PHILADELPHIA—The Bulls were the lone team Philadelphia 76ers All-Star Joel Embiid hadn't played against in his four-year career, but Fred Hoiberg was acquainted with Embiid’s unique skill set from their collegiate days.
The two have taken disparate paths from Hoiberg’s days at Iowa State and Embiid’s lone season at Kansas, where Embiid’s raw game produced 16 points, nine rebounds and five blocks in 28 minutes in a close Kansas win in Ames in January 2014.
Hoiberg gushed in recalling that game from Embiid, saying “he whooped our (butts). The performance he put on in our building was one of the best college performances I’ve ever seen. He did everything.”
Hoiberg’s words could have applied to another physical unicorn of sorts in Embiid’s rookie teammate Ben Simmons, as he dominated the Bulls from soup to nuts in a 115-101 final at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia on Wednesday night.
Simmons was two assists short of a triple-double in the first half before finishing with 19 points, 17 rebounds and 14 assists, pacing the 76ers to a 25-point lead in the third quarter.
Without Kris Dunn as a physical deterrent, Simmons took advantage of an indifferent Bulls defense that was perhaps still lagging from a double-overtime loss to New Orleans 48 hours ago.
The Bulls removed Jerian Grant from the starting lineup to start the second half, going with David Nwaba to try to use a bigger defender on Simmons—Hoiberg believed Grant was a bit fatigued from playing 48 minutes Monday and perhaps it showed in Grant’s 1 of 6 shooting night.
Either way, there was no stopping Simmons, a player the Bulls will have to contend with for the next several years as he figures out his game to match Embiid’s.
“I mean he’s just really big, can get to the middle,” Zach LaVine said. “Dishes, and you just don’t know what he’s going to do, attempt to score. Very indecisive with that, but they have a tough combo with him and Embiid man. You gotta really help off Embiid and [Simmons] cuts to the hoop, facilitates, they’re good.”
Simmons’ eyes and darting passes led to 16 3-point makes from the 76ers, who shot at least 50 percent from the field and 3-point line in an all-around consistent performance.
Embiid didn’t leave Hoiberg gushing, but he inflicted damage with his maturing game, taking advantage of his quickness against Robin Lopez and anyone else who dared step in his way.
He scored an easy 22 points in 32 minutes, giving a small glimpse offensively why he’s so dangerous but covering enough ground defensively to have the Bulls looking over their shoulders on the rare occasion they ventured into the paint.
It led to a sputtering Bulls offense that hit just 38 percent from the field and under 30 percent from the 3-point line, as Hoiberg was frustrated with the shot selection after the slow start.
“I just didn’t think our toughness was there,” Hoiberg said. “And then it just kind of became a 'my turn' shot. A guy took a bad one and we said, ‘If he’s going to take a bad one, then I’m going to take a bad one.’”
Nikola Mirotic has always had the green light since his return, putting up 15 shots in 26 minutes. But Hoiberg didn’t seem pleased with the type of shots LaVine wound up with in his 24 minutes.
“The mid-range, contested pullups when he doesn’t retreat with his dribble and make a decisive move, that’s what we gotta get rid of,” Hoiberg said. “I saw some of that tonight.”
LaVine is walking the fine line between incorporating himself into the team’s free-flowing offense while also doing what he does best, creating his own shot with his quick first step.
It seems there’s a balance to be found with letting the game come to him and LaVine going out and getting it—especially as he operates under the current minute limits.
It’s a “process,” one would say.
“No doubt he can hit shots,” Hoiberg said. “Philadelphia’s a switch team, so he had a couple really good attacks on the switch. Last week he settled. It was good to see him get to the rim.”
LaVine scored a season-high 21 points, finding a rhythm in the second half, right behind Bobby Portis’ 22 points and 10 rebounds for team-high honors. He didn’t agree with Hoiberg’s ‘your turn, my turn’ assessment.
“I think just everybody was trying to help get back in it,” LaVine said. “I don’t think it was a selfish-type thing. It was more of things aren’t going the right way, I’m going to help dig us out of it, and it didn’t work.”
He admitted, though, the slow start isn’t something the Bulls can afford at this stage. Usually, they’ve been the aggressors early on in the last several weeks.
“We just didn’t come out the right way,” LaVine said. “Didn’t knock down shots at first, that didn’t help, but I just felt like we had that type of juice that we usually come out of the game with. We’re not good enough to come out and mess around like that, so we gotta bring that energy every time.”
One thing LaVine, Hoiberg and anybody watching the Bulls will agree on, the mismatched lineups and lack of overall continuity won’t be aided on nights when effort is a concern.
“We really aren’t to that point where we can turn it on at any time,” LaVine said. “We haven’t even gelled that much together as a team yet, so regardless, we’ve gotta go out there and play for one another, and compete.”