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July 26, 2020

Instant observations: Sixers lose to Thunder despite dominant Ben Simmons performance

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22_Ben_Simmons_Sixers_76ers_KateFrese.jpg Kate Frese/for PhillyVoice

Sixers guard Ben Simmons.

The Sixers' bench players blew a 20+ point lead in the second half, but a comprehensive performance from Ben Simmons was the most noteworthy thing about their 102-97 loss to the Thunder on Sunday afternoon.

Here's what I saw on Sunday afternoon.

The Good

• The Sixers did not travel to Orlando to give it a half-assed effort. We've only seen their scrimmage form so far, but with the assumption that intensity will only increase from here, it seems they came ready to fight.

Two guys stand out as leaders on this front: Ben Simmons and Josh Richardson. The former has earned rightful consideration for All-Defense honors and has continued that form in the early Orlando games, switching up and down the lineup and playing his usual brand of disruptive defense. And with more ballhandlers on the floor, Simmons has been able to run out in transition and score without having to bring the ball up himself.

Richardson, too, deserves a nod for what he has done so far. He has taken on the bulk of the tougher guard assignments on defense so far and has rarely played at a level below maximum effort. On one possession late in the first half on Sunday, Richardson sprinted back and turned what could have been an easy OKC layup everyone would forget about into a Thunder turnover, and Philly ended up getting an open transition three the other way.

Showing up ready to play has been half of the battle for the Sixers this season. When they're locked in on defense, they're tough to score on regardless of the opponent. But they didn't always show up to the arena ready for a fight, especially on the road. The approach has been A+ so far, even when the execution hasn't been.

• Simmons has been Philadelphia's best player of the restart by a considerable margin in the first two games. There are still some hiccups with him at forward — I don't believe they can rely too heavily on snug pick-and-rolls — but he has been terrific overall.

The positional/lineup change hasn't stripped Simmons of his ability to create for teammates at all. On Sunday, he created out of a wide variety of looks — a long outlet to a streaking Norvel Pelle, passing out of a double-team in the post, drop-offs in transition, and the usual kick-outs when defenses collapse on him in the paint.

About those double teams in the post: Simmons was often handed matchups where he had a good size advantage, and he feasted on those opportunities. Whenever Simmons had the good fortune of having Chris Paul on his back, he absolutely bullied the future Hall of Famer. That aggression hasn't always been there for Ben, and it helped put him on the free-throw line throughout the game.

While we didn't see Simmons attempt any more threes on Sunday afternoon, on multiple occasions he flashed out to the perimeter to offer an outlet and spacing for teammates, showing he is starting to build those habits into his repertoire. In spite of the months-long hiatus that kept these guys from playing basketball, there are signs of a change in approach. 

He's leading by example, and that's what Philadelphia should expect him to do. When the starters have been in for Philly during the first two games, the margins have not been close. 

• We'll start with the positive on Al Horford. After air balling his first three-point attempt of the game, Horford caught fire from beyond the arc, knocking four threes down during Sunday's matinee. While you can't expect him to go on those sorts of tears every game, Horford being a more reliable threat from deep would improve bench groups led by Simmons and his chances to successfully pair with Joel Embiid.

Defensively, the Sixers still can't seem to figure out how to get the best out of him. In the first half, there were a few really encouraging moments where Horford was turned loose to play pressure D, forcing a jump ball and a Thunder timeout on two possessions in quick succession. His ability to close space is improved compared to when we last saw him, which makes him much more useful and versatile.

There's still a huge gap between he and Embiid protecting the rim, though. Dropping in coverage still mostly amounts to lobs being thrown over his head, and Adams got him good with a couple of non-descript moves in the post. Having to toggle between schemes when they play a non-Embiid center isn't ideal, but as we've discussed at times this year, is probably necessary.

Those issues aside, I would say the big takeaway so far is the spring in his step. Horford is moving a lot better, including in transition, and that bodes well.

• Josh Richardson's line was unspectacular in this game, but I think he acquitted himself quite well against Oklahoma City. With Simmons rampaging in Orlando so far, Richardson has been able to settle into a low-medium usage role that suits him better than the high-volume role he was in at times this season. In that way, he's another one of the beneficiaries of Shake Milton's presence in the starting lineup. When role players (even higher-level role players) aren't asked to overextend themselves, they can focus on what they do best. Richardson's defensive activity and plug-the-holes offensive skills look much better within this context.

• Will the four-month layoff help Matisse Thybulle avoid the pain of the rookie wall? It seems like it so far. 

The second half was basically a 24-minute display of Thybulle's disruptiveness, and he is a candidate to be a major X-factor in Orlando. With players around the league still reclaiming their sharpness, Thybulle's ability to deflect passes and disrupt ballhandlers is sensational for a player of his age and experience level.

One downer: offense continues to be a work in progress. He had more turnovers than turnovers forced on Sunday, and he simply can't be asked to do a whole lot on the other end.

• Norvel Pelle has been one of Philadelphia's nice surprise through the first two games. Brown appears to have him third on the big man depth chart in front of veteran Kyle O'Quinn, and he's playing with improved awareness on the floor, even if he's still making some mistakes through exuberance.

The Bad

• I don't think you're ever going to see a lineup of Milton-Thybulle-Korkmaz-Robinson III-Pelle in a game that matters. If you do, something has gone horribly wrong. But it's instructive in how it shows Shake Milton's limitations at the helm of a team.

When Milton is on the floor with multiple creators, he's able to focus on the things he does well, like making quick decisions on closeouts and simple reads in pick-and-rolls. On a unit like the one above, however, there's too much pressure on him to try to create separation and get the Sixers going in their early offense. 

Korkmaz is probably the second-best creator in that group, and though he has improved creating separation beyond the arc, he doesn't have the strength or fluidity to penetrate with any regularity. Milton's weaknesses (his burst and handle are nothing extraordinary) are more glaring in this context, and it's a big reason this group struggled to generate any offense.

(In case this comes off as an indictment of Milton's play: he did exactly what they needed him to do with the starting group. The shot has traveled with him to Orlando, which was the most important thing.)

• The second-half play from the bench players the last two scrimmages has been absolutely horrific. A small complaint when you consider how badly the Sixers' actual rotation players have outplayed two Western Conference playoff teams, but a negative nonetheless. 

The Ugly

Losing Joel Embiid to calf tightness was bad enough, but the Sixers would go on to lose Raul Neto to back tightness during pre-game warmups, and Glenn Robinson III picked up a hip pointer during a tough collision with Terence Ferguson in the first half. Having three guys with injury concerns this early in the restart, even if they're minor, is not ideal.

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