January 23, 2021
The Sixers are 11-5, sitting atop the Eastern Conference despite a gang of structural changes, COVID-related disruptions to their season, and a few notable clunkers in the opening weeks of the Doc Rivers era. Their offense is clicking, their crunch-time execution has been terrific, and they closed out a miniseries against the Boston Celtics with a two-game sweep on Friday night, moving to 6-0 in the new series format this season.
Philadelphia is flying high, and it starts with the partnership being built between Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
"I think over the game, we both see different things," Simmons told reporters on Friday night. "For me and Jo, it's a relationship that continues to grow. We talk a lot more now, in terms of being on the floor and certain things we say, knowing where he wants the ball, all the sets and just getting good flow in the game and trying to read it the right way."
For the first three-quarters of Friday's game against Boston, it was the Joel Embiid show, even with the franchise center battling foul trouble for most of the evening. These Celtics have proven ill-equipped to guard him — the big guy poured in 80 points in two games on just 34 attempts, brutalizing their frontline and going on a one-man march to the stripe, much to the chagrin of Celtics guard Marcus Smart.
Simmons, as has so often been the case this season, was an offensive passenger for most of the night, focusing his energy on bouncing from Kemba Walker to Jaylen Brown to Marcus Smart and putting out fires on the defensive end. It's hard to call it a thankless task as Simmons continues to get All-Defense level buzz for his work there, but it's certainly the less glamorous work, stuff you have to do in order to do what you want to do.
Then the fourth quarter came, with Philadelphia allowing Boston to get back within three following a Jaylen Brown three around the five-minute mark. A personal run from Simmons, punctuated by a steal and slam on a lazy pass from Smart, pushed the lead to eight and the game out of reach, never in jeopardy the rest of the way.
The Sixers have been an absolute juggernaut in clutch situations, outscoring teams by 37.5 points per 100 possessions according to the NBA's stats database, and the Embiid-Simmons defensive spine has been a sight to behold. They have not always shined simultaneously during the middle portion of games, but they have been downright demonic in crunch time, playing off one another to completely shut down plays and spark Philadelphia runs.
Embiid sees all from his position at the back of the defense, and the play of his running mate is not lost on the MVP candidate.
"That fourth quarter starts on the defensive end, and he was a monster," Embiid said. "He got a lot of steals, and then in the halfcourt off the pick and roll he was attacking, he was aggressive and he made plays. He scored a couple baskets, he was huge tonight."
Recognition of game flow has been one of many positive developments for Embiid this year. As Simmons began to get rolling in the fourth quarter, Doc Rivers told reporters, it was Embiid who asked to run more pick-and-rolls down the stretch, standing aside in the midst of a 38-point outburst to let the hot hand grab the wheel. The head coach believes that sends a powerful message to everyone on the team, and the results speak for themselves, with Simmons scoring 11 in the final period to put the game away.
Understanding and feeding the right guy at the right time is traditionally thought of as the point guard's job, something Simmons has taken seriously from the start of his career. But Rivers' message from the first day of camp has been for the whole team to embrace scoring by any means necessary, through whoever has the best shot to help them win. That necessitates self-assessment at all times, before, during, and after games, win or lose.
Embiid and Simmons have had an open line of dialogue this season, something that both men seem to appreciate as a positive influence on how they play together.
"The other day he texted me and said, 'I missed you too many times on your duck-ins. I'm going to find you.' Little things like that continue to help the team chemistry grow," Simmons said Friday. "And it just shows guys are willing to make plays. Even if guys don't make the right pass or miss something, guys want to make the right plays and things like that. So our relationship continues to grow."
Parsing their relationship has always been a struggle over the years. It is not a slight to say they have never been best friends, or that they are not the ideal offensive fit alongside one another. They are young men with close circles who are in the process of carving their professional lanes. There have been dramatizations of the dynamic over the years, but it is also true that Embiid has done everything short of begging Simmons to shoot when asked about it during media availabilities, aware of the impact it has on the entire team. Organizationally, the Sixers were prepared to trade Simmons in order to make a move to chase more immediate gains around Embiid. Those facts won't fade.
It hasn't stopped them from making the best of this situation. Pinpointing the exact cause is beyond my ability, and it's likely a combination of dozens of factors, whether you want to credit the improved roster around them, the influence of a new coaching staff, or the natural maturation of two young men. But they will tell you themselves that this is not the same old story.
"This year, it's been different. This year I can't even explain it," Embiid said. "I love playing with him and I'm sure he loves playing with me, too, and it's just, I don't even know how to explain it. It's been fun. Having someone like that, I can be a playmaker, but I don't need to be a playmaker because I've got him. And my job is to, you know, play defense and score the ball, and make plays when they double and triple-team me, and his job is to be huge on defense and also make plays offensively for our guys. It's been amazing this year."
Do those good vibes last when they inevitably hit a midseason swoon? That's always the true test of a team's character, no matter how much fun they look like they're having during pregame rap singalongs and raucous bench celebrations late in a win. They will be tested harder than they have been through late January, playing teams with all their stars available and the motivation to slow down Embiid's MVP campaign. That could come as soon as next week, with Embiid nemesis Marc Gasol and the defending champion Lakers looming in a clash of the titans on Wednesday.
For now, the Sixers are in a good place. It's more than you could say about them for most of last season, and a lot of the credit belongs in the hands of their two young stars, an odd couple if there ever was one.
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