Embiid-Simmons Two-Man Game, More Takeaways from Win Over Celtics
The Sixers swept their season series against the Celtics for the first time since the peak of the Allen Iverson era Tuesday night. At 35-16, the Sixers are tied with the Brooklyn Nets for the top spot in the East.
For the third time this season, Boston had zero answers for Joel Embiid. Ben Simmons was OK offensively but brilliant defensively. The All-Star duo’s two-man game even resurfaced in this one.
Here are a few takeaways from Tuesday’s win:
Embiid is Back
Doc Rivers said that after the game was over, Embiid turned to his coach and said, “I’m back.”
Rivers’ response: “Yeah, I noticed.”
It was hard not to notice Embiid in just his second game back after missing three weeks with a left knee bone bruise. The All-Star center was dominant, scoring 35 points in just 32 minutes. Boston threw the kitchen sink at him, going with Robert Williams to start but also using Luke Kornet, Mo Wagner, Semi Ojeleye, and even the 7-foot-5 Tacko Fall on him. And when they doubled, Embiid and the supporting cast made them pay.
“He had great rhythm today,” Rivers said postgame. “And I thought he was very patient too. I thought our passing when he was doubled was fantastic. They almost got into a pick your poison spot and that’s where we want Joel to be.”
The craziest thing about Embiid’s dominance is that he doesn’t believe he’s close to being fully back.
“I’m not all the way there,” Embiid said, “but tonight, was a big step, especially going from the Minnesota game. … Tonight I felt better, but I still got a long way to go before I get back to where I was before I got hurt.”
In three games against the Celtics, Embiid averaged 38.3 points and took 56 free throws. On the season, Embiid is averaging 11.8 free throws per game. That number represents a career-high and leads the league – Giannis Antetokounmpo is second with 9.9.
Though Embiid was upset with himself for missing four, he’s hit just a tick under 85 percent of his free throws this season. Embiid is getting to the line at a higher rate than players like Antetokounmpo and Zion Williamson and hitting his free throws with the same efficiency as guys like Jimmy Butler and Kevin Durant.
“They’re called free throws for a reason,” Embiid said. “I love getting to the free throw line, and I don’t spend any energy being at the free throw line. I actually rest more. I should just take my time and knock them down.
“At some point in my career, I want to become a 90 percent free throw shooter. … Because I go there so many times and that’s what makes you unguardable – when you can get to your spot and either score or get fouled.”
That mindset has served Embiid extremely well this season.
Simmons’ Defensive Brilliance, Offensive Improvement
Let’s start with the good: Simmons was once again tremendous defensively, helping hold Jayson Tatum to 7 of 17 from the floor and 3 of 10 from three. Simmons also had three steals and played a huge part in the Sixers forcing 20 Boston turnovers.
On offense, Simmons was better than he’s been recently. Nothing will catch your eye in the box score (12 points, six assists), but Simmons did make an impact offensively during the Sixers’ decisive third-quarter run.
He started the game missing four straights free throws, but then made four in a row. In 11 games before the All-Star break, Simmons was hitting 72.1 percent from the line on a healthy amount of attempts. Since the break, he’s hit just 53.8 percent. That’s something worth keeping an eye on as we move closer to the postseason.
It seems like we’re at a point with Simmons where there needs to be a level of acceptance – at least for the rest of this season. There is a formula here that works. Embiid dominates, Tobias Harris plays efficiently – though he struggled Tuesday – and helps close games, and Seth Curry and Danny Green knock down open looks.
Simmons can fill an elevated version of a Draymond Green-type role -- facilitating, finding gaps in the defense, and hitting the offensive glass while anchoring what should be an elite defense. There will be games where he struggles to find offense and it’s hard to imagine he’ll start firing threes or become an elite finisher any time soon.
If you can’t accept Simmons for what he is at this point, have fun ripping your hair out.
One way to help Simmons get involved offensively while still allowing Embiid to do his thing is running more of the “snug” pick-and-roll we’ve seen through the years. The action is essentially a pick-and-roll on the block with Simmons as a ball handler and Embiid as a screener.
We’ve seen them run the look over the years with varying degrees of success – quite frankly, much more failure than success. But at one point in the third quarter, they ran the action with Jaylen Brown on Simmons and Fall on Embiid. The Celtics switched it, giving Embiid a chance to post Brown and ultimately leading to two free throws.
(h/t Kevin Kinkead from Crossing Broad for the video)
It was as good as the pair have run the action in their time together.
“I like it organically,” Rivers said. “I thought the one in the second half was probably the best one we’ve run the entire year because of the patience. … I told them coming off that was the best one, that’s how you have to run that. … And Ben came off with pace, that’s the other key to that.”
Rivers wanting them to find that look “organically” makes sense. Should it be option A? Absolutely not. But when teams are aggressively doubling Embiid on the block, this can make things a little trickier for the defense. It’s also a way to get Simmons involved in the offense since his lack of shooting makes it nearly impossible to run a traditional pick-and-roll with him as a ball handler.
“We had some success today [running that action],” Embiid said. “In the past, we’ve had a lot of success running that. There’s a lot of options that can come out of it. I can always go for a lob and if it’s not open, just set the screen. And if [Simmons] can drive in the lane, he can go and attack. The last resort is, if he doesn’t have anything, that type of play is always going to cause a mismatch. Guards might switch onto me and it gives me an easier way to score.”
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