Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons showed why they can be a dominant and dynamic duo in their final game before the All Star break against the Los Angeles Clippers. Photo by Wayne Terry, TPL.

The Sixers (40-27) faced off with the Washington Wizards (24-43) in a matinee on Wednesday afternoon. It was their third of eight seeding games in the Orlando bubble. The Wizards, extremely short-handed coming into the bubble, were quickly fading out of the 8-seed picture.

Before we get down to business, some notes:

Contextual Notes

Glenn Robinson III (left hip; pointer) and Mike Scott (knee) remained unavailable. Neither has played in the “regular season” schedule in Orlando.

The Sixers donned their red Phila uniforms in the afternoon affair. If they’re going to play poorly, might as well upgrade the drip so that they can look cool, I suppose.

First Quarter

The Sixers opened the game with a side pick-and-roll featuring Embiid and Simmons, although no points were amassed. It was refreshing to see one of the least pick-and-roll-heavy teams in the league run one on the opening play.

Fixing The Pick-And-Roll

With better spacing the pick-and-roll play can be expanded upon and utilized more consistently. Better shooters stretch defenses and will force them to be less aggressive in help. Simmons can be the ball-handler, and can run the play–without having to shoot jumpers–just by turning on the jets. The current team lacks spacing. So, defenses are empowered to sag over in help because they’re prepared to live with non-snipers beating them from outside. With the crowded lanes, simple pick-and-rolls become much more difficult to run. With different personnel, and probably a different coach, the current version of Ben Simmons can function effectively in a pick-and-roll set with Embiid.

Simmons Attempts A Triple

Simmons attempted a triple from the left corner early in this contest. He did not hesitate at all, and his mechanics were fairly sound. He did miss a bit long on the attempt, but his lack of hesitation was encouraging, especially after not having attempted one in the first two seeding games. Simmons was utilized more off-ball in the corner in the first period, getting back to the offensive alignment that Brown was keen on prior to the team’s scrimmages in Orlando.

Allowing Dribble Penetration

The Wizards were able to keep the game close in the quarter, as the Sixer defense–as always–remained adamant on allowing dribble penetration in an effort to reduce three-point looks. As has been the case for years, younger, less talented teams have been able to hang with the Sixers by attacking the rim and hoping Embiid is late to rotate over. Washington, powered by Ish Smith, was getting to the rim at will.

Shake Milton, fresh off his heroic three-pointer to beat the Spurs, scored the game’s first points–a triple from the right corner. He enjoyed some last-second shot-making, once again, drilling a triple as time expired in the first frame.

Second Quarter

Alec Burks has found some consistency in the opening moments of the second quarter across all three of the Sixers’ seeding games. He once again opened the period, this time with Simmons, Embiid, Thybulle, and Harris. Burks promptly buried a spot-up triple.

After one of the worst two-game stretches of his career, Simmons responded with a much higher level of engagement in the first half. Throughout both quarters, he remained aggressive in attacking the rim, vying for tip-outs on the offensive glass, and being active within the offense. He was also granted an on-ball role in the transition offense. Live-ball turnovers and defensive rebounds were quickly shuttled to him, and Simmons was off to the races. His proficiency with making quick passes in transition generated open perimeter shots for his teammates. As a result, the Sixers connected on seven of their fifteen three-point attempts in the half. 

Defensively, Simmons was much more engaged, as well. Whilst not accumulating an absurd number of steals in the first half, he was much more resistant at the point-of-attack. Wizards weren’t getting around him with ease, and he was perturbing every shot attempt in which he was the closest defender. 

Brown has emphasized deep catches from his bigger players throughout his media availability during the NBA’s return to play. Today, the Sixers made that a focal point of their half-court offense. Simmons and Embiid were constantly flashing in the low post with smaller mismatches desperately flailing to stay afloat. A significant number of their looks in the paint were generated by their matches with smaller Wizards.

Recognizing the Double-Team and Reducing Turnovers

Embiid’s recognition of double-teams in the post remained a positive development. Instead of waiting too long to identify the double-team and being smothered, Embiid has begun looking for the double before making his first move. Then, if it comes, he calmly pivots or steps through and finds the open teammate. Not only is that development reducing turnovers, but the offense, as a whole, is beginning to take on a more sensible form.

Brett Brown spoke of the importance of reducing turnovers after the loss to Indiana. Against San Antonio, the Sixers were much more careful with the ball, turning it over just thirteen times. In the first half of Wednesday’s game against the Wizards, Philly turned it over just six times.

Third Quarter

The Sixers continued to allow the Wizards to stay in the game with dribble penetration. Washington utilized Thomas Bryant heavily as a pick-and-popper, and Ish Smith acted as the little engine that could. Ben Simmons came up lame after throwing an entry pass to Horford in the post. He was removed from the affair with what was later ambiguously deemed a knee injury, and did not return. Meanwhile, the Sixers’ offense began to stagnate. 

The dribble penetration the defense permits continues to be the team’s fatal flaw. It is, perhaps, the team’s biggest detractor. Their core defensive philosophies of allowing penetration in an effort to perturb offenses at the rim and take away three-point shooting continues to come at the expense of keeping games close. For years, it is why they have blown leads and have been unable to put inferior opponents away. Their decision to concede dribble penetration is why they continue to look poor defensively, why they have underachieved to this point, and, ultimately, why Brown will lose his job. 

Embiid, inserted back into the game late in the quarter, came alive. He scored seven of the team’s final eight points in the period, and the Sixers turned a five-point deficit into a three-point lead.

Fourth Quarter

Matisse Thybulle continued to struggle finding a middle ground between his aggressiveness when defending from behind versus staying in front of his man. Thybulle shows a tendency to overplay passes coming to his matchup, causing him to have to recover from behind his man. Once behind the now-ball-handler, Thybulle shies away from contact, essentially giving up a lane to the basket. The rookie wing will see his playing time rise once he learns to not overplay the passing lane and stay in front of his matchup.

Embiid ran into foul trouble (of course, on an abhorrent foul call by one of the many horrendous officials in the bubble, but I digress) halfway through the final frame, and Brown elected to insert Burks. The lineup consisted of Horford, Harris, Burks, Korkmaz, and Milton. While that group was one of Brown’s more sensible Embiid-less quintets, they were outscored 5-3 in 2:36 of play.

Embiid scored seven of his thirty points in the final 4:19 of play, and the Sixers kept the Wizards at an arm’s length in the 107-98 victory. Harris poured in 9 of his 17 points in the final period, as well.

Shake Milton contributed 14 points (3 of 5 from deep) and 4 assists in the game. He did not commit a turnover in 27 minutes played. His response in these last two games, given everything that happened in the game against the Pacers, cannot be overstated. Of all of the checkpoints Milton has reached in his second season, the mental strength he has displayed in these last two games has been the most impressive.  

Philadelphia (41-27) will take on the Orlando Magic (32-36) on Friday night. Tip-off will occur at 6:30 PM, EST, and the affair will be televised on TNT (in addition to NBCSPhilly).