The Philadelphia 76ers (40-21) were back in action on Wednesday night. They hosted the Atlanta Hawks (34-28) in the first of a two-game series in Philadelphia. The Sixers were looking to keep pace with the Nets and win their second consecutive game. The Hawks were looking to recover after losing to the Pistons on Monday and take over the fourth seed in the East with a win on Wednesday. The Sixers registered six double-digit scorers as they dismantled the Hawks, 127-83.
Before we get to what I saw, you know the drill.
The Hawks were without:
- Bogdan Bogdanovic (left hamstring soreness)
- Kevin Huerter (left shoulder sprain)
- De’Andre Hunter (right knee soreness)
- Cam Reddish (right achilles soreness)
- Tony Snell (right ankle sprain)
- Trae Young (left ankle sprain)
Nate McMillan started Brandon Goodwin, Lou Williams, Solomon Hill, John Collins, and Clint Capela.
The Sixers were fully healthy, although Rayjon Tucker and Mason Jones were inactive for the game. It was only the 25th game of the season that Philly had its entire starting unit of Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid available.
One of the untold stories of the Sixers’ 92.7 points allowed per 100 halfcourt plays (second best in the league) has been Tobias Harris’ hands. While the veteran forward isn’t exactly agile on his feet, he has improved his hand strength and speed. From a physical perspective, that’s allowed him to swipe down on the ball and record strips. What has really been impressive and productive for the Sixers’ defense and, by nature, transition offense has been Harris’ timing and intuition in regards to when to go for the strip.
Whether it be helping on a driver, catching his on-ball man off guard in a face-up, or striking right when a player is about to elevate for a jumper, Harris has been able to compensate for his unimposing reach or agility by getting stops and creating loose ball opportunities. We sing the praises of Embiid, Simmons, and Thybulle on the defensive end, but Harris has noticeably stepped up his play on that end to fortify one of the best defenses in the league.
“When he doesn’t play, that’s what we miss the most.”
Whether it was simply some time off, a family matter, or an illness, Ben Simmons has come back with an injection of life. He pressured the Hawks’ defense in transition with unstoppable pace. That confidence to dictate the pace and control the game clearly put Simmons in a position of the utmost confidence. He was beating Atlanta defenders to the rim for strong finishes and begging helpers to come over to shut off his angle. Sprinkled in with some slick dribble moves, Simmons’ vision shined bright in transition. He recorded 4 assists for 11 points in the first quarter. In total, Simmons was responsible for 17 of the Sixers’ 37 points in the first quarter. Those 17 points generated by Simmons met Atlanta’s total production in that frame.
Embiid lauded that element of Simmons’ game after the victory. “When he doesn’t play, that’s what we miss the most,” Embiid said. “Just getting the ball up the court, pushing it. You might not score, sometimes it might not happen. But, just that makes the defense collapse and then he’s finding shooters. He’s finding guys and guys are making shots.”
“It’s another wrinkle to our offense that’s good for us, especially in transition.”
Subtle but noticeable was Simmons’ fluidity in the two-man game with Seth Curry. Simmons was quickly and purposefully diving to the rim immediately out of dribble hand-offs with Curry, who was obliging with easy passes to lead his partner to the rim. I think that’s a look that will serve Philadelphia well come playoff time. Teams are going to wall off the paint to take away Simmons’ ability to handle the ball in the halfcourt.
To mitigate that, those DHOs with Curry force defenses to play high, affording Simmons the path to dive and effectively turning him as a pick-and-roller when not in transition. It’s something that they did with Redick when he was a Sixer. Obviously, Redick was anything but a dynamic ball-handler. So, the Celtics did not have too much of a problem countering that. Curry still isn’t the most dynamic ball-handler by any stretch. But, he can put it on the floor and self-provision offense off the dribble, and that lifts defenses and, subsequently, unlocks Simmons.
Curry talked about that evolving relationship with Simmons after the victory. “There’s only a few things defenses can do in that situation. It’s either switch or get up on me, and we have an advantage. So, something we’ve done all year long when both guys have been healthy on the floor,” Curry said. “It’s another wrinkle to our offense that’s good for us, especially in transition. Stuff can happen when you don’t have to call a play. We just have to have different elements to our offense as the season goes along, as we get into the playoffs. Ben has been huge for us all year, even when he’s not scoring points.”
It’s hard to tell whether it was because looked as fluid as he did before the injury, and the ball was no longer flat coming out of his hands. Of course, that is a welcomed development for the Sixers, as Embiid’s transformation into an elite midrange jump-shooter has elevated him from a perennial all-star to a leading MVP candidate.
This game was over at halftime. But, there will be no resting until both halves are accounted for. So, we continue.
After being unavailable to play on Monday, Mike Scott was available but completely out of the rotation until “silly time” (as Rivers calls it). We’ll see if it’s a permanent rotational adjustment. But, it is something that fans have lobbied for all season. To be fair, they weren’t unjustified. The Scott experience has been far more negative than positive since he re-signed with Philadelphia two off-seasons ago. The shooting has been inexplicably hit-or-miss, and he doesn’t do anything else well enough to warrant playing time. It seems Rivers might’ve squeezed out enough minutes to get to a point where he felt his team was ready for the playoff rotation.
“That’s been the plan, we just had to get everybody healthy.”
Maybe Rivers will go back to Scott, and I wouldn’t discount him having a positive moment in such an environment. But, his playing time needs to be situational, not traditional. Rivers went with a lineup of Shake Milton, George Hill, Matisse Thybulle, Furkan Korkmaz, and Dwight Howard, instead. Scott usually gets significant run in that unit. But, Hill’s arrival seems to have altered that substitution pattern.
Rivers provided some insight into the future of that lineup. “That’s been the plan, we just had to get everybody healthy,” Rivers said. “We like that lineup, that’s what we’re gonna do. We like the small lineup with one big. Matisse, today, was a good thing because Gallinari is tough and Matisse did a terrific job. So, it shows us that he can guard bigger guys, that helps us.”
George Hill was the first member of the bench unit to enter the game. That is a contrast from the usual pattern, which anoints Milton as the sixth man. It might’ve been nothing, there might not be anything new brewing within the rotation patterns. Of course, time will tell.
With their victory over the Hawks, the Sixers clinched a playoff berth. It is their fourth season in a row with a stake in the postseason. ‘The Process’ has officially produced more postseasons than non-competitive seasons (3.5).
The Sixers (41-21) will host the Hawks (34-29) again on Friday. Tip-off is set for 7 PM EST. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.