Someone asked Ben Simmons if the Sixers’ 123-114 win over the Kings on Friday night was the best the team had ever played. The question seemed to take him by surprise. A quizzical look flashed across his face.
“We’ve played a lot of games,” he said, perhaps thinking back to performances like a 149-107 win over the Timberwolves in mid-January, or the 117-110 victory against the Nuggets in Tobias Harris’ first appearance with the team.
Yet even if it wasn’t their best performances, Friday night’s wire-to-wire win was one of their most encouraging displays of basketball since the All-Star break. Against a Kings team that had given them film reels full of trouble in recent meetings, the Sixers offered a rare glimpse of the kind of team general manager Elton Brand and coach Brett Brown have long envisioned they could be.
This was particularly true on the offensive end of the court, where the Sixers had averaged just 108.1 points per game over their previous 10 outings, fewer than only three other NBA teams during that stretch. Their 105.4 offensive rating — points per 100 possessions — ranked 28th.
While Brown will tell you that the fate of the season will ultimately hinge on the Sixers’ performance on defense, the fact is that this team was built to score buckets.
Harris is a scorer first. JJ Redick is a scorer first. Mike Scott is a scorer first. No doubt, their point prevention can and must improve. But a team must also play to its strength. And as currently constructed, that strength is scoring.
Against the Kings, they scored buckets, and they scored them in a wide variety of manners, which is exactly what you hoped that you would see once the trade deadline dust settled.
The Sixers have assembled a starting five with a diverse portfolio of skill sets that should be able to complement each other, but only if each of those five players understands how to maximize those skills: both his own and those of his teammates.
That, more than anything else, was the encouraging thing you saw Friday night.
First came the Simmons show, as the increasingly assertive second-year point guard spent the early part of the first quarter attacking mismatches, both in transition and in the half court. In the second quarter, Jimmy Butler went on the attack, something that he has at times seemed reluctant to do, especially early in games.
Afterward, the veteran wing attributed his energy to the 75-degree weather. Whatever it was, the Sixers need more of it.
Gone was the curious shot selection that has left fans and coaches shaking their heads. He made the passes that were there to be made — a kick-out to Redick for a three-pointer, a dish to Boban Marjanovic at the rim for two — but he also took the shots he needed to take.
Paired with Harris while playing with the second unit in the second period, Butler poured in 12 points, the most impressive coming on an impossible finish as he was knocked flat on the court by Nemanja Bjelica.
“We will not — and I’ll say not even close — we’ will not be as good as we can be without him playing like he plays and like he played tonight," Brown said. “I’m the coach, I need to figure out the best way to do this. Some of it’s with substitutions and rotations, some of it’s his teammates recognizing [it], some of it’s on him.”
The third quarter saw the return of Tobi and Bobi, as Harris scored 10 points, Marjanovic scored five, and the two combined for three assists to each other.
The fact that we’ve gotten this far without mentioning Joel Embiid points to another notable facet of the Sixers’ performance. While the big man led the way with 19 shot attempts and finished with 21 points, several of his buckets coming in big moments, the offense never seemed to stagnate when he had the ball in his hands.
As a whole, the thing had as much of a Warriors feel as we’ve seen in this group’s short time together. Not in terms of style of play — the Sixers shot just 7-for-24 from three-point range — but in the sense that the game never really seemed to feature any one player. There was no standing around and watching.
“I think tonight we played well as a team,” Simmons said. “We moved the ball, float a little; I think we did a good job of that.”