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December 07, 2019

Instant observations: Ben Simmons scores career-high 34 in blowout of Cavs

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Ben Simmons pounded the Cavs into submission and on the front end of a back-to-back, the Sixers bought some well-earned rest for the guys at the top of the rotation, pulling away for a 141-94 victory.

Here's what I saw on Saturday night.

The Good

• Down two starters, the Sixers needed Ben Simmons to get downhill and play aggressively against Cleveland on Saturday night. He did exactly that, making the Cavs feel pain for trying to defend him with Tristan Thompson by scoring 14 first-quarter points.

Simmons is not always going to play against bad teams with very little rim protection, but he can absolutely play with the same gusto, the same drive to attack that he did against Cleveland. No one is going to go home from the arena disappointed because he missed shots, they will be encouraged that he's taking them and taking a larger share of responsibility in the offense. When he sets his mind to attack, he is a very tough player to stop from getting to the basket.

There's something to be said about the effect of the lineup around him, too. The starting lineup featured shooters at every position on the floor around Simmons, and it makes it a lot harder to defend him straight up when guys can't cheat off their matchup to help in the paint. 

The first half of Saturday's game was probably the best half Simmons has played in his career: 26 points, three rebounds, five assists, two steals, two blocks, and complete demolition of the Cavs. He would finish with a career-high 34 points, and he got there mostly by showing no respect to anyone the Cavs tried to guard him with. Darius Garland got thrown around like a ragdoll. 

And there's no way I could get through a recap of this game without mentioning Simmons' second made three of the season, a natural-looking shot from the corner with Thompson sagging off of him.

It is very clear that Simmons has the capability to offer more on offense all over the floor, and it was great to see him rise to the occasion on Saturday with the team shorthanded, opponent aside. More of these nights, please.

• Nobody needed a bounce-back night on Saturday more than Mike Scott, who has been borderline unplayable during an extended shooting slump. He's not a great defender on his best days, but it's a lot more noticeable when he can't make shots. 

Scott got himself going against the Cavs the old-fashioned way, making hustle plays on the offensive glass to get a couple of easy buckets around the rim. Once he saw those fall, it was off to the races for Scott, who took advantage of some terrible Cleveland defense and scored 16 first-half points.

I've been skewing the other way on Scott, suggesting Brown should sit him on the bench for a game or two, but Scott came out and got himself going in addition to helping Simmons play the best half of his career, so it ended up being a great decision on the coach's part. They'll need more of this on Sunday vs. Toronto.

• The Sixers played a healthy amount of zone against the Cavs in the first half, which is a decent strategy against any team with shaky shooters, but it's also just a good team to experiment against. Rather than trying to roll different looks against good teams in the playoffs for the first time, you can get glorified practice reps in on a game night.

My thoughts on zone defense are well-documented (cough COWARDLY) but the Sixers certainly have the personnel to execute it well. With their length and athleticism, they can get their hands on a lot of drives and passes through the zone, and it's part of what got them running in transition against Cleveland, which quickly turned the game into a mockery.

• Philadelphia's first-half margin of 41 points is a franchise record for a halftime lead, breaking the previous record of 36 points. The Cavs are a bad team, but the Sixers play bad teams every year, so that number still carries plenty of significance for an old franchise.

• Al Horford was just tremendous on the defensive end on Saturday night. Thompson is a guy who has given him trouble in the past (albeit when he was running with LeBron James and not, uh, Garland) but Horford handily won the battle in the paint on Saturday night. When the Sixers sat back and played zone, he put out a lot of fires in the middle of the paint, and when he had to body up on Thompson in the post, he forced a lot of tough attempts and misses out of Thompson.

The fit with Joel Embiid is still one to monitor, but they are quite fortunate to have him as a fallback plan on the nights where Embiid is not available. When he knocks down open threes, the Sixers get much tougher to guard.

• When you're on the front end of a back-to-back against a bad team with a much better opponent on the back end, it behooves you to go out and take care of business on night one to buy guys some extra rest. The Sixers aren't the kings of making like easy on themselves, so job well done on this occasion.

• Both of the backup point guards played well on Saturday night, with Trey Burke ultimately having the louder of the two performances. Matisse Thybule exited the game with an ankle issue in the second quarter, which gave Burke an opportunity to play some minutes in the off-ball role next to Simmons where has had some success this season. And once things kicked into garbage time, Burke lit the Cavs up, helping the Sixers coast to an easy victory.

My only gripe is that at some point I'd like to see Neto play a few minutes next to Simmons to try it out. Last I checked, it does not hurt to have more ballhandling and shooting on the floor whenever possible.

The Bad

• Look, they were up 41 at halftime, what do you want me to say that's negative? 

The Ugly

• Thybulle rolled his ankle in the first half and grimaced on his way to the timeout huddle that came soon afterward, and he would not return for the rest of the game. Obviously no use in playing him with the game well out of reach, but we'll have to see how serious the issue is after the game.

• The Cavs just offered absolutely nothing in that game. I know they were on the second half of a back-to-back, but good grief. Kevin Porter Jr. was doing this after dunks down 44 points.

Raise your standards, man.

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