We’ll get to Ben Simmons in a moment, and don’t think for a second that the delay is somehow indicative of the significance of his health. When he limped off the court in the third quarter of the Sixers’ 107-98 win on Wednesday, it immediately relegated everything else to a sub-headline in much smaller font. To write anything about this team without knowing the extent of the knee injury that knocked Simmons out of the game in the third quarter is to subject the asterisk on your keyboard to cruel and unusual punishment. Even with their third-year star, the Sixers have spent the first three games of their bubble schedule looking like a team whose Disney adventure will end well before autumn. Without him, it is difficult to imagine any other fate.
But before we lose ourselves in hypotheticals, there’s an unconditional observation worth making about the Sixers’ play over these first three games. When they arrived in the bubble, their biggest prerequisite for success was Joel Embiid playing elite basketball on both ends of the court. And with five games remaining before the playoffs, it is clear that the big man has come to the Disney World complex ready to play.
From a technical standpoint, Embiid’s performance against the Washington Wizards on Wednesday evening was as impressive an effort as we’ve seen out of him in quite some time. He may not have filled up the stat sheet the way he did against the Pacers, when he scored 41 points, grabbed 21 rebounds and blocked three shots, but he passed the eye test in a way that bodes well for the immediate future. Whether he was hitting a fadeaway from the foul line or pump-faking and driving for an and-one dunk or stepping through a double team and hitting an open teammate in the corner, Embiid displayed a level of court awareness and body control that we’ve spent a lot of time wishing him to incorporate into his game. If you have yet to catch any of the Sixers’ first three games in the bubble, this is the one to watch, and Embiid is the reason to watch it.
Granted, these were the Wizards. It’s hard to believe that the NBA managed to identify eight teams that were less deserving of a spot in their 22-team bubble field. At 24-40 heading into the COVID hiatus, you have to think that, if given the option, even the Wizards would have thought twice about including themselves. The team that took the court on Wednesday was playing without its top two scorers from the regular season, one of whom opted out of participating. So, yeah, mark this one down as a second straight win. But there is plenty of cause for concern about the Sixers’ inability to blow another overmatched opponent out of the gym.
In terms of individual performances, though, Embiid’s was one to grow on. And for anybody desperate for this Sixers season to last, it was one to dream on. He finished with 30 points on 11-of-20 shooting, giving him a total of 98 on 35-of-60 in the Sixers’ three seeding games, but this was more about means than it was about ends. For a third straight game, Embiid looked calm and collected in the face of persistent double teams. Where once he was a flailing, off-balance turnover machine, he is now a strong, upright, stable passer who suddenly has the ability to feel and react.
“I’m in a space where I can command a game when I want to,” Embiid said, “whether it is the best defensive player or the best offensive player on the floor.”
We’ve spent much of the week lamenting the fact that the post-hiatus Sixers look disconcertingly similar to the team we saw back in March. So it’s only fair that we note that any team with a player like the one Embiid has been thus far is a team that will enter any seven-game series with a chance. This is even more true if that player comes coupled with a backup like Al Horford. For the second straight game, the veteran center played a critical second-half role on the defensive end of the court, a place where past playoff opponents have feasted whenever Embiid has been on the bench. Late in the fourth quarter, he stymied Wizards big man Thomas Bryant in the post, forcing an awkward contested layup that preserved a five-point Sixers lead. Earlier in the game, he turned in a nifty piece of weakside help, swatting away a layup attempt by Jerome Robinson, who had a clear path to the basket until Horford slid across the paint to protect the rim. Horford finished the game leading the Sixers with a plus-18 in 29 minutes.
“That’s what we’re all about. We want to set the tone physically, defensively,” Horford said. “I felt like we weren’t doing that at the start of the third, so when I came in I wanted to make sure that I brought that edge a little bit.”
Given the way Embiid has played in the first three games of the restart, and given the starring role he will need to play once the playoffs begin, Horford’s play the last couple of games is another positive we should not overlook.
Unless, of course, Simmons is lost for any significant stretch of time. In that case, it’s difficult to envision a range of outcomes that do not cap out at another disappointing playoff exit. In these last three games, Simmons hasn’t been anything close to the player the Sixers will need to make a championship run, but it’s reasonable to assume that a better version of himself will eventually emerge.
That’s most true on the defensive end, where he has steadily worked his way toward the top of the league’s on-ball defenders, especially when you consider his positional versatility. The Sixers’ most likely formula for success involves an Embiid-centric offense and a defense that smothers opponents into submission. While it is debatable whether such a thing is possible even with Simmons, it’s hard to dispute that it will be impossible without him.