March 03, 2018
The talent had changed, but the story remained the same for the Sixers when the season began. If they were in a tight battle with a team down the stretch, the end result was likely going to be a loss. They were too young, too disjointed, too unfamiliar with the guys they had to trust in crunch time.
Slowly, the Sixers have started to flip the script and get it done when the game matters most. One night after finishing off Cleveland on the road, the Sixers came back and got a big win in a back-to-back game, taking down the Hornets 110-99.
The win solidified Philadelphia's positioning in the Eastern Conference playoff picture on a night when several competitors stumbled, and they find themselves within striking distance of a top-four seed. The journey to a Friday night win was a little rocky, but they got there in the end. Isn't that sort of the Sixers' story in a nutshell?
It didn't always look like the Sixers were on their way to a comfortable win. They sputtered out of the gate and trailed for most of the game, with Joel Embiid unable to find his rhythm in the first half. That unproductive start was a product of Embiid shooting a ton on jumpers, which he rectified in a sensational third quarter.
Matched up with Dwight Howard, once viewed as the athletic marvel of the league at the center position, Embiid absolutely bullied him throughout the game, leaving Howard in foul trouble for most of the evening. Even though Embiid was cold from the field and the free-throw line, it was this contribution that made his night, because it afforded him extended minutes against Willie Hernangomez.
Charlotte's deadline pickup had absolutely nothing for Embiid on the low block, and Embiid knew it. He attacked the backup big relentlessly and came out of the third quarter — which he had to leave due to his own foul trouble with 7:35 left — with 15 points in that frame alone. Some of those came from Embiid just imposing his will and blasting Hernangomez off his spot.
Observers look at moments like this and think to themselves, "So why is he shooting so many threes?" On some level, it's a fair point, and you certainly want a player with Embiid's size and touch to be as close to the basket as he can get. But when asked about it after the game, Brett Brown made sure to highlight how Embiid's shooting is about much more than just Embiid.
I really want him to shoot six to eight threes a game, and so how does that happen and he's still an interior presence, a paint catch guy? If you look at our team — I'm convinced the three-point line is where the sport is heading, and I think it's going to rear its head in the playoffs — and our point guards don't shoot threes. So already, you're kinda dealing with zero with Ben [Simmons] and TJ [McConnell].
Where can we make up some difference? So I post Ben a lot, and we try to space him. I thought Joel mixed it up quite well.
This is the trade-off the coach and the team has to make in order to accommodate two players who would perhaps be best-suited playing with a different style of star alongside them. Embiid on a slow-tempo team with more shooting around him would be dynamite, and Simmons with leaner, quicker players all over the court would slice up even more teams in transition. But to the credit of all involved, they have made this work so far, and work at a level up there with any dynamic duo in the league.
Finding that balance between the contrasting styles is easier now that the Sixers have a bench that suits their needs a little bit better. It is not all on the shoulders of the starting five to get things done when you have players who can come in and impact the game, or at least guys that fit alongside your core parts.
Ersan Ilyasova checks both those aforementioned boxes, and it only took his second game back for the veteran forward to make an impact.
He was largely ineffectual through the first three-quarters of the game, missing shots and rotations alike. Despite this, Brown called his number when the Sixers needed to spell Embiid early in the fourth quarter, with Philadelphia downsizing in order to spread the floor on offense. It worked like a charm, and it sparked the final push they needed to snatch a victory from the jaws of defeat.
The Ilyasova-Saric pairing in the frontcourt is something Brown experimented with last season, and he told reporters after the game it's a look he wants to continue exploring moving forward. It's almost a necessity because Amir Johnson has been poor lately, and Richaun Holmes did nothing to dispel the notion that he's ineffective at the center position during the time he played on Friday night.
By the time Embiid rejoined the lineup with 6:04 to play, the game was on the see-saw, and foul trouble forced Saric to the bench in favor of the recent signee. He kept the good times rolling, and Embiid weaponized the attention sent his way to spring Ilyasova for a massive early bucket late in the game.
This is representative of the difference between Ilyasova and the man he replaced, Trevor Booker. Booker's activity could never be doubted, but it often came in forms that were harmful to the guy he was supposed to be aiding. Ilyasova, on the other hand, can run some of the same late-game sets the Sixers have handed to JJ Redick, serving as a kick-out option for the big man or as a cutter in the example you see above.
And it wasn't all about his shooting on Friday night. Ilyasova got jobbed by the officials on a terrible block call in the first half — poor officiating has been one of the biggest stories in the league this year, in my eyes — but he drew a big charge with just under 1:30 to play in the fourth, and the Philadelphia faithful let out a roar when the call went his way.
Having escaped the tanking Atlanta Hawks for a playoff team — and one he's familiar with at that — Ilyasova expressed his admiration for both Embiid and Simmons after they came, and maintained that he's excited to be in Philadelphia for the big stretch run.
"I'm glad I came," said Ilyasova. "It's a tremendous job they did compared from last year, they have a lot of talented guys and they play as a unit. This is the most important thing."
The level of consistency for Simmons is almost boring at this point. Okay, that's a lie, it's still a hell of a lot of fun to watch him play basketball on a nightly basis.
Even within the context of his nightly stat-stuffing routine, Simmons gets there a different way each evening. Against Cleveland, he deferred for effectively the entire first half, only increasing the volume once the second half kicked off. Against Charlotte the very next night, he came out of the gates with both guns blazing, slowing down as the game went along in an effort to get his teammates involved.
Simmons routinely makes really difficult plays seem so simple. His ability to change speeds with the ball in his hands is next-level, and that's the biggest reason he's able to get so many dunks and layups despite teams not having to respect his jumper. They're simply not prepared for him to accelerate and explode toward the rim at the pace he does.
But I'm a sucker for defense, and that's where Simmons really sets himself apart from other rookies — and really most players — on the basketball court. His versatility on that end has been nothing short of spectacular this season, with the 6'10" hybrid taking assignments anywhere from 1-4 on the depth chart.
Kemba Walker absolutely carved up the Sixers for most of the game, and with the game not quite out of reach in the final minute, Charlotte had one last chance to make a desperation push. Simmons was the last guy back in a transition sequence, and he directed traffic beautifully to make sure everyone found their assignments as they scrambled to pick up players.
The rookie then took on the challenge of hounding Walker himself, and despite an initial reach that could have left him behind, Simmons flashed back into Walker's face and forced an awful miss.
That's what leaders do late in games, and that's what Simmons is. He's never going to be the guy barking orders at his teammates, and he may never be the guy who routinely takes over a game as a scorer. But he does the hard work, the necessary work, and the sort of stuff that adds up to wins in the NBA.
Perhaps it's because the Sixers have gone so long without having one, but it's a little disarming to watch an elite shooter night after night. Your mind sees someone like Redick shoot 40 percent from three for years on end and thinks, "Oh, he'll be doing that every single night!" But the truth is much messier, with an assortment of peaks and valleys on the path to that number.
He's not always going to have it going on from deep and he doesn't have the size or athleticism to be an impactful defender, and so Redick has to provide value to his teams in other ways. One thing that has been fun for an NBA nerd to watch up close is how the Sixers use him as a screener, altering the same formula that gets him most of his shots.
Other teams are terrified of the prospect of Redick turning the corner and having the ball swing his way, so they're not always sure to react to Redick when he's in motion during a set. Do you get out of his way and avoid getting potentially screened out of the play, or do you try to impede his progress knowing the Sixers are trying to free him up for an open look from downtown?
The Sixers know this internal calculus takes place in opposing players and use it to their advantage. Philadelphia uses Redick as a screener on Embiid's man fairly frequently, and it allows the center to get some of the easiest baskets he scores every night.
This stuff feels like a giant bonus when Redick has it going, and he had an effective night at the office on Friday evening, scoring 18 points on 11 shots.
I feel like I don't write this enough, even as I get peppered with questions about Covington's effectiveness from three post-extension. The general public doesn't want to hear it when he's shooting poorly, but that doesn't make it any less true, nor is it any truer when he shoots well from the field, as he did against Charlotte (5/10 overall, 2/4 from three).
In fact, I'm not even going to elaborate on this today. Covington brings it every night, and while he can be frustrating I think his value is self-evident. Enjoy your weekend, and please stay safe out there in this crazy weather, everybody.
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