a lot of guys I would be happy to see take an early-clock three on this team. Matisse Thybulle is decidedly not one of them, and there were at least a couple of threes taken by the young wing that came on half-baked possessions.

The Ugly

• Danny Green was put on two separate posters Sunday night. Tough break, man. 

• The Sixers seem determined to make the end of the regular season more difficult than it needs to be, and they kicked off a stretch of five games in seven nights by allowing an undermanned Spurs team to take them down to the wire. This was shaping up to be a blowout where they could rest their starters, and instead, they had to go to overtime on the front end of a back-to-back. Good work.

• The officials called a travel on Joel Embiid in overtime that never happened, and it would have been great to challenge it if they hadn't already blown another crucial call earlier in the OT session that Philly had to challenge.

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