Harris’ All-Star Push, Simmons Getting Downhill, More Takeaways from Sixers’ Comeback Win
In the category of “games the Sixers would’ve lost last season,” Sunday night’s game in Indiana seemed to fit the bill.
Instead, the Joel Embiid-less Sixers erased a 20-point lead and beat the Pacers 119-110. It was their first win this season without Embiid, who is nursing a sore back.
The Sixers go will go into their game Wednesday in Charlotte with the East’s best record at 15-6.
Here are a few takeaways from Sunday’s win.
Tobias Harris, All-Star
Where would the Sixers be without Tobias Harris this season? It’s crazy to think about all the questions that lingered about Harris’ role and contract this offseason. He’s been as indispensable as anyone not named Joel Embiid.
After recording a season-high 27 points Sunday, Harris is averaging 20.3 points a game. He’s doing it in a super-efficient way, shooting 51.4/46.4/83.3. There are only two players in the NBA averaging at least 20 points a game while shooting over 50 percent from the field and 45 percent from three: Paul George and Harris.
Aside from the numbers, Harris has been clutch. He hit the game-winner against the Lakers in front of a national television audience. Against the Pacers, he carried the Sixers’ offense, dropping 10 of 27 in the fourth quarter.
The ferocity in which he’s attacked the basket – like his posterizing of rookie Jaden McDaniels on Friday – and the clutch moments are the biggest signs of his decisiveness and confidence. On top of that, his defense is much improved. Harris being able to defend threes and fours – and the occasional five – competently is a big part of why the Sixers have been so good defensively.
With all that said, Harris might get his first All-Star nod.
Simmons Steps Up
While Simmons’ recent aggressiveness has quelled some of the criticism, he’s caught the ire of fans because of the team’s struggles without Embiid. When the All-Star big man sits, Simmons hasn’t been able to put the team on his back.
His performance in Indiana reversed that trend a bit. While Harris carried the load in the fourth quarter, it was Simmons who kept the team somewhat in the game for most of the night. He finished with a season-high 21 points and also posted seven assists, six rebounds, four steals, and two blocks.
Simmons has been excellent over his last six games, averaging 15.8 points on over 60 percent shooting from the field. While he turned the ball over three times Sunday, he’s averaged just 1.8 turnovers during this six-game stretch.
This run aligns more with Simmons’ career marks, but that turnover number is significant. Simmons has averaged 3.5 turnovers a game throughout his career. Shaving one turnover, let alone a turnover and half, off that number would be a huge mark of improvement for the Sixers. Rivers lauded Simmons getting downhill and looking to either attack the rim or kick out to the corners. That simplification is likely a factor in Simmons taking better care of the ball.
There’s a formula here that works. Embiid is the MVP candidate and everything runs through him. Harris provides complementary scoring. Simmons is the Swiss army knife that gives you a little bit of everything. So far, that’s a winning formula for the Sixers.
In the Zone
While these takeaways are awfully rosy, they may not have been if not for a major coaching adjustment by Doc Rivers. With his team struggling to get stops, Rivers made the decision to switch to a 2-3 zone in the fourth quarter. He jokingly called it his “John Chaney defense,” giving homage to the late Temple head coach.
It paid off in a big way as the Sixers won the fourth quarter, 37-15, on their way to completing a huge comeback. Deploying Matisse Thybulle at the top of the zone led to big things. Thybulle won the national Defensive Player of the Year his senior year at Washington while playing Mike Hopkins’ zone – Hopkins is off Jim Boeheim’s coaching tree and uses the same zone as Syracuse.
By Rivers’ count, Thybulle had 11 deflections … and it certainly felt like it. Thybulle finished with four steals and two blocks, but that doesn’t begin to tell the story of how disruptive he was. It was like prime Richard Sherman shutting down one side of the field for the Legion of Boom Seahawks. Indiana couldn’t get anything going to Thybulle’s side without the second-year wing getting his hands on the ball.
Rivers mentioned it was actually something he and assistant Dan Burke, a long-time Pacers assistant, had discussed pregame. Burke recalled a game against Rivers’ Clippers last season in which they went zone against Indiana and had success. There’s no mistaking the impact guys like Burke, Sam Cassell and Dave Joerger are having. Rivers has assembled an excellent staff and it shows on nights like Sunday.
The bench unit played so poorly in the first half, they were making a case for Daryl Morey to pursue former Sixer JJ Redick and really just about any veteran that could help. Without Thybulle, Furkan Korkmaz and Tyrese Maxey in the second half, the Sixers don’t stage their comeback.
In addition to Thybulle’s defense, he also hit an enormous floater over T.J. McConnell for an and-one. It put the Sixers up four late and just about sealed the game. Korkmaz, who has been a little slow to get getting since returning from injury, scored 11 of his 17 points in the fourth. McConnell and Aaron Holiday’s ball pressure seemed to pester the Sixers’ guards early, but Maxey did well to use his speed to get the Sixers’ offense on course.
As we get closer to the March 25 trade deadline, Morey may still opt to look for more veteran players to fill out the roster. For one night, all three of these young players were huge factors in a big win.