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December 08, 2018

Second-half defense powers Sixers to win over Pistons without Joel Embiid

Offense has not been much of a problem for the Sixers since Jimmy Butler arrived on the scene. The addition of his ballhandling, foul-drawing, and outside shooting has given the Sixers a jumpstart on the offensive side of the court, with the Sixers cracking the top-10 in offensive efficiency since he arrived on November 14.

The defense has been another story, and it was an especially big concern without Joel Embiid in the lineup for Friday's game against Detroit. Without their safety blanket on the back end, the Sixers gave up 69 points to the Pistons in the first half, and looked well on their way to another road loss. In this instance, at least there would have been a good explanation.

Thanks to a combination of adjustments, urgency, and talent winning out, the Sixers didn't have to explain away anything. Behind the efforts of Jimmy Butler, Ben Simmons, and a surprising performance from Mike Muscala, the Sixers left Detroit with a 117-111 win, and can put the Pistons away in the season series with a win on Monday.

There was a glimpse of what the Sixers could be on defense in Friday's game, at least if they can get their two best wing defenders to commit all their energy on that end. When Butler and Simmons combine their talents, it's a scary sight.

Sending doubles at Detroit's bigs

It took talent to actually execute the game plan on Friday, but it was Philadelphia's change in approach that helped spark their comeback after halftime. Blake Griffin, as he has done all year against the Sixers, controlled the game in the first half, destroyed one-on-one matchups regardless of who was on him. And without Embiid in the lineup, Andre Drummond was causing problems inside as well.

Instead of stubbornly sticking to the single-coverage plan, the Sixers came out with a different one at halftime. Whether it was the coach's decision or Butler taking the game into his own hands is hard for me to say, but it changed the game all the same.

Say this — even if it was a coach's decision, it took Butler timing his doubles almost perfectly to make it all work. It was a reminder of how devastating he can be as a defensive weapon when he's locked in, even if he doesn't bring the same level of intensity throughout an 82-game season.

A lot of folks will turn their attention to the offensive side of the ball, where Butler was an absolute menace in the second half. He finished the game with 38 points, and 26 of those came during his monster second half. Butler sought out contact, cut off of Simmons post-ups, and made some tough jumpers over good Detroit defense, putting it together by any means necessary.

When I wrote Friday about allowing the Sixers some time to grow into themselves, I probably should have focused some more on Butler as a primary example of why. He's the first veteran star the Sixers have had in a while, and it shows. He's often quite content to let other people find their footing early in games, but he has a firm recognition of when it's time for him to seize the game.

One day, Embiid and Simmons will grow into their abilities to the point that they can do the same. For now, Butler's arrival will give them an example to follow, as well as an elite player to help them pile up wins. Not a bad deal.

Ben Simmons playing like his size

Simmons' jumper is the primary talking point on most occasions, but it's his defense I've been most disappointed with during an up-and-down start to the season. He has put together some insane stretches on that end when he's engaged, but it comes and goes depending on the matchup. Help defense, in particular, has been a bit of a mess.

But Simmons delivered a gem in the second half of Friday's game. He wore an assortment of hats, guarding Griffin, Drummond, and an assortment of wings during a second half in which he never went to the bench. You'd obviously prefer he doesn't pile up minutes like that, but unlike Embiid, Simmons has shown he has equipped to shoulder that load when called upon.

Despite his size, Simmons is known much more for steals and fast breaks the other way than blocked shots. And that can be frustrating because he doesn't always play or carrying himself as a 6-foot-10 player on the defensive end. He did against the Pistons, excelling on late help.

A lot of this is simply about effort. If Simmons' jumper remains absent moving forward, this is the area where he has to make up for it. The potential is obviously there, and he's the sort of big, switchable athlete any NBA team would love to have on their team these days. His presence in the lineup allows you to play all sorts of crazy matchups, at least in theory, because he can legitimately guard players on both ends of the 1-5 spectrum when called upon.

He just has to want to do it. Simmons' attentiveness is far better than it was at LSU, and his defensive work has been one of the nice surprises of his career so far. Butler's arrival will allow Simmons to take more of a backseat on offense, and any energy saved should be redirected at the defensive end.

Mike Muscala, justifying the center minutes

If anything has been made clear over the past few weeks, it's that starting the year with Amir Johnson as the backup center was malpractice. Muscala has stepped up in a major way when given the chance to play there, and he showed exactly how impactful he can be against Detroit.

His offensive numbers are going to look demented for a center because the vast majority of his attempts are going to be from the three-point line. Muscala took nine threes against the Pistons, knocking down four of them en route to 18 points. The Sixers would probably take more of them if they can find him open shots, and the numbers are finally starting to show just how important he has been to the Sixers.

After starting the year in a major hole whenever Embiid was off the floor, the Sixers have stumbled into a good mix. Their most-played lineups with Muscala at center are all comfortably beating their opponents, albeit in a limited sample size.

Lineup PTS/100 Poss. PTS allowed/100 Poss. 
 Simmons-Shamet-Butler-Chandler-Muscala 105.095.1 
 Simmons-McConnell-Shamet-Butler-Muscala 126.278.6 
 Simmons-Redick-Butler-Chandler-Muscala 151.4 (!)110.8 

Overall, lineups with Muscala at center this season are a net positive to the tune of +1.9 per 100 possessions, per Cleaning The Glass. That top group is critical because they've played the most time together and should expect to get the most looks moving forward. It's how Brown has shown he wants to rotate, with Embiid and Redick hitting the bench on the first wave of subs.

If that second group can outscore teams by almost 10 points per 100 possessions, the Sixers are going to be a very tough team to beat.

And it's not like they're succeeding because of smoke and mirrors. Muscala gives you most of what you want in a modern backup center — he spaces the floor, he's athletic enough that he can move his feet and recover when necessary, and he is tenacious going after rebounds. He's probably playing too large of a role on this team, but that's a roster issue, not a Muscala issue.

Muscala was a huge part of Philadelphia's second-half dominance in Detroit on Friday, and solidifying his role as the backup center will go a long way toward solidifying the team behind the stars.

The only criticism I have to offer is that this was obvious for over a month before Brown made the switch. It's another example, as with Embiid's overdue rest, of the head coach being reactive instead of proactive.

Even still, the Sixers are 18-9, and the understanding between new teammates will only improve as time goes on. Some of those tight wins early in the season may start turning into comfortable ones if this holds up.

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