It's been hours since we've witnessed Ben Simmons' playoffs debut. His performance, along with that of his Philadelphia 76ers teammates, still seems like a jolt from the future.
Simmons, Australia’s millennial sporting prodigy, was always destined for greatness. To see it this early in his professional career is a striking realisation of what hopefully awaits Simmons in the days ahead. His playoff debut brought a near triple-double – 17 points, 14 assists and 9 rebounds, a stat line that has never before been accomplished by an NBA rookie - and a resounding victory for a 76ers franchise that is still processing its rise into the championship conversation.
Philadelphia demolished the Miami Heat in Game 1, while reinforcing their status as the NBA’s most unlikely championship threat in decade. Here’s a look into how Game 1 was won.
Ben Simmons, the three-point threat?
Philadelphia shot a ridiculous 18 of 28 from three-point range in Game 1. Their battery of shooters all enjoyed constructive nights at the office, with Robert Covington, Dario Saric, J.J. Redick, Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova each converting at 50% or better from long range. This was a 76ers firing squad at the peak of their powers. While Simmons is a complete non-threat from behind the arc, that doesn’t make him toothless with regards to the three ball. His impact, as unorthodox as it may seem, was vital in creating the runway needed for his shooters to shine.
Miami was diligently preoccupied with slowing down the Australian, and it often came at the expense of wide-open attempts for his sharpshooting teammates.
Watch closely, as Josh Richardson correctly diagnoses Belinelli coming around the Simmons pick. But there is a problem for Miami: Richardson is petrified at the though of leaving Simmons, even for a slight second, and doesn’t dare step out to help shade the Italian, as he curls around for an open jumper.
Justice Winslow, who was as effective as anyone in somewhat curtailing Simmons, was equally guilty during Philadelphia’s rampant third quarter.
It must first be acknowledged that Miami will be embarrassed with their effort and execution. Plays like the two we just highlighted, were commonplace for a Heat team that already enters the postseason at a talent deficit. Effort and hard work will only take you so far against players like Simmons. It might not even be enough, but the Heat didn’t show up defensively in Game 1 and the Sixers made them pay.
Despite all the preconceived notions about Simmons’ lack of an outside scoring threat, he is a deadly offensive player because of his unmatched cocktail of skill and size. Simmons amplifies his impact by actively cutting when off the ball, and that put an already overmatched Heat defence into their very own version of basketball hell.
Philadelphia was efficiently ruthless at attacking weak links in Miami’s defence. Hassan Whiteside copped the brunt of their focus post-intermission, but poor Wayne Ellington was their victim early on. Redick and Belinelli quite literally put Ellington through the grinder; he was no match.
Every Heat defender was solely occupied by their direct opponent and nothing else.
Weak side help defence was non-existent as schematic principles crumbled. That is problematic at the best of times, and especially troubling when man-to man defence is well below par. The 76ers scored 43 points on the 35 possessions Ellington spent in direct opposition to Redick and Belinelli, per Second Spectrum data held by NBA.com. That equates out a defensive rating of 123, a figure that is utterly disastrous by anyone’s measure. What should concern Spoelstra and the Heat coaching staff is that these poor results aren’t exclusive to Ellington, although the 76ers sure did their best to bully him with a devilish intent.
Simmons deserves credit for the gaudy assist numbers, but he received plenty of assistance in the form of Brett Brown’s constructed ball movement and a porous opposition defence. Miami must drastically improve their attention to detail if they hope to make this a long series. Talk of schematic options and best practices are useless if effort and application doesn’t improve.
That third quarter
Sixty seconds into the third quarter, Goran Dragic nailed a three point field goal that gave the Heat a 63-56 lead. This was the opportunity Miami wanted. They had weathered a 76ers onslaught, recovered impressively and built a handy lead as the game began its descent into the home stretch. I repeat: this was the opportunity Miami had been waiting for, or so it seemed. What followed was an assault on the mortality of Game 1, and it’s all thanks to the postseason’s first chess move from Brett Brown.
Coming out of intermission, Brown inserted Ilyasova into the starting line-up at the expense of Amir Johnson. The mandate was simple. “We tried to spread the floor and execute,” Ilyasova said. He, along with his 76ers teammates, did just that.
Following Dragic’s opening bucket, the 76ers ripped off a 20-2 tear. Their defence was frightening – more on that in a moment – although there was an offensive explosion that pivoted around their makeshift centre. And it came at the expense of Whiteside.
Whiteside, an NBA athlete who belongs to a bygone era, abruptly floundered against an Ilyasova-led frontline. He was rendered unplayable in a matter of moments. Luckily for Philadelphia, it took Erik Spoelstra four minutes to realise this, but the damage was done in an instant.
First, the 76ers attacked Whiteside by targeting his natural tendency to remain inside the arc. Watch as Redick curls around Saric, collects the handoff, before dancing into an ocean of space as he launches a smooth jumper to start Philadelphia’s second half tour de force.
Then it was Simmons’ turn to join in on the fun.
Whiteside was lost on the perimeter and, naturally, loses track of a more active Ilyasova cutting to the rim. This wasn’t an egregious mistake from the Heat centre, but an illustration of his accepted weaknesses. Even a simple horns set, one that is commonplace within any NBA playbook, is enough to lull Whiteside into a trance. Call it effort, application or a general inability to care; this is not good enough from the Heat veteran.
To top it all off, Saric goes and hits this bad boy right in his face.
Whiteside was given his marching orders soon after this Saric jumper. He left the game for good, with 7:54 remaining in the third quarter. The damage was done, and Miami eroded all the goodwill their plucky first half allowed for.
“It certainly changed the game for us,” Brown said of Ilyasova postgame. As for the man himself, this was just a reminder of what life in the NBA demands. “I try to always be ready no matter what the situation,” Ilyasova said. “This is the playoffs, you never know what to expect. This is one of those things, you have to make some adjustment going forward.”
As impressive as Philadelphia’s 130-point offensive explosion was, their defense was unquestionably the more noteworthy accomplishment. Simply put: the trifecta of Simmons, Covington and Saric were devastating. The combined length and size of the trio has been evident during the regular season, but it was never deployed with the nastiness we just witnessed.
Simmons showed his trademark versatility, as he spent time matched up against guards, forwards and centers during his 34 minutes of game time. This isn't anything new. As pointed out by Kevin O’Connor from The Ringer last week, Simmons spent roughly a quarter of his defensive possessions during the regular season defending positions one through four.
In Game 1, Simmons was engaged from the outset and his size was off-putting for the bevy of smaller guards Miami threw his way.
Simmons ultimately bails out the offence with a sloppy foul, but the ease with which he slid over and stonewalled Richardson is the takeaway here. Once again, it isn’t anything new. Simmons has been doing this all season. But this is the first time it really matters, and the first time an opponent must devise a method around this 6’10” freak of nature playing the point. Attacking away from Simmons is the logical next step to take, although that might not work either.
This is just another illustration of Simmons’ pure size and strength. He doesn’t leave his feet, yet still alters Dragic’s attempt inside. With Joel Embiid out of the line-up, the 76ers need all the rim protection they can find. Simmons offered it in unconventional methods during Game 1. The same can be said for Saric, who was the unsung hero for Philadelphia.
His scoring and all-around offensive impact speaks for itself, but the Croatian was utterly dominant at the defensive end. The 76ers deployed a switch heave scheme against Miami. This required Saric and Simmons, along with Covington, to routinely pass off opponents and defend Miami within the context of the positioning on the court. In a sign of their comfort and growth, the output was a defensive knockout. The trio posted a defensive rating of 72.3 during their minutes spent together in Game 1. Now, this was only one game, so the statistical dominance must be taken with a huge Salt Bae pinch of salt, but Miami had tremendous trouble penetrating against the longest collection of wing players in the NBA.
Plays like this one are unfair; there is no other way to describe it.
Who is guarding Ben?
Finally, our first postseason check-in on who is attempting to restrain Simmons. James Johnson was the most used opponent, facing the Australian on 26 possessions, per NBA.com. Winslow was next up with 22 possessions, while Richardson, who drew the dubious task of defending Simmons out of the gate, logged 13 possessions.
Johnson and Winslow were far more effective than Richardson in “slowing” Simmons down, a term that belongs in Dr. Evil type quotation marks because it is extremely relative. A team-wide commitment is needed to restrict him and, as we covered, Miami’s first performance was anything but a unified effort. The Heat showed a firm commitment in backing away from Simmons, although this was often undone by a lack of energy. Sagging away will only work if you remain engaged. Give Simmons a runway and a pathetic level of resistance, and it is game over.
Every so often, Winslow showed his teammates how to merge the counterintuitive beliefs of sagging defence and engagement. While Simmons is one tough man to slow down, plays like this represent Miami’s best chance within the half court.
Simmons and the 76ers head into Game 2 with the advantage of a first up victory that was utterly dominant. Significant improvements are required from Miami if they wish to make this an elongated series. But Game 1, however striking it was, still only counts as a single victory in the quest for four.
Game 2 is Tuesday morning AEDT, 17 April 2018.