Something interesting happened against the Clippers on Monday night. It started midway through the first quarter, when Ben Simmons cut backdoor against a Clippers defender who was eyeing JJ Redick deep beyond the arc. Redick hit Simmons with an easy bounce pass and then watched the Sixers rookie rise high above the rim for a two-handed dunk.
Two observations on the play:
1) Whether one is inspecting a grapefruit at Whole Foods or a basketball after throwing down the funk on a nasty dunk, due diligence is always commendable.
2) Until Monday night's game, we hadn't seen a whole lot of this kind of sequence of events from the Sixers. That is, Simmons working without the ball, receiving a pass from a teammate, and finishing at the rim. In fact, nearly three-quarters of Simmons' buckets had been unassisted, which ranked in the top 10 percent of players averaging at least 15 minutes per night. On the first three games of their current West Coast trip, Simmons had scored off an assist on just three of his 19 made buckets. But in the win over the Clippers, he spent a lot of time working off the ball and was able to get to the rim on a number of occasions that way. In all, a season-high six of his nine buckets came off an assist.
Late in the second quarter, there was a play in which T.J. McConnell was running the point in a half-court set. McConnell beat his man off the dribble, setting into motion a chain of events that culminated with Blake Griffin leaving Simmons alone on the baseline to close out on Amir Johnson and Johnson then hitting a cutting Simmons with a pass for an easy dunkish-type finish.
Here's a look at the same play from a different angle. Roar.
Even when it wasn't pretty, it was working. Earlier in the second quarter, Simmons cut backdoor on Griffin after McConnell distracted his attention with his penetration. McConnell's alley-oop lob hit the rim before Simmons could get to it, but the scoring opportunity was open.
There were also several opportunities in transition, including a play early in the second quarter in which Simmons took off from below the foul line off a Clippers miss and Dario Saric spotted him as he came down with the rebound. Simmons collected Saric's three-quarter-court lob at the opposite foul line and did not use a dribble before taking off for the two-handed dunk.
The 109-105 win over the Clippers was an encouraging performance, even beyond the fact that it improved the Sixers to 7-6 this season, with five of those victories coming on the road (only one other team in the NBA has played more than eight road games; the Sixers' four losses have come against teams that were a combined 17-9 at home as of Tuesday). Embiid's performance was most promising. Against a tough defender in DeAndre Jordan, he shot 10-for-15 from two-point range and compiled 32 points and 16 rebounds, and turned the ball over four times in nearly 36 minutes of action (hey, four turnovers in 36 minutes is an improvement). It easily could have been a bigger night: Embiid went just 1-for-5 from three-point range and 9-for-16 from the foul line.
Brett Brown leaned heavily on his starters in this one, and understandably so. Though Dario Saric went just 1-for-8 from the floor, he provided some stiff defense against Clippers star Blake Griffin, who scored 29 points but shot just 10-for-25.
The Sixers shot just 7-for-32 from three-point range, which might have spelled doom on a lot of other nights this season. But this was a different-looking team from the one we've seen so far. Simmons finished with just four assists, a season low for a guy who is averaging 7.9 per night. But it worked: Rather than making his mark on the game as a distributor, Simmons did so as a scorer, dropping 22 points on 9-for-14 shooting despite playing much of the second half with five fouls. It was his third-best scoring performance of the season, behind his 24-point outing against the Rockets and his 23-pointer against the Mavericks.
Simmons' game-by-games, unassisted vs. assisted FGs
Next up are the Lakers on Wednesday night.