One of the peculiarities of the sport of basketball is that teams tend to look a lot more impressive on the nights when the ball goes into the basket. So if you are looking for a reason why the Sixers spent large swaths of Sunday night looking like their optimal selves, the intersection of physics and geometry is a good place to start. Two weeks ago, in a five-point loss to the Raptors in Toronto, they shot just .409 from the field, their second-worst output of the season. On Sunday, in a 110-104 win over the same team, they shot .506, including 14-of-32 (.438) from three-point range.
Anyway, thanks for reading, drive home safe.
Actually, no, don’t do that yet. There was more to this win than the percentages might suggest. Sure, the Sixers hit shots, and the game looks a lot easier when that is the case. But the story of this one was the shots that they got, the means to the ends.
After it was over, Tobias Harris sat behind a microphone and talked about flow, a word that, in addition to being a way to describe a transcendent mental state, is the ultimate goal for an NBA offense as a collective. There have been plenty of times during the course of this young season when the Sixers have operated with all of the rhythm of a dropped tray of dishes. Look at their losses, and more often then not they have occurred on nights when they have looked like a group of players thrown together at random via numbers out of a hat. It has been the source of plenty of hand-wringing from a fan base that watches each game with an eye on the playoffs. Wins are nice, yes, but what does each night tell us about the only games that will end up mattering?
On Sunday, the story that the Sixers’ performance told was as promising as you could have hoped given the situation. Ignore the last three minutes, which they spent quite literally tripping over themselves, and what you saw against the Raptors was as fluid a performance as they have had this season (adjusted for quality of opponent, of course, as the Sixers were coming off a 47-point win against a junior-varsity team from Cleveland that might as well have been wearing blank reversible pinnies). For three-and-a-half quarters, Ben Simmons led an offensive attack that deftly moved the ball over, around and through Toronto’s persistent double-teams, taking what the defense was content to allow and finding the open space. Early in the first quarter, he took a dribble-handoff from Al Horford and exploded to the rim with his left hand, throwing down a dunk that helped pull the Sixers out of an early hole. Later in the quarter, he took a pass from Mike Scott above the right break and beat his man to his left for a sweeping layup.
“The league guards Ben differently — the proximity of which Toronto guards him is close at times, you can put him in some pick and rolls and all by himself blow by people and I think he did a really good job of that tonight,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said.
But it was a series of possessions in the third quarter that offered the truest glimpse of the potential of the Sixers’ offense. Early in the period, he dribbled off a screen by Joel Embiid on the baseline, skipped a pass to Furkan Korkmaz, then cut to the weakside rim and got the ball back for an easy finger roll off the glass. A few minutes later, Simmons cut to the rim, got a pass from Harris, then made a one-touch pass to the corner, where Al Horford swung it to Matisse Thybulle for a wide open three. A few minutes after that, Simmons was backing down Rondae Hollis-Jefferson when he spotted Thybulle and James Ennis set up behind the three-point line on the far side of the court. Simmons whipped a two handed pass to Thybulle, who then swung the ball to Ennis for an open corner three that gave the Sixers a 79-60 lead. A couple of possessions after that, Simmons had Hollis-Jefferson pressing him several feet above the three-point line when Embiid arrived from down low to set a screen. With one dribble, he was into the paint, crossing over to his left and then rising up for a dunk that gave the Sixers an 82-63 lead.
Again, to fully appreciate the performance requires you to ignore the final three minutes, when the Sixers turned the ball over on five straight possessions to allow the Raptors to cut a 16-point lead to five. But if you succeed in doing so, this was an encouraging night.
“They’re a team that likes to double-team, likes to scramble out, so if you make the extra pass a couple times you’re going to get a good look," said Harris, who led all scorers with 26 points, shooting 4-for-8 from downtown.
As Brown noted, the Raptors played Simmons well beyond the three-point line rather than sagging off of him into the paint. Simmons responded by showing just how effective he can be off the dribble when he has a man to beat. In doing so, he illustrated the point Brown made after Simmons’ 34-point effort against the Cavs on Saturday, when the coach said that he wants to see his point guard attempt at least one three-pointer per game.
While that shot did not come against the Raptors, neither Simmons nor his team needed it. The Sixers are now 17-7 and are 3-1 against the Eastern Conference’s leading contenders. We’ve talked a lot about the concerns surrounding this offense. On Sunday, we saw some of the potential.