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May 26, 2021

Instant observations: Sixers dominate Wizards behind strong Ben Simmons performance

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The Sixers maintained homecourt advantage with an excellent 120-95 win over the Wizards on Wednesday night, pushing their series lead to 2-0 as they prepare to hit the road. Ben Simmons was Philadelphia's star of the night with 22 points, nine rebounds, and eight assists in the winning effort.

Here's what I saw. 

The Good

• Debating Simmons' worth is very old and tired, and people spent most of the last few days doing it anyway. Here's what mattered — with Joel Embiid slow to get into the game, Simmons picked up the slack and led from the front as a scorer. If not for Bradley Beal's offensive explosion in the second quarter, Simmons' performance might have been the highlight of the first half. And you could argue it was even with the sensational Beal effort.

This is a matchup with a lot of smaller players for Simmons to hunt, and after he forced the issue early by pounding the offensive glass, it got even easier for him to gash the Wizards. Rui Hachimura got into early foul trouble and necessitated a Davis Bertans sub, which effectively meant that Simmons (and Tobias Harris) had a physical mismatch to exploit no matter who was guarding him. Often, it was Bradley Beal, and Simmons managed to put him on his hip over and over again so that he could finish at the rim.

(Really, that's all a lot of people have been asking Simmons for over the last four seasons. Nobody is asking him to go out and go shot for shot with Kevin Durant, but when he was obvious mismatches to exploit, go to town! He was tremendous in that regard on Wednesday, refusing to let the Wizards off of the hook for their smaller/frailer lineups.)

Before the Wizards made a concerted effort to force switches and get Simmons off of Beal, he also made a noticeable impact on the defensive end, disrupting Washington's top dog with a combination of timing and physicality. A hellacious block at the rim sent the crowd into hysterics early, and there was a lot more work to be done from there, with Simmons poking balls loose and getting into Beal's chest for most of the first quarter.

More than anything else, it's Simmons who deserves credit for how good the Sixers looked on offense for most of this game. Look, I know the Wizards are a defensive trainwreck, but Simmons helped amplify that fact. His jaunts to the rim were purposeful, and when he's going all to the rim and making the opponent fear him as an attacker, those kick-out passes he can spray to all corners of the floor become a hell of a lot more dangerous. Even if the Wizards could recover to the first guy, it often didn't take more than a single extra pass to create an open shot.

This game is proof that he can go out and hunt his shot without sacrificing playmaking duties. Tougher defensive teams will force him to earn his points more than Washington, but he kicked the crap out of the team who was on the schedule Wednesday, and that's all that matters. 

• Aside from an injury scare that briefly sucked the air out of the Wells Fargo Center, Tobias Harris was excellent in Wednesday's Game 2, following up a terrific opening game with a quieter, still stellar effort to push this lead to 2-0.

If the early matchup issues for Washington were beneficial for Simmons, that goes doubly so for Harris. Out of an early timeout, Harris got to go up against center Alex Len of all people, and that's a matchup Harris will win handily whenever the Wizards are silly enough to hand it to him.

Harris' ability to blend into the game flow regardless of what shape it takes is remarkable and a testament to how many things he can do well on offense. When the Sixers got out and running after stops, there he was gliding into space and finishing at the rim. When they needed to slow it down, his mid-post work against switches continued to get the job done. And when the Wizards were dumb enough to throw an apathetic off-ball defender in Russell Westbrook at him, he beat him backdoor on a few nice cuts.

Just a relatively normal game for him this season, and a normal result of a comfortable W. 

• Joel definitely had to feel his way into this game a little bit. Perhaps that's a charitable way of putting it — he was sort of meandering through this game for most of the first half, and he definitely took a little bit off on defense, which is not necessarily unique for him in the first 24 minutes of a game.

Would you settle for an ultra-efficient, lower-volume game for the big guy on offense? You certainly should. Taking a step back into the background for parts of this game, Embiid made up for fewer touches with some excellent outside shooting, something he has always loved to do but hasn't always had the results to justify.

It would not have been a 2020-21 Sixers game without at least a few Embiid highlights, though, and the best of the night was the play that seemed to get him going heading into the second half. Running the floor alongside Simmons, Embiid managed to score a twisting layup through contact, following up the bucket with what is quickly becoming one of his signature celebrations. Hide the kids:

Any game where the Sixers don't have to ask too much of Embiid in the early rounds is basically a double win for Philadelphia. Game 2 qualified in that regard.

• Maybe it's a placebo effect, maybe it's real, but the Sixers simply feel like they're in good hands when George Hill is on the floor and controlling the offense. He may not have a fifth gear to get to anymore, but he's a smooth operator in the pick-and-roll, a comfortable pull-up shooter, and completely unfazed by time and situation. He moves at his speed and his speed only, and the guys who share the floor with him get acclimated fairly quickly. 

It feels like he's only going to grow in stature for this group as time goes on. While we're on that subject...

• My goodness does this city love Tyrese Maxey. I find it hard to blame anyone who gets fired up when he enters the game, and he got perhaps the loudest cheers of the night when he made his first appearance. Maxey does not look like a kid who is afraid of the moment, and as we've discussed many times over the last month or so, there's a clear case for him to get minutes over other guys in the rotation, particularly Shake Milton.

When Maxey finally got his shot to play in the second half Wednesday, he did not waste the opportunity. The beginning of the fourth quarter turned into the Maxey show on offense, with the rookie attacking the rim relentlessly to open the final period. More often than not, those trips were a success, with Maxey finishing in traffic, drawing fouls, and taking advantage of all slower defenders the Wizards threw at him.

Seriously, I know he wasn't a slouch to open the season, but it's hard to say enough about the change in approach and progression this kid has shown since the start of the year. He is punishing guys when they put a foot the wrong way, shielding the ball well with his body, and he's even making more plays on defense. Maybe he has been studying Matisse Thybulle's defensive exploits — the young man is even getting in position for some nice weakside blocks from time to time.

Let the kid play. That simple.

• It's not often you can come up with at least three steals and three blocks and end up this far down in The Good, but perhaps that's because Matisse Thybulle has made defensive destruction feel so routine. It no longer feels out of the ordinary when Thybulle comes flashing across the lane for a ridiculous, last-second deflection, or somehow gets his hand on a three-point attempt above the break. 

This stuff may be routine for Thybulle, but it's still special.

• If you can get Paul Reed on the floor in the playoffs this year, you're either having a great night or a disaster night. This was the former, and the man they call "Bball Paul" immediately punched home a dunk on a Maxey lob after checking in. The Human Exclamation Point. 

The Bad

• The Sixers ran into a problem in the second quarter that figures to loom large in their pursuit of a title. Simmons started as the primary defender on Beal for the vast majority of possessions, but the Wizards were dead set on making sure that didn't last. Over and over again, they sent screens in Beal's direction to try to get him a more favorable matchup, and more often than not, that meant screening Simmons with Seth Curry's man.

It's a concern we've talked about basically all season — can Curry stay on the floor when it matters, or is he going to get forced off of the floor by ruthless matchup hunting? The early returns suggest it could be the latter, because the Sixers can hardly afford for their most impactful perimeter defender to get neutralized by a one-screen action the way Simmons was in that quarter.

That wasn't the only problem Philadelphia ran into on defense as it relates to Beal. The Sixers seemed to be content to use Simmons to funnel Beal going downhill toward Embiid, and while normally you'd take your chances with the big guy winning a few battles, he could not seem to find the timing to disrupt him on Wednesday. It's less of a concern than the Curry issue because Embiid's defensive track record speaks for itself, but it's something to monitor as they go deeper into the playoffs and get matched up with, in theory, guys like Kyrie Irving and James Harden.

• Milton is the frontrunner for worst Sixers player in the series so far, and he's pretty far out in front of his teammates for that distinction. Rivers has continued to roll with him anyway, and it's hard to get over how predictable this was watching the end of the regular season play out.

The question is whether Rivers will stick with him or eventually give rookie Maxey a chance to compete for those minutes off of the bench. If you're asking for my guess, I highly doubt it, because Milton has been one of the few bench players whose role has never really been in jeopardy this season. Stay tuned.

The Ugly

• This is not what you want to see if you're the Sixers, a Sixers fan, or even someone who just wants to see high-level basketball:

Thankfully for all parties involved, Harris was back in the game before the quarter ended, so it looks to have been nothing more than a flesh wound. Exhale, everybody.

(Curry would not check back into the game after dealing with an ankle issue of his own in the second half, but he was spotted back on the bench and was never ruled out for return by the team. Stay tuned on him.)

• Westbrook ended the season in a good run of form, and his presence in the lineup is one reason Washington was supposed to be a (relatively) tough matchup to open the playoffs. Somebody must have forgotten to tell Westbrook that, because he has been absolutely horrific to start the playoffs. Every bad habit that he has and every single shot teams have wanted to bait him into for years has been on display through the first two games.

They have no chance to even take a single game with him playing like this. He might snap back into form and change that outlook once they're back in D.C., but it looks grim for the Wizards, especially if the injury he suffered in the second half is at all serious.

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