Simmons to Maxey for three
Simmons to Maxey for three

The Sixers (4-1) kicked off 2021 with a Saturday evening matchup with the Charlotte Hornets. Philadelphia, coming off a beatdown of the Orlando Magic on New Year’s Eve, were looking to continue their momentum with a third consecutive victory. The Sixers, taking selflessness to its extreme, recorded 35 assists on 47 made field goals to send the Hornets to their fourth loss of the season. 

Before we get to the game, some notes.

Contextual Notes

Mike Scott missed the contest with a left knee contusion. Scott suffered the injury late in the Sixers’ road victory against the Magic.

The Hornets started Devonte’ Graham, Terry Rozier, Gordon Hayward, PJ Washington, and Bismack Biyombo.

First Half

Tobias Harris is legitimately a different player when he takes his mind out of the game. He has played significantly better in each of the past three affairs, and it’s because he’s stopped overthinking and is just reacting off the catch. The lack of hesitation has forced Harris to trust himself more when shooting. The recent uptick in play has stimulated Harris’ confidence in himself.

Now, he’s scoring at a variety of levels, adding a poster on Bismack Biyombo to his mantle in the first quarter. Harris is averaging nearly 20 points–on better than 52 percent shooting–and 8.5 rebounds per game. He recorded 15 points (5-of-6 shooting), 4 rebounds, 4 assists, and no turnovers in the first half. After the game, Coach Rivers lauded Harris’ recent play: “We like his quick action play. He’s making quicker decisions. He knows where guys are at when he goes, so he’s been absolutely wonderful.”

“Instead of trying to force it, just simple plays. Keep it like that.”

The Sixers got off to yet another excellent first quarter. For a team whose offense bred the pain of going through surgery without anesthesia, the clog-free play has been quite the breath of fresh air. That play has been a byproduct of excellent ball movement and player movement. Seth Curry understands the power of the team’s ball movement–“Everybody’s out there touching the ball, everybody’s involved,” Curry said after the win. “We got a lot of layers to our offense so we’re tough to guard right now.”

The Sixers’ fundamentals on the perimeter are improving–they’re using pump fakes, exploiting close-outs with dribble-penetration, and kicking to relocated teammates. The looks that they’re generating are comfortably open, and they’re capitalizing on those opportunities. Following the victory Rivers commented on the ball movement: “Instead of trying to force it,” Rivers said, “just simple plays. Keep it like that. We’re gonna keep getting better. I would say the last couple of games, really, that’s what I envisioned. I don’t know if we’re there yet though.”

Hand Down, Man Down

The dagger ball threat leaves defenses scrambling to stay near shooters. That effectively opens the lane for playmakers to attack. The trust that Embiid has for his teammates is so strong that he now invites teams to double-team him in the post. The shooting depth is so unprecedented for Embiid that he is now leveraging double-teams to make himself a playmaker for his teammates. Danny Green spoke on weaponizing Embiid when he gets doubled: “In the half-court, obviously you’ll find Jo. He’s a mismatch for anybody in this league and so make teams double. Work off that and find the open man.”

The spacing that Morey, Brand, and Rivers have implemented in this offense has helped Embiid showcase a significant improvement in his game. Defenses are now having to shuttle themselves across the court to go back and forth between Embiid and shooters. Simmons lauded his team’s shooting after the victory, saying “it’s tough to take that away” and that shooting is one of the biggest differences from last season’s team.

It seems Doc Rivers has embedded an action in the offense to get Simmons downhill in the half-court as if he’s in transition. They showed the play numerous times in the first half against the Hornets. Simmons continues to pass at awkward angles instead of going to the rim aggressively. However, the pressure he put on the rim was forcing Charlotte’s defense to make decisions. When the time was right, Simmons was kicking to shooters and generating open looks. He finished the first half with 9 assists.

Second Half

Early in the third quarter, Simmons had an alley to the rim to score. Sixers play-by-play voice Marc Zumoff introduced a new phrase that I have never heard him use before. As Simmons rose up for the finish (he did not, but he was fouled, although he should’ve made the shot, too), Zumoff narrated: “Simmons with a pathway to glory…”. Now, this may not be a new treasure in the Zumoff chest of phraseology. But, this is the first time I’ve ever heard him use it. One thing is for certain: everything sounds better when Zoo says it, and I’m good with whatever new flavors he wants to add to the menu.

I would like to see Shake Milton strike a balance between ultra-green-light aggressiveness and playmaking. He will always be a natural scorer with incredible touch from a variety of spots. But, he gets tunnel vision at times. In the late stages of the third quarter and the early stages of the fourth quarter, there were a number of possessions in which the ball movement stopped in favor of Milton isolations or pick-and-rolls.

Those pick-and-rolls are fine. But seeing the basket exclusively makes for predictable play. That helps defenses figure you out quickly. Those plays that were easy baskets just minutes ago quickly turn into turnovers. A simple dump-off to a plunging Howard or a kick to the perimeter might re-open those pathways to the rim, and buckets would be easier to come by.

The Turnover Blues

The turnover bug is an ailment that the Sixers cannot seem to shake. They’ll commit 12 turns one night and then commit in-excess-of 16 turnovers the next. I suspect that that will level out to a more consistent number as the personnel gets more comfortable with the offense. But an inflammation of that issue reared its ugly head on Saturday, and the Sixers had to battle with a Hornets team that they should’ve been able to KO before halftime. 

The Hornets kept the game respectable all night, but the Sixers were ultimately able to play just well enough to dash Charlotte’s hope of a comeback as the fourth quarter ticked away. The Sixers (5-1) will host the Hornets (2-4) again on Monday. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 PM, EST.