At last, the most important NBA game played in Philadelphia since game 6 of the 2019 Eastern Conference Semifinals. The Sixers (37-17), tied with the Brooklyn Nets (37-17) for the number-one seed in the East, welcomed the Bed-Stuy residents on Wednesday night. The winner would not only take a 1-game lead as the 1-seed, but the head-to-head tie-breaker in the event that they finish with identical records, as well. Behind another dominant night from Joel Embiid, the Sixers took control of the top seed, 123-117.

Before we get to what I saw, some notes.

Contextual Notes

The Sixers were without George Hill (right thumb surgery) and Dwight Howard (left knee soreness). Anthony Tolliver, who signed a ten-day contract with Philly, was available to make his debut. Doc Rivers started Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.

The Nets were without:

  • LaMarcus Aldridge (illness)
  • Chris Chiozza (fractured third metacarpal, right hand)
  • Spencer Dinwiddie (partially torn ACL, right knee)
  • Kevin Durant (left hamstring injury management)
  • Blake Griffin (left knee injury management)
  • James Harden (strained right hamstring)
  • Tyler Johnson (right knee soreness)

Steve Nash started Kyrie Irving, Landry Shamet, Joe Harris, Jeff Green, and DeAndre Jordan.

First Half

Ben Simmons opened the game as the primary defender assigned to Nets’ guard Kyrie Irving. While nothing noteworthy to some viewers, Simmons was a roamer against the Nets when they hosted Brooklyn a few months ago. In that game, the Nets were without Irving and Durant, but Harden played. Before Monday’s victory over Dallas, Rivers told reporters that he was leaning towards using Simmons as the primary on the opponent’s best player as they approached the final stretch of the season. Evidently, the Sixers felt enough urgency in this game to turn to Simmons as a means of limiting dribble penetration as much as possible, even with Brooklyn’s top two weapons out.

The Nets were sacrificing a comical amount of space to defend the rim when Embiid had the ball in his hands. They were totally content with him taking jumpers all night long as a means to keeping Embiid away from the rim. Embiid had an up-and-down first quarter responding to that strategy. He settled for some jumpers against the Nets’ well-documented lack of size. To his credit, it doesn’t really matter if those shots go in, which they were. Somewhat surprisingly, Embiid struggled at the rim when he got there. To be fair, there were a number of missed calls that I observed. But, I could say that for every possession every team has.

“But, I got to continue to find my guys and get my guys open looks and shots.”

Simmons continued the promising play he exhibited in the Dallas game. He was timing his kicks to the perimeter beautifully. If the kick wasn’t there, he was getting right to the rim for scores or demanding a whistle en route. That exact cadence is exactly how Simmons needs to play at all times to capitalize on his strengths while also being a scoring threat in the half-court. Again, if he plays that way, his lack of jump-shooting does not matter at all.

Simmons thought his pace could’ve played better, though. “First half, my pace was a lot better,” Simmons said. “But, I got to continue to find my guys and get my guys open looks and shots. At the same time, you know, stay aggressive. So, I think it was okay, overall.”

The Tobi Show

Tobias Harris asserted himself at the perfect time in the first half. With Embiid and Simmons on the bench, and Irving on the court for the Nets, the Sixers needed someone to step up and maintain the separation. Harris dropped 17 points in the first half, and only needed ten field goal attempts to do so. With Harris leading the charge while Simmons and Embiid recharged, the Sixers were able to build a lead heading into halftime.

Embiid appeared to wince in pain and grab his left knee after completing a dunk in the second quarter. The issue seemed to labor him a bit throughout the remainder of the period. But, he did not leave the game, and was able to draw three fouls on DeAndre Jordan before the intermission.

Second Half

I thought the third quarter showcased some of the value that fans discount when evaluating Ben Simmons. He sniffed out consecutive steals to create extra possessions for Philly. In their respective contexts, the Nets would’ve been well on their way to transition scores otherwise. If Simmons is doing that consistently (which he is), it is more than acceptable to shave a couple ticks off what you desire his scoring output to be.

I would also like to go on record as saying Simmons would probably be the Eagles’ best cornerback of the last decade.

“Just the balance, I think, is key.”

I was most satisfied with Rivers’ rotations in this game, certainly more so than I’ve been all season. He did not insert an all-bench lineup at all in this game, keeping Harris on the court whenever Embiid and Simmons were sitting. Oddly enough, Harris was not in the game as the Sixers closed the game out.

After the victory, Harris admitted that he’s been nursing some knee discomfort recently. Beyond that, he offered some insights into the lineups that feature him and four reserves. “Just the balance, I think, is key,” Harris said. “I mean, starting group’s very skilled offensive group. So, then there’s balance with the second unit, going out there and creating some mismatches and, tonight, we were playing kind of five-out, really. So, a lot of spacing our shooting. Different nights, different matchups. Different nights, different guys got it going and that kind of goes back and forth with myself and Ben in that second unit to be a scorer out there and a spark. So, yeah. I’m fine with it, and I think it worked successfully tonight and has been working throughout the season.

“I don’t think it’s gotten much better. It’s been very disappointing.”

Every time the Sixers looked as though they were pulling away, they let the Nets get back into the game with hideous transition defense. Until the last seven minutes of the game, Philly was scoring without notable issue. The problem was they were allowing the Nets to match those scores. That transition defense is something that has plagued Philadelphia all season long. They can talk about having to improve it as much as they would like. The reality is that it isn’t getting better. The guys on the court neither get back to stunt attacks, nor do they close out on shooters in time. Recovering in transition is indoctrinated into players at a young age, and most of the transition battle is simply getting back to defend the basket. At this point, it’s an issue of effort, focus, and communication. That issue reared its ugly head on Wednesday.

After the victory, Rivers expressed concern about his team’s transition defense. “I don’t think it’s gotten much better,” Rivers said. “It’s been very disappointing. Has been an area, I mean, when you look at an NBA team, and especially a young team, you look at two areas: turnovers and transition D. And, we’re bad at both. And so, that’s two areas of concern for us that we have to get better. I think, what are we ranked, second or third in defense? I don’t know, but I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anyone second or third in defense and 29th or 30th are you in transition D. The two don’t actually go together. It’s funny, DJ even mentioned, he said, ‘Man, your guys’ half-court defense is amazing. We got to score quick.’ That’s what teams think, so we have to get better at it.”

A Sour Ending to a Critical Win

Even with the victory, the Sixers left a bad taste in everyone’s mouths with the way they closed the game out. Philly found itself trying to fend off a 3-point lead in the last five minutes of the game after leading by as much as 22 points in the second half. That has been a theme for this team this season, even through all of the success they’ve had. When they attempt to get their stars out for the night, the bench is unfocused, sloppy, and unable to hold things down. It’s been a problem at various points throughout the season for this group.

It may not really matter come playoff time, as the starters and first two or three bench guys will take up the bulk of minutes. But, it speaks to the lack of depth outside of the first eight or nine guys for the Sixers. They have time to right that ship, but there’s not really a reason to believe that now would be when that inconsistency would suddenly resolve.

When the Sixers were forced to re-insert their starters in the guts of the game, the Nets were more than happy to front Embiid in the post and give Simmons the space to shoot. Simmons was unwilling to take advantage of the space. I would answer that problem with this–are you really content with Simmons launching jumpers in that spot, even if he does decide to let it fly? It’s very difficult to truthfully answer ‘yes’ to that question. So, rather than Simmons be the on-ball initiator, that would’ve been a wise time to rotate him to the dunker’s spot and put someone like Curry or Shake Milton on the ball.

The Sixers (38-17) will host the Los Angeles Clippers (39-18) on Friday night. Tip-off is set for 7 PM EST. You can catch the action on ESPN.