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May 24, 2021

Five likes and dislikes from the Sixers' Game 1 win over Washington

The Sixers did not come out in Game 1 and blow the doors off of the Washington Wizards, but they did what several top seeds with time off were not able to do — they won their opening game of the playoffs. Crisp execution and high-level play will be needed during this playoff run, but earning a 1-0 lead and retaining homecourt advantage was the top priority on Sunday. Mission accomplished.

We've already discussed the terrific Tobias Harris performance, the atmosphere in South Philly, and a whole bunch of other subplots from Sunday's game. So let's dig into some things I liked and disliked from Philly's opening win over the Wiz, starting with everyone's favorite divisive player.

Like: Ben Simmons' floor game

There are nights across the NBA where assist totals are not representative of how impactful a player's passing was. Hell, Wizards guard Russell Westbrook comes under fire regularly for what many people view as stat hunting. But you felt every bit of Simmons' 15 assists in Sunday's playoff opener, and even if you didn't, Simmons' head coach was happy to share how he felt watching Simmons' performance.

"I thought he was special tonight," Doc Rivers said Sunday. "He created so many points for us tonight. Off the glass to three, off transition to three, creating switches that they didn't want to have. I mean he is just a treasure, he's something that you don't see a lot in this league. And he just, he has such a skill set that is so different. There's a lot of people that can't make one of them. All I see is greatness in him, and I just want him to keep doing what he's doing."

Whatever you think about him as a scorer, Simmons is a dangerous and incisive passer in any number of situations. His actual passing ability gets diminished sometimes because of his inability to find a shoot/pass balance that people like, but his skill level should not be questioned. On several occasions on Sunday, Simmons' combination of velocity and placement was downright staggering.

Take this transition possession that ends in a George Hill layup, for example. Rui Hachimura is staring right at Simmons on this possession, arms out to try to prevent a pass. The ball flies by him anyway, hitting Hill right in stride in a way that even seemed to surprise Hill:

It's a play that looks a lot easier than it actually is. And those sort of hit-ahead passes were a constant in Game 1, with Simmons really taking things up a notch during the third-quarter run that ended with a Seth Curry three and an absolutely deafening roar from the Wells Fargo Center crowd.

To Rivers' point, Simmons' ability to blend his skills together into killer sequences is pretty special. His size relative to others at his position gives the Sixers a competitive advantage on the glass, with the Embiid-Harris-Simmons triumvirate capable of cleaning up (or extending) a lot of possessions on their own. Simmons sitting in the dunker spot isn't all sunshine and rainbows for Philly, but it puts him in a great spot to cause chaos on the offensive glass.

Eight times against Washington, he came up with offensive rebounds. And the difference between Simmons and a lot of guys on the offensive glass is that he's almost always ready to find an open teammate the second he comes down with the second chance.

It would have been a perfect day for Simmons on Sunday, if not for...

Dislike: Ben Simmons' free throws

It's the most Simmons thing possible that he completely controlled this game for long stretches of time and still managed to inspire arguments and hurt feelings with his performance. 

Going 0/6 from the stripe is bad, but everybody has bad days from the free-throw line relative to their skill level. It's the sort of thing you can move on quickly from. The issue with Simmons is that subpar free-throw shooting is the norm, and it impacts how the Sixers can run their offense during crunch time. Surrounded by much different rosters and coached by a totally new staff, that remains the case.

As noted above, Simmons sitting in the dunker's spot or even just around the rim is not a problem by itself. The Sixers can get value out of him down there even if he continues to ignore the scoring component of the game. What they can't have is Simmons telegraphing to the defense that he is actively uninterested in having the ball on a given possession.

That's exactly what happened in a tight game down the stretch on Sunday. Simmons might have had the physical advantage against Davis Bertans in the paint here, but he was not down there to try to win a one-on-one battle, he was there to get the hell away from the ball:

This will matter more against an actual good team. Embiid should not be let off of the hook here — he's the guy who actually turned the ball over, after all — but in an ideal world, he wouldn't be asked to create from the perimeter on a crunch-time possession. 

Like: George Hill's versatility off of the bench 

In a scattered game with foul trouble impacting their best player, the Sixers needed somebody to provide stability off of the bench. Hill was the guy to offer it for Philadelphia, an excellent sign for their deadline pickup after some spotty play in the final weeks of the season.

"He was great tonight," Doc Rivers said after the game. "He has a great voice, he settles the second group down. They had that one stretch, they were struggling a little bit, and I thought George kind of took them over. You can see it out on the floor. It's great to be able to put him on different guys defensively, you're not gonna fool him, he's gonna be solid. So he's great to have on the team."

Hill's versatility was on full display against Washington, with the veteran guard toggling between point guard and off guard duties from possession to possession. It's the reason he has been able to fit on so many different winning teams over the years — you can play Hill in basically any lineup and feel confident he's going to be in the right spot, doing the right thing, and making life easier for his teammates as a result.

Helping the team as a cutter, for example, tends to be a strength of wings/forwards, but Hill has more than enough off-ball reps to be an impactful cutter for Philadelphia. In this series, he's up against guards with shaky defensive instincts, and if the Wizards are going to send extra help at Embiid using Hill's man, the vet guard is going to punish them for it every time.

Notably, Rivers decided to swap Hill in during crunch time to avoid a weird cross-match of Seth Curry on Davis Bertans down the stretch, something we could see more of if Scott Brooks decides to lean on Bertans more. Rivers is not going to be afraid of using Hill if the Wizards go that route — he's a tough, long defender who can slither around screens and prevent Bertans from getting the separation he needs to put up jumpers. Good start to the playoffs for Hill.

Dislike: Transition defense, as usual 

I won't beat you over the head with video for this one. Suffice it to say that their transition defense was absolutely putrid in the first half, with the Sixers tightening things up a bit after halftime. 

"I didn't like it all in the first half. Second half, it was great," Doc Rivers said after the game. "First half, I'm gonna say 20 of their points came off of our mess-ups in transition, guys running back to their own man, guys not loading to the ball. I mean this team over all the teams, they're going to force you to load to the ball and then get back out to your guy. I didn't think we did a very good job of it, second half I thought it was great. So we have a blueprint now to the watch tomorrow and go over."

Okay, sorry, I'm going to hit you with at least one clip. This is just one of the many "mess-ups" the Sixers committed during the first half, with Bertans walking in for a dunk after rookie Tyrese Maxey decided to stick with Beal in the corner rather than cutting off the path to the basket. You can see what Simmons is expecting him to do, because he is running to the corner to prevent a potential pass to Beal when Maxey vacates the space as he should.

This mistake irritated the veteran Sixers enough that Maxey's big highlight of the game, an and-one finish in traffic on the next possession, was followed by a talking-to from Simmons and Co. under the basket. Maxey being the guy who got the tongue lashing from his teammates is sort of unfair based on how bad they were as a group, but the need to have those conversations at this point in the year speaks to the group's ineffectiveness defending on the break. They are still trying to figure out their responsibilities, which is not where you want to be to open the playoffs.

Like: Doc Rivers adjusting his rotation

Frankly, I'm not sure we can say we know what Doc Rivers' playoff rotation looks like yet, because a game with early foul trouble for Embiid throws everything off for the Sixers. That being said, Rivers did one very important thing in his first playoff game with the Sixers — he broke away from what appeared to be his preferred strategy, making a slight tweak to the rotation to go away from a player who didn't have it going.

Furkan Korkmaz has been a no-doubt inclusion in the rotation for Rivers all year, but he stunk up the joint in the first half, missing all three of his shots despite Washington choosing to leave him wide open. In the regular season, maybe Rivers rolls with him anyway and expects Korkmaz to be able to cash in on those looks eventually. He decided to take no chances in Sunday's playoff opener, benching Korkmaz in favor of the younger Maxey in the second half.

Maxey did not register a single stat in the box score during the five second-half minutes that he played, but making the switch was significant because of Rivers' track record in these moments. His teams have experienced playoff collapses for different reasons, but one big one is his insistence on going down with the ship and sticking to his initial plan no matter how poorly it is going. Letting Montrez Harrell get bullied to the point of a blown 3-1 lead last year was the final straw for him in Los Angeles. Up to this point, it was fair to question whether that version of Rivers would reemerge in the postseason.

I still don't think Rivers is going to be a huge adjustment guy in the playoffs, but I'm more forgiving of that than most people anyway. Retaining your identity and trusting it will be good enough to carry you through tough moments makes sense to me, particularly when you're the No. 1 seed in your conference. These small man-management moves can make all the difference in the world, and I was encouraged by precisely how Rivers decided to shake it up in Game 1.

Now if he could just get to work understanding the value of the challenge...

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