These are the sorts of sequences that make you realize how good Ben Simmons makes this team. They are also the sorts of sequences that make you wonder how long the Sixers can continue to muck up the offensive end of the court by pairing him with a guard who does not complement — and perhaps even diminishes — his skill set.
We're talking about the first 7 minutes of the second half on Monday night. The Sixers had emerged from the locker room locked in an ugly tie with an Atlanta team that might have been up by 15 or more if it wasn't, well, the Hawks. The first half had been a slog, the court shrunk like a new shirt on Cotton Sturdy High. Whenever Markelle Fultz was behind the three-point line, his defender's attention was elsewhere. The strategy allowed the Hawks to double-team Joel Embiid while also packing Simmons' driving lanes.
Then came the third quarter. Fultz was on the bench. The NBA's most prolific five-man lineup from a year ago was back on the court together. Simmons had the ball in his hands and the pace within his complete command. He is a better player than he was as a rookie: stronger, more decisive, more willing to attack the rim with the dribble, to take advantage of the cutting lanes and post-up mismatches that result later in the offense. He was dominant in the paint: a dunk off a feed from Embiid, an offensive rebound with the put-back and the foul. He hit a cutting Dario Saric for an easy layup. The next trip down the court, he got inside the foul line and kicked out to JJ Redick for a knock-down three-pointer. Midway through the quarter, he came down with a defensive rebound underneath the basket and, by the time he landed, he'd begun to unleash a full-court pass that hit Robert Covington in stride for a dunk that did not even require a dribble.
By the time Simmons headed to the bench, he had 15 points and three assists in the quarter. The Sixers had outscored the Hawks 22-8. There were still 4 1/2 minutes remaining in the period.
This was the Sixers team we saw throughout the last two months of last season. It was the Simmons we saw during his brightest moments as a rookie. With them came a question for which there are a couple of potential answers.
"It takes time," Simmons said after the Sixers' 113-92 win when asked about sharing the court with Fultz.
It is less about the player than it is about the fit. In fact, this was a night where Fultz also thrived when the backcourt was his and his alone. Shortly after checking in for Simmons, he unleashed the game's most electric play, a ferocious tomahawk dunk off a dribble drive, all of it punctuated with a roar. He looked nothing like the player who had spent the first half trying without much success to find his place in the offense.
The shot that might have said the most about the way Fultz was feeling in the second half might have been a miss. With the Sixers in the midst of a vintage run and the ball whipping around the half court, he found himself alone on the weak side of a scrambling Hawks defense, a pass from Redick whizzing toward his shooting pocket. It was one of those moments where, time and again, we'd seen the second-year guard blanch, the rhythm of the offense leaving him as the man with the open window, Fultz preferring instead to gather himself and start the sequence anew.
This time, though, there was no hesitation. There was no thought. There was a window, and he stepped into it, catching and shooting like the Sixers envisioned he was when they drafted him No. 1 overall. It missed badly, but it was one of the few moments this season when the second-year guard looked to be operating completely within the flow of the game, his basketball instincts taking over.
Lock, load, release.
Even after the miss, he continued to move with a confidence and aggression that more often than not has been lacking in his game. It was a spirit that was nowhere to be seen in the first half when he spent the majority of his minutes paired in the backcourt Simmons.
"It's a challenge," coach Brett Brown said. "It's a challenge early because it comes back to some spatial issues with Joel. … What I'm trying to do is have it all. You can play them a little bit together and then separate them, give one the ball and then the other person the ball. I've said quite candidly that Markelle is a point guard, and Ben is the rookie of the year as a point guard. And we mix and match a little bit, but it is a challenge."
Brown seems determined to continue attacking that challenge. As long as we continue to see flashes like the ones Fultz showed in the second half, the head coach will be justified in his approach. But in an increasingly competitive Eastern Conference, victories are paramount. At some point, the most effective rotation will need to win out.