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May 27, 2021

Five likes and dislikes from the Sixers' Game 2 win over the Wizards

The Sixers have taken care of business in the early portion of their series against the Wizards, looking the part of a No. 1 seed in a dominant Game 2 victory Wednesday night. Washington looks outgunned and outclassed in every way imaginable so far, and the top seed in the East looks to be well on their way to a potential sweep. Long way to go yet, but they've been that good.

As a result, there's been a lot to like (and very little to dislike) through the first two games of the series. Let's look back at Game 2, which featured some of the best Ben Simmons play we've seen all season.

Like: Ben Simmons putting his head down

In this corner of the internet, we celebrated Simmons' terrific floor game in the playoff opener, still noting that he played a major part in their issues down the stretch. Elsewhere, the reaction was a lot more divisive, which tends to be the story of Ben Simmons' time in Philadelphia. He's either a complete liability or immune to criticism, with very little in between.

Simmons, fresh off of a dominant Game 2 where he set the tone for Philadelphia, was asked whether his second game was a response to the detractors, whoever those might be.

"I thought it was pretty hard to get 15 assists and 15 rebounds in the NBA in the playoffs. I thought that was pretty impressive, and we won. So, I mean, what y'all want? Do you want to win or, I don't know. For me, I'm here to win, and I'm doing what I need to do to help my team win, whatever it is. And I'm gonna do that every night. I'm not trying to prove anybody wrong or anything like that, I'm going out here to try to do my job and win. I want a championship."

Whether you think Simmons' bravado is well-founded or just a way to skirt around flaws in his game, it is indisputable that he believes every word of that sentence. From the start of his career, Simmons has carried himself like a guy who is only concerned with playing his game, not what other people imagine he could or should be. And Wednesday's effort was the best possible version of that player, with Simmons the best player on the floor in Game 2 even with Bradley Beal cooking once again.

The beauty of Simmons' Game 2 performance is how repeatable it was on the surface. Simmons was the physical aggressor against Washington on Wednesday night, bullying a team that is ill-equipped to stand toe-to-toe with him. Their three-guard starting lineup simply has no chance to keep Simmons from getting to the rim.

Mind you, that has been true of many other teams over the last four years, only for Simmons to play the part of reluctant scorer anyway. Not so in Game 2 — on Philadelphia's very first possession of the game, Simmons made a statement of intent by powering through Russell Westbrook on the block and scoring at the rim. One possession later, Simmons drew a foul on an offensive rebound, then scored on another offensive rebound after the dead ball restart. The difference between this game and so many others over the years is that Simmons sustained that aggression, urged to do so by teammates who want to see him thrive.

"I just told him, I was like, you've got all the space and all the time in the world, just attack. Just be aggressive one-on-one. He's physical, he's athletic, and he can make plays, he was great tonight and we need him to keep being that way," Joel Embiid said after the game. "Obviously, every game there's adjustments. The first game, he took what the defense gave him, made plays, and got guys open. He had 15 assists. Tonight, he saw that they didn't want to leave me alone, and he had a lot of space with a one-on-one matchup, and he took advantage of it. That's great, we need that mentality."

Philadelphia ended up with even more advantageous matchups because of how Simmons came out to start the game. Davis Bertans entered the game after Rui Hachimura got in early foul trouble, and the cross-matching really got ugly for Washington from there. Bertans folded like a cheap tent when he had to try to stop Simmons in the post, much to the delight of the Wells Fargo Center crowd:

It's not as though Simmons is incapable of these sorts of games in the playoffs. His Game 3 performance against Brooklyn two years back remains one of his career-best performances, with his 31 points dragging an Embiid-less team to a victory. He had one of the biggest buckets of the game (not to mention a triple-double) in their Game 4 defeat of Miami during his rookie season. Stringing together these games and doing so against stiffer competition has been the main hang-up. We'll see if this is a blip or not, but this matchup is tailormade for him to dominate, and through the first two games he has lived up to his end of the bargain.

Like: Young bench energy

Somehow, Matisse Thybulle's destructive nights on defense have become so routine that there are basically no surprises. Oh, he closed 15 feet of space to block a three-point shooter who thought he was open? Yawn. Wow, he came in from the weak side to reject someone's shot who thought he had his man beat? Give me something new already, kid. Defensive excellence is a constant for Thybulle, and Doc Rivers made an interesting comparison while discussing his impact after the game.

"I guess you can say he's our defensive Lou Williams," Rivers said after the game. "Lou Williams I had, and I had Jamal Crawford, offensively where you throw them in, and you told them if they pass the ball once you are going to take them out," Rivers said. "Their job was to score, Matisse's job is to get stops when it comes in. So I haven't, I've not had a lot of guys, Tony Allen, I guess, way back, was very similar because he was coming off the bench for us."

Tony Allen was an elite defender, and perhaps I'm just forgetting what his peak was like, but he never felt quite like this. Thybulle flies around the court like Philadelphia's version of Nightcrawler, teleporting around the floor and swatting shots and passes as if he appeared out of thin air. He still has his issues with on-ball discipline, certainly, but he may be the most destructive defender in the league when he has it all going. Putting up four steals and five blocks in less than 20 minutes is lunacy, but Thybulle is insistent on sucking each and every opponent into the madness.

The best news for Philly is Thybulle is no longer the sole spark of young energy when the Sixers turn to their bench. It's hard to miss when Tyrese Maxey checks into a game, both because he's playing well and because he is adored by the Philadelphia crowd already. Sixers fans are always ready to give him a standing ovation, and if he keeps playing as he has lately, there are a lot more of those coming to him.

Maxey is simply playing with greater purpose than he was at the start of this season, taking advantage of the surplus of speed he has with the ball in his hands. The bench pairing of Maxey and Thybulle gives the Sixers a shot of energy on both ends — the defensive ace shuts down an opponent on one end, and the rookie guard is ready to fly on the fast break, taking it right at opponents before they know what hit them. Oftentimes, the Sixers are able to get both of those things on the same exact play, and it lets you dream about the future these two might have together.

The Kentucky product has a lot of great qualities, but his willingness to listen is up there with any of them. Thybulle is only in his second season, so he's not at the age where most people would expect him to be any sort of mentor, but Maxey is sharp enough to recognize he can learn something from his bench mate. The rookie has admitted to watching Thybulle's film to pick up tips and tricks, and playing with him has been even better.

"I saw what he's doing on the court and I was like, you know what, I need to, I want to try to do some of those same things because of how disruptive he is. Getting those rearview contests, rearview blocks, getting steals and just being a solid defender, so I've been watching a lot of his film," Maxey said. "On the court together, I just feed off of that energy man. He's flying around, making plays, and it's amazing to watch, amazing to be out there with him." 

More importantly, you can actually see Maxey picking up those pieces of Thybulle's game in real time. Defense is still a work in progress for him, but Maxey managed to come up with three blocks of his own against the Wizards in Game 2, some of them eerily reminiscent of plays Thybulle would make.

These are easy kids to root for, hard workers with the humility to look for anyone they can learn from.

Like: Joel Embiid, taking what's given

Two games into the series, we have yet to see the all-caps JOEL EMBIID of the regular season, and he's still dominating anyway. Embiid managed 30 points in a foul-plagued Game 1, and he put up a crisp 22 on elite efficiency as a secondary option for most of Game 2. But he was only secondary in terms of touches and time on the ball — the Wizards committed bodies and resources his way to try to slow him down, and the big guy believes it opened up the floor for the rest of his teammates to go to work.

"With the way they guarded me, not allowing me to really catch the ball and doubling or triple-teaming me as the ball's in the air, in that situation I just got to make plays, get guys open and we got a lot of shots out of that," Embiid said. "Ben was wide open a lot of times, we had wide-open shooters. So [it's] just moving the ball, just taking whatever the defense gives us, and just finishing."

A couple of years back, this would have been a recipe for a turnover-plagued performance from Embiid, who carried himself like a man who didn't trust his teammates and would rather go it alone. He looked up to Lakers star Kobe Bryant, so his lone wolf leanings shouldn't be a huge surprise to anybody, but figuring out the balance between carrying a star's burden and avoiding trouble has been one of his last steps toward true NBA stardom.

Embiid turned the ball over just once against Washington on Wednesday, and it came on a misplaced cross-court pass to George Hill, not as a result of poor decision-making. While he's still a scorer first and foremost, Embiid is thinking like a playmaker more and more often these days, unlocking the Sixers offense by moving the ball to vacated space.

In the final months of the season, Embiid really began hitting his stride as a passer over the top, graduating from the easy kicks out of the post to passes lobbed over the defense. It used to be that teams would have to send ultra-aggressive coverage his way to turn him into a passer. Not the case anymore — when Embiid sees teams cheating in his direction, he's quicker to get the ball into the hands of an open shooter.

Trust in his teammates has never been higher, and it is bringing out the best in Embiid. 

Like: Blowout victories

For one, it makes my life easier putting together a recap when the game's result is not in question for the entire fourth quarter. You would not believe the amount of revising, deleting, and reshuffling that needs to take place to make most of these recaps functional by the time the final buzzer sounds.

But this isn't about me, it's about Philadelphia's wear-and-tear. There has been no rest for the weary (or at least very little rest for the weary) during this gauntlet of a season, and the Sixers hope they're on the beginning of an extended journey to bring home a title. They have a franchise player whose health is always at least somewhat of a question mark, and they don't typically blow teams out by enough to rest their starters in the second halves of games. Scoring a blowout victory over the Wizards only counts for one win, but it saves just a little bit more in everybody's tanks to save for the deeper part of this playoff run.

Plus, it gives the Sixers an opportunity to get some young fan favorites on the floor. Who doesn't love seeing Tyrese Maxey throw a lob to Paul Reed in the fourth quarter? 

Dislike: Jackass fan behavior 

For better or for worse, the dominant storyline coming out of this game had nothing to do with what happened on the floor. When Russell Westbrook went down due to injury in the second half, cheers for the turnover he coughed up quickly turned into silence and eventually into applause once he was able to start walking to the locker room. None of that mattered once a single fan decided to dump popcorn in Westbrook's direction as he retreated down the tunnel, sparking considerable rage in the Wizards guard:

Just about every Wizards player and/or coach who spoke after the game got asked about this, and all of them were varying degrees of mad about it. Star players around the league, including LeBron James, voiced their displeasure with the incident online. And Westbrook didn't exactly hold back when asked about it, noting that it's the sort of thing that could only happen in the arena, where knuckleheads like this dude feel they're protected enough to do something like this.

"To be completely honest, this s*** is getting out of hand, especially for me. The amount of disrespect, the amount of fans just doing whatever the f*** they want to do, it's just out of pocket," Westbrook said after the game. "Any other setting — you know, I'm all for fans enjoying the game and having fun, it's part of sports, I get it. But there are certain things that cross the line, and in any other setting I know for a fact that fans wouldn't come up, guy wouldn't come on the street pouring popcorn on my head, because he would know what'd happen. Guy wouldn't come up to me talking mess about my kids, my family on the street because the response would be different. In these arenas, they got to start protecting the players, man."

Look, I get it, the vast majority of Philly fans are not doing this sort of thing. Hell, this guy was an outlier in a group of Philly fans doing the right thing and pivoting into cheering a guy they can't stand once they realized he was hurt. But it's incredibly disheartening that we have to constantly have these conversations and explain why it, "doesn't represent the fanbase." 

Enough of this nonsense already. I hope they ban this dude permanently and send a message. 

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