There’s one silver lining. There’s one reason to suspend disbelief. There’s one reason to think that, over the next six games, the Sixers will turn into a team that we have yet to see.
It’s Ben Simmons. Because, moving forward, he can’t play much worse.
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Two games into the NBA’s restart in Orlando, the Sixers are the owners of an awful loss and a guess-we’ll-take-it win. Of their eight quarters of play, there have been no more than two in which they’ve looked anything close to championship caliber. And for the second straight game, Simmons was directly responsible.
After failing to offer any sort of resistance to T.J. Warren as the Pacers guard poured in 53 points two nights ago, Simmons spent much of the second half of Monday night’s 132-130 win over the Spurs on the bench in foul trouble. For the second straight game, Simmons did not look to shoot from the perimeter. Everywhere else on the court, he was little more than a bystander. That is, before he fouled out with 2:12 remaining.
This might not be the worst that we’ve seen Simmons over the last couple of seasons, but it is on that end of the spectrum. Midway through the second quarter, Simmons took a full-court pass from Tobias Harris in transition and ended up with position on the low block against a smaller defender. He rushed an off balance shot, didn’t draw any contact, and missed. What should have been an easy two points -- or a couple of foul shots -- instead resulted in nothing. It was a small mistake, the kind that becomes part of a young athlete’s muscle memory and, thus, becomes less likely to occur in the future. But it was the kind of scoring opportunity that the Sixers, as constructed, need to have.
With less than a month remaining before the start of the playoffs, and with a potential first round matchup against the Celtics looming, Brett Brown’s number one priority is to get Simmons to a point where he is comfortable. If that means putting the ball back into his hands, so be it. Shake Milton had a better night at the point than he did against the Pacers, including a go-ahead three with six seconds remaining, but there’s nothing about the second-year player’s game that suggests he’s a playoff-caliber primary ballhander. The Sixers need Simmons playing at the level they saw throughout their first 65 games.
Forget his reluctance to shoot. Before the game, Brown took his usual stance on the issue.
“I went back and studied the game, watched the game, there was one time where I thought, yep you could have fired a perimeter shot, and it wasn’t a three as I remember it,” the Sixers coach said. “It’s not on my mind as it is everybody’s else’s. ... I feel like his head is in a good place to shoot it. It didn’t produce statistically that opinion last game, but I don’t see it as trepidation or lack of confidence. I don’t see it like that.”
He’s right. At least for the moment. The Sixers don’t need Simmons to shoot. But they sure as heck need him to do all of the other things that he is capable of doing. The irony of the Sixers’ meteoric rise with Simmons and Joel Embiid is that it makes it easy to forget where they both are on the typical development trajectory of an NBA star. But, then, they are built in manner that demands both performing like All-Stars. And maybe that means Simmons needs to be back in the role in which he was one.
Against the Spurs on Monday night, there was one quarter where the Sixers were the team you needed to see, and it was a quarter that Simmons spent on the bench. There was Milton, knocking down a catch-and-shoot three and later beating his man off the dribble for a swooping layup. There was Embiid, making a nifty pass out of a double team on the low block to a wide open Harris for a knock-down shot from behind the arc. There was Al Horford, not just sharing the court with Embiid, but playing an active role in a defensive effort that left the Spurs scrambling to find some sliver of open space.
This was the third quarter of the Sixers’ second sanctioned game inside the NBA’s bubble, and it was very much a blueprint. On the offensive end, it was team basketball with plenty of movement and some timely buckets by the two starters who have spent most of the season searching for roles. On the defensive end, it was the exact sort of effort the head coach and general manager have had in mind whenever they’ve insisted that theirs is a championship team.
After another first half in which they looked confused on defense and uncertain on the other end of the court, the Sixers held the Spurs to 21 third-quarter points while turning a two-point halftime lead into a 99-87 margin befitting a team that considers itself among the league’s best. More significant than the scoreboard was the style of basketball they played. We’re far enough into the season to assume that the pretty version of this team won’t be arriving in time for the playoffs. If the Sixers are going to make it through an unenviable matchup in the first round, they are going to have to beat a team like the Celtics or the Heat at its own game. And that means playing a style of defense that yields no easy buckets, using their size and length to frustrate opposing scorers out of their games.