The Philadelphia 76ers took the court to host the Washington Wizards in game 2 of their first round series. Philadelphia was able to outlast Washington in game 1 of the series despite foul trouble saddling Joel Embiid to the bench for the majority of the first half. The Sixers were looking to take a commanding 2-0 lead in the series before heading to Washington for games 3 and 4. The Wizards were looking to steal homecourt advantage by tying the series at 1 game each before heading back to DC for two games. Ben Simmons registered 22 points, 9 rebounds, and 8 assists to power the Sixers to victory, 120-95.
Before we get to what I saw, allow me to set the scene.
All players scheduled to be available for the playoffs were available to play in game 2.
Scott Brooks started Russell Westbrook, Raul Neto, Bradley Beal, Rui Hachimura, and Alex Len.
Doc Rivers started Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
Whether he admits it or not–and he never will–Simmons reads what is said about him on the internet. He came out with quite an assertive tone, hunting his own shots with regularity. He wasn’t above doing the dirty work, either. Simmons added to his first quarter point total with a sneaky put-back dunk to punch his imprint on the game. The star point forward scored 12 points, grabbed 5 boards, and registered 1 dime in the first frame. He generated 14 of Philly’s 35 points before the second quarter.
Joel Embiid touched on Simmons’ impact in the first two games after the victory. “Obviously every game there’s adjustments. The first game, he took what the defense gave him,” Embiid said. “He made plays, he got guys open. He had fifteen assists. Tonight, he saw that they didn’t want to leave me alone. He had a lot of space with the one-on-one matchup and he took advantage of it. And that’s great. We need that versatility. So, like I said, we need him to keep being aggressive and dominating.”
The Dreaded All-Bench Lineup
Rivers continues to entrust his all-bench lineup to preserve the leads built by the starters. As soon as those groups enter the game, it becomes a boat race for the Wizards. That didn’t change in game 2. Washington glided to the rim like a hot knife through butter. The Sixers were not getting back in transition, and the Wizards were able to push the pace through the basket until Philly’s starters came back in. Rivers and the entire team has spoken about how important transition defense is for this team. It seems the message is getting lost in translation once the starters are sent for their first breathers.
That disparity in defensive resistance is something that Philly might be able to get away with in this first series. But, Rivers will have proven that he didn’t learn from last season’s failures in Los Angeles if he continues to trot those groupings out in the Semifinals or Conference Finals. The players logging minutes in that unit clearly aren’t strong enough to resist, or they aren’t paying enough attention to focus on the task at hand. Either way, something will have to give. It cannot be that much easier for opponents to score as soon as the starters are relieved.
A Changing Of The Guards?
Part of the problem is that the bench unit isn’t scoring much of anything. Therefore, the defense is almost always starting in transition. Rivers trusts Shake Milton to carry the load as the ball-handler for the reserve rotation. However, it’s proven time and time again this season that he isn’t ready for that right now. The polar opposite trends in the plays of Tyrese Maxey and Shake Milton makes the viewer wonder why Maxey isn’t garnering a portion of Milton’s minutes in that spot. Maxey has a lower center of gravity, which makes him more difficult to stay in front of. Obviously, he’s much quicker than Milton, too. Beyond that, he’s an incredible spark plug of offense when the reserves need a jolt. The disparity in play makes you contemplate what the downside of playing Maxey over Milton even is at this point.
Tobias Harris appeared to tweak his ankle late in the first half. He briefly left, but returned to the game a short while later. The injury did not seem to affect Harris all that much, as he continued his torrid shooting to begin this series.
After a Beal one-man show in the first half, the Sixers opened the second half with Simmons taking primary duties on the Wizards star. In the first half, the Sixers were perfectly content with allowing Green and Curry step right up and try to defend the crafty guard. It went as well as things can go for a guard who averaged more than 30 points per game this season. In the second half, things took a marked turn.
I suspect the strategy of preserving Simmons’ defensive prowess for the second halves of games will be a trend for as long as the Sixers can survive doing it. That probably means it ends by the Eastern Conference Finals. Depending on who the opponent in the second round is, it could end there, too. It’s not nearly as big an issue against the Wizards, as there’s really only one faucet to turn off.
The Ankle Epidemic
Seth Curry left the game with an ankle injury and actually needed to be helped to the locker room by members of the Sixers’ training staff. Unless you’re Paul Pierce, that’s never a good sign. Surprisingly, Curry returned to the bench. The Sixers deemed him questionable to return to the game.
That wasn’t the last of the ankle injuries, unfortunately. Russell Westbrook departed the game after tweaking an ankle trying to save the ball in the backcourt. He did not return. On the way out, a fan dumped some popcorn on Westbrook, to add insult to injury. Let me make something abundantly clear–any fan who does that should be banned from all future games. If you disagree, you should be banned, too. Personally, I’d go a step further and charge said fan with assault. That’s all there is to it.
The Sixers (2-0) will head to Washington, DC for game 3 of the series. If they beat the Wizards (0-2) in game 3, that would essentially clinch the series. No team in NBA playoff history has coughed up a 3-0 lead and lost the series. So, while the Sixers sit comfortably at 2-0, they can breathe much easier if they come out focused in game 3 on Saturday. Tip-off is set for 7 PM EST. You can catch the action on ESPN.