Those Philadelphia 76ers (42-21) were back in action against the hosting San Antonio Spurs (31-31) on Sunday night. It was the first leg of a back-to-back for Philadelphia. The Sixers were looking to sweep the season series against the Spurs for the second consecutive season and push their winning streak to four games. The Nets lost a thriller in Milwaukee earlier Sunday evening. So, the Sixers were playing with the full awareness that they had a chance to take a half-game lead with a victory. The Spurs were looking to get back on track after blowing a 32-point lead and losing to the Boston Celtics on Friday night. The Sixers, thanks to a buzzer-beating tip-in from Ben Simmons, escaped San Antonio with an overtime victory, 113-111. 

Before we get to the game, let’s set the scene.

Contextual Notes

All Sixers were available in this contest. Doc Rivers started Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.

The Spurs were without DeMar DeRozan (rest), Jakob Poeltl (rest), Trey Lyles (sprained right ankle), Dejounte Murray (sore left knee), and Derrick White (sprained right ankle). Gregg Popovich started Tre Jones, Devin Vassell, Keldon Johnson, Rudy Gay, and Drew Eubanks.

First Half

The Sixers did an excellent job of recognizing Joel Embiid’s size advantage over the likes of Drew Eubanks and exploited it often before the first timeout of the game. You don’t typically see much of Embiid’s utility in the pick-and-roll as the roller. But, the Sixers were content with calling for middle pick-and-rolls with the intention of diming up the screening Embiid as he dove to the rim. The Spurs had absolutely no answer, and Embiid feasted early in the affair. It was equally impressive that Embiid wasn’t settling for jumpers, either. His first five field goal attempts came at the rim. His play on the offensive end of the court was as efficient as you could ask it to be. It was as simple as catching the ball and immediately seeking the rim or getting fouled along the way.

Obviously the Spurs aren’t nearly the same caliber of team as the Nets. However, their interior thins out with Poeltl unavailable. Because of that, the matchup serves as a somewhat decent proxy for the challenge Embiid would face in such a playoff matchup. We can talk about who’s the best in the pool of Nic Claxton, DeAndre Jordan, Jakob Poeltl, and Drew Eubanks. The point is that none of them pose physical hindrances that should deter Embiid in a series. Having said that, it was quite encouraging to see him actively seek to force whichever Spur was charged with defending him off the court. If he’s not scoring, he’s getting fouled. That’s how he’s going to have to play to put his team in position to ride a parade float down Broad Street this summer.

“We try to get him good looks and open looks because he’s a great shooter.”

Seth Curry was unconscious against San Antonio’s early attempt at beating the Sixers with a zone defense. Against a team with three credible three-point shooters, zoning up is certainly a dangerous game to play. It can blow up in your face and put your team on the ropes before they even settle into the game. Conversely, it can disturb the opposition’s offense and make you look like a genius for working it into your game plan. In this game, the Spurs looked quite silly for gambling that way. Obviously, the Spurs were looking to stunt dribble penetration and get the ball away from Embiid in the post. But, Curry was able to take advantage of the long-ranging rotations from extra passes and burn San Antonio with 11 points in the first quarter.

After the victory, Ben Simmons talked about the element that Curry adds to the team’s offense. “I think my chemistry with him has grown a lot this season, and continues to grow. We try to get him good looks and open looks because he’s a great shooter,” Simmons said. “So, when you have somebody like that, you want to be able to facilitate and get them going. Because in the long run, it’s going to be huge for us.”

An Athleticism Problem

Not every opponent is going to pose this issue, but the Spurs’ second unit threatened the Sixers’ equivalent with a degree of athleticism that I don’t think Philadelphia has. The all-bench unit of George Hill, Shake Milton, Furkan Korkmaz, Matisse Thybulle, and Dwight Howard has a degree of shooting and playmaking. But, the athleticism is really only in Thybulle and Howard. That lack of athleticism between Hill, Milton, and Korkmaz breeds problems on the defensive side of the ball in both the halfcourt and transition contexts. More athletic groupings have the agility and speed to back-cut the Sixers and get to the rim in flashes. Even if the Sixers can stay with their designated assignments, the opposition can beat them above the rim with vertical athleticism.

It also poses problems on the offensive end of the court. More athletic second units can sprint to spots and make healthy close-outs or jump into passing lanes to create loose balls. At this point, unless Doc is going to throw Paul Reed into the ring, there’s not really much that can be done besides staggering Simmons or Embiid with that second unit. The good news is that I would think Rivers is going to have a low risk tolerance if the second unit is struggling in the playoffs. So, staggering starters could very easily become part of the plan, anyway.

Second Half

The Sixers had a chance to put this game away with eight minutes left in the third quarter after a Simmons free throw pushed their lead to sixteen points. But, they were their own worst enemy as the Spurs got back into the game. I wouldn’t even say I can understand their lacking urgency in this game. It was, after all, a chance to take a numerical lead over the Nets in the race for first place. What I would say is that the lacking urgency was unfortunately predictable. The Spurs are a small-market team, it’s a game away from the national stage, and the opponent wasn’t nearly as good as the Sixers are on paper.

“The first unit started doing it at the end of their rotation. Then, I thought the second unit just basically played iso ball. That’s not who we are.”

What it really shows is an occasional lack of maturity from this Sixers’ group. They sometimes lack consistency in how they close games out. To their credit, they show out in statement games and perform up to their own standard when healthy. But, Philly could’ve been resting the starting unit for most of the second half. Instead, the Sixers found themselves having to put forth a professional effort to close this game out. 

After the victory, Rivers shed some light on how the Spurs got back into the game. “It felt like every time we got a big lead, the ball started sticking,” the head coach said. “The first unit started doing it at the end of their rotation. Then, I thought the second unit just basically played iso ball. That’s not who we are.  So, it’s one of those games sometimes you think you’re going to win by a lot. So, guys play free ball. And what happened was the Spurs didn’t go away.”

Questionable Down The Stretch

The Sixers went to Tobias Harris down the stretch in this game for reasons that do not make even the slightest bit of sense. Harris was in the midst of maybe his worst game since the All-Star break. Conversely, Embiid was having his typical dominant game on the offensive end of the floor. Those in-game patterns did not subside. Harris left a number of points on the rim, and Philadelphia let San Antonio right back into the affair to tie the game. The strategy at the very end of regulation also lacked sense. Rivers deviated from what he did in crunch time and put the ball in Embiid’s hands. That’s all fine and dandy, but it didn’t make sense to suddenly go to the guy whose number you weren’t calling for the previous three minutes.

Nonetheless, Embiid’s game-winning jumper was off, and the game went to overtime.

“Today, it was more relief because we knew that we played ourselves in the position that we played ourselves in.” 

Ben Simmons shined bright in the extra session. He didn’t have a stat-stuffing night. To be fair, he hasn’t had many such nights this season. But, Simmons spelled the difference with plays on the defensive end. He took a pair of charges on plays in which the Spurs could’ve taken the lead in overtime. Then, he left his biggest mark on the final play of the game. Simmons was in the right spot to muster a slight tap as Embiid’s game-winning jumper popped off the rim. It was just enough, as his tip as the buzzer sounded helped the ball find the net.

Yes, of all people, Ben Simmons was the one to emerge with the heroic buzzer beater.

Even in victory, Rivers did not feel like the dramatic ending was something worth celebrating, and he was justified in feeling that way. “Today it was more relief because we knew that we played ourselves in the position that we played ourselves in,” Rivers said. “Give San Antonio credit. Pop had those guys playing hard, moving the ball, attacking. But, our guys know that they didn’t play right, and they kind of laid one. And so, I think it was more of a relief tonight than a celebration.”

The Sixers (43-21) will fly to Chicago to face the Bulls (26-38) on Monday. Tip-off is set for 9 PM EST. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.