Philadelphia's third straight win highlights Ben Simmons' impressive season and growing defensive reputation
The Philadelphia 76ers have strung together three straight wins, including a victory over the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday, 110-103, and a big reason for this is Ben Simmons, who is putting together a stellar year in a bunch of ways.
Getting it done alongside Embiid
The Sixers headed into a game against the Clippers with one of their star players, Joel Embiid, under the spotlight, as he was involved in a cryptic social media post the night before the game. This didn’t bother Simmons, though, who put up 26 points, 12 rebounds and ten assists, all on an efficient 12/22 shooting from the field, as he recorded his second straight triple-double.
When Embiid dislocated his finger against the Orlando Magic on 6 January, Simmons stepped up and kept the Sixers afloat, posting a record of 6-3. He averaged 21.5 points, 9.3 rebounds and 7.8 assists, with a field goal percentage of 65.3%, according to Basketball Reference. When Embiid returned, many thought Simmons’ aggression might halt - this hasn’t been the case at all. The 6'10 point guard has averaged 21.1 points, nine rebounds and eight assists, on 60% field goal percentage in the last seven games, courtesy of NBA.com.
The Embiid-Simmons pairing has actually flourished in the last three games, and especially against the Clippers. It was the fourth time the pair had both scored 20 or more in the same game this season and coach Brett Brown even suggested it might have been the best showing the pair has had in their three year stint together, per Serena Winters.
“When we add up Ben and Joel’s stat line, it’s arguably the best game that those two have paired up with since I have been the coach here,” the Sixers coach declared.
These sentiments were shared by Simmons himself, who was asked about his and Embiid’s dominant performances.
“I think the chemistry's just good. Me finding him. Him being a force down low, and getting open. It just worked well tonight. We did a good job of getting mismatches and finding them,” the two-time All-Star explained.
Simmons' defence impresses even against the best
A dominant aspect of Simmons’ game this year has been his defence, which has looked extra sharp in his most recent outings. Yesterday, against the Clippers, Simmons guarded Kawhi Leonard for most of the game and once again showed he is more than capable of matching up with the two-time Finals MVP.
While Leonard still scored 30 points on 12/23 shooting, the eye test showed Simmons was still making Leonard earn every bit of his money. During the fourth period, the Australian denied Leonard the ball several times, deflected passes and adequately contested almost every shot. Additionally, about a third of the points Leonard scored were against other Sixers teammates.
Simmons’ elite defence, as we know, wasn’t just a once-off showing. He is among the league leaders in almost every metric used to evaluate good defenders. He currently leads the NBA in steals at 2.2 per contest, is second in deflections at 4.1 and sits at tied third in loose balls recovered at 1.8. If that isn’t enough, Simmons keeps his opponent to a field goal percentage of 41.3%, among the top ten in the association.
The clamps Simmons puts on isn’t against bad scorers, either. According to Andrew Porter, the five players he has defended the most (Butler, Tatum, Beal, Siakam, Gilgeous-Alexander) have scored a combined 50 points on 19/59 shooting (32%), as of mid-January. The former Rookie of the Year winner is just showing effort and awareness on the less glamorous end of the floor this year. Against the Memphis Grizzlies a few days ago, Simmons caught Ja Morant snoozing when he straight up pickpocketed the rookie.
Horford to the bench
Against the Clippers yesterday, Philadelphia’s marquee offseason signing, Al Horford, was surprisingly moved to the bench for the first time, since his rookie year in 2007.
The bold move proved to pay dividends, though. The Sixers visually looked more spaced on offence without Embiid and Horford sharing the court as often as they have this season, and it had a subsequent impact on Simmons’ production. With Horford (33% from three) and Embiid (33% from three) both on the court with Simmons, Philadelphia’s driving lanes are stifled, as defenders seem to close out on them less, when they are at the perimeter.
Not only this, but replacing Horford with a shooter (or a better shooter at least) will assist Simmons’ game and team success much more. Simmons is very capable of finding open teammates on the outside with his elite distributing ability. A shooter will open up more driving lanes for Simmons, as he can finish at the rim using his length, speed and strength.
It's no surprise that Furkan Korkmaz started in place of Horford, after back to back 30-point performances from Furkan Korkmaz (about 40% from three this year). After Korkmaz struggled in the first half, Glenn Robinson III, one of the 76ers' newest members and a 40% three-point shooter this season, started in the second half, evidencing that coach Brown is aware of how an extra shooter benefits the team's offensive spacing.
Downsizing is a clear trend in the NBA, as some teams, like the Houston Rockets, for example, don’t even have a player taller than 6’7 in their starting lineup. An aspect of playing smaller is that usually the offensive players on the court are better than average shooters, who stretch opposing big men out to the three-point line and open up driving lanes for other players like Simmons, who gets a clearer path to the basket with rim protectors dragged outside. If the ball is swung and the big man does get out to his opponent in time, he then might find himself in a mismatch, as the big is most likely slower than his opposing number, who could simply drive and force defensive rotations.
Considering Joel Embiid is one of the best centres in the league, there is almost no world in which the Sixers go all on in on small ball. But, moving Horford to the bench will ideally help Simmons continue the offensive ascension he has been on recently.