The Philadelphia 76ers (21-11) hosted the Dallas Mavericks (15-15) on Thursday night. The Sixers returned home after a series with the Raptors in Tampa. The Mavericks were coming off of a thrilling home victory over the Boston Celtics on Tuesday. In what Ben Simmons deemed as the team’s best defensive performance of the season, the Sixers bested the Mavericks, 111-97.
Before we get to the game, some notes.
The Sixers reported no injuries for this game.
The Mavericks were without Kristaps Porzingis, who was nursing lower back tightness. Rick Carlisle started Luka Doncic, Josh Richardson, Dorian Finney-Smith, Maxi Kleber, and Boban Marjanovic.
Even with Shake Milton back from injury, the bench still looks completely dry of offense. Even when he’s on the court, the offense stagnates into turnovers or lethargic shots that pop off the back of the rim. The reason appears to be that Milton is not consistently decisive as a scorer. He tries to play within the offense and get others involved often. Usually, that’s the safest bet. But, you want more of a scorer’s mentality in your Sixth Man’s DNA.
Milton is typically at his best when he’s aggressively hunting scores. He is particularly effective when turning out of a screen and changing speeds to manipulate what the defense does. He has grown remarkably proficient rising above the teeth of the defense for midrange jumpers off the dribble, or getting downhill and slicing through the paint for finishes with either hand. The key for him to be the best version of himself for this team, and for this bench to improve, is to continuously approach the game with scoring at the front of his mind. When his mind is made up and he commits himself to scoring, Milton can have his way with opposing defenses.
“Just getting back to who I am and working on my mental.”
Ben Simmons has continued to enhance his play ever since the fourth quarter of the second game of a home series with the Celtics late in January. Perhaps a more significant factor in Simmons’ awakening was that potential concern about being involved in the James Harden trade was alleviated a week earlier when the latter was traded to the Nets. Ben Simmons seemed to agree with that assessment. “Just getting back to who I am and working on my mental. I’d say that’s the biggest thing, my mental. Overall, just being who I am and knowing what I’m capable of,” Simmons said after the win.
Simmons is as dialed in as he has ever been. He recorded a career-high of 42 points over a week ago. One could suppose that that was just a feat reached during a rampage of games in which Simmons has been locked in on offense.
The Charity Stripe
Of particular note, of course, has been his improvement at the free throw line. He’s enjoying a career-best conversion rate at the line this season, and it has made him unafraid of attacking the rim. The result has been Simmons leveraging his size, strength, and speed to pose a more significant threat as a scorer. Defenses reeling to perturb him as he pressures the interior has ultimately helped him get back to his primary gift–creating open looks for his teammates.
This game was no different. Simmons was smothering the Mavericks on the defensive end of the floor, and they were turning the ball over at an alarming clip. The Mavericks average just over twelve turnovers per game—they committed fourteen in the first half. Simmons aided in forcing Dallas to rely upon transition defense. Defending off of live-ball turnovers is not something the Mavericks are used to, and the Sixers were able to build as much as a 20-point lead in the first half because of it.
The subtle improvement in Simmons’ game has been his consistently strong timing when he chooses to change speeds. With the ball in his hands, Simmons is at his most dangerous in transition. However, he has developed a reputation for giving away possessions with turnovers because he refuses to slow down. Countless times has he sped through a lane and ran a defender over for an offensive foul. Many a time have viewers seen him power his way into the paint and then fling the ball back outside errantly for turnovers.
Now, Simmons is beginning to slow up at the appropriate times and, when the defense relaxes for a moment, he punishes them with an injection of speed. As a result he’s getting around defenders and finding himself right below the rim in vacant spaces, and he’s capitalizing on high-percentage looks.
Tobias Harris left the game with a bruised right knee in the third quarter. He did not return. Doc Rivers did not have much in the way of an update after the victory. “I don’t know yet, it’s too early,” Rivers said. “I think they’re gonna do some tests in the morning to make sure it’s structurally fine and then go from there.”
“Got to get away from trying to draw fouls and just go get fouls.”
The Sixers are in unchartered territory with Joel Embiid this season. He’s playing the best basketball of his life, and is firmly established in the MVP conversation. Obviously, you never want to discourage him from scoring the ball whenever he touches it. As of late, however, it seems Embiid has been playing to contact instead of playing to dominate. He’s mired in a 14-for-54 shooting slump over the three games since his career night against the Bulls.
What has been a bit more troubling is that Embiid has settled for unnecessary shots in an attempt to break himself out of the cold spell. Again, you always want him to look to score. But, the first look isn’t necessarily the best look. I do think it makes sense that Embiid might be feeling some fatigue. Such is reasonable, seeing as he’s done a significant portion of the heavy-lifting for the Sixers through the first half of this season. But, whatever the case, playing to contact instead of focusing on making shots is not a habit you want to get into.
Rivers wasn’t too concerned after the game, though. “He’s just missing shots, you know. But he still ended up with 23 [points], 9 [rebounds], and 4 [assists]. But, he missed some great shots. I would take most of the shots he took. Got to get away from trying to draw fouls and just go get fouls. But, other than that, I’m not that concerned.”
“‘You one lucky fool, Dwight. So, you go out there and you dunk every time’.”
Dwight Howard continues to provide valuable play off the bench with a more simplified role. On Thursday, he asserted himself as a presence on the glass. He pulled down three offensive boards to go along with his five defensive rebounds in 16 minutes played. Howard converted six of his seven field goal attempts for twelve of his fourteen points, and notched three blocks. What is most encouraging about Howard’s recent uptick in production is the way in which he has leveraged his athleticism and frame. Howard is leaping out of the building to get rebounds, and he’s going back up once he retrieves the junk coming off the offensive glass.
He’s also timing his efforts well on the defensive glass. He’s becoming less physical in fighting for positioning, therefore not committing as many loose-ball fouls as he had been earlier in the season. Instead of using his arms, Howard is digging down to box opponents out, and he’s springing up when appropriate to poach defensive rebounds out of the air. Howard’s productive play of late underscores an important theme for him this season–simplifying his role maximizes his value.
The Sixers are not afraid to stretch Howard to his offensive limits, though. They’re content with throwing the ball back to him as he plunges down the lane for highlight reel dunks. In each of the last few games, Howard has supplied a thunderous dunk that reminded viewers of his Superman days in Orlando. It’s quite simple for Howard, he’s just happy to be playing. “It was great to get out there and just play the game that I love at the highest level. Tonight, when I got the chance to come down the lane, I was thinking of what Sam Cassell always tell me–‘You one lucky fool, Dwight. So, you go out there and you dunk every time’. That’s stuff we’ve been working on, and so it worked tonight.”
The Sixers (22-11) will host the Cleveland Cavaliers (12-21) on Saturday night. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 PM EST. You can watch it on NBC Sports Philadelphia.