Sixers overcome Wizards' Hack-a-Ben strategy to end homestand

Sixers overcome Wizards' Hack-a-Ben strategy to end homestand


“Hack-a-Ben” has officially started.

The Wizards tried to claw their way back into Wednesday's game against the Sixers by stalling the offense and sending Ben Simmons, who has struggled with free throws, to the line.

For 24 attempts in the fourth quarter. 

“It’s not going to happen for that much longer,” Simmons said after the Sixers’ 118-113 win (see observations). “I’m going to knock them down.”

Simmons entered the game shooting 56.6 percent from the line, a glaring contrast to his near-triple-double average. He had gone 3 for 5 through three quarters before the Wizards began to foul him as they trailed by 12 with 6:23 remaining.

The strategy continued for the next four minutes. The Sixers did not shoot a single field goal during that span. Their only other look came from a pair of free throw attempts by Joel Embiid. Meanwhile, the Wizards cut the Sixers’ lead to five points by the time Simmons went to the line for the final time. 

“I’m going to look at our defense,” Brett Brown said. “This is where the story should be told. There is a subtitle with this underneath Ben Simmons. This is all true. But they had 48 points in the [fourth] period.”

The exposure of a player’s weakness forces the coach to weigh whether he should leave him in and possibly miss shots or take him out to erase the opponent’s game plan. Brown had confidence in Simmons, who put up a mammoth double-double of 31 points and 18 rebounds in 41 minutes (see highlights). Simmons settled into a rhythm to drain six of his final eight free throw attempts, including five straight. In all, the rookie shot 15 for 29 from the stripe (51.7 percent) and the team made 41 of 64 (64.1 percent).

“We’ve done it ourselves,” Brown said of intentionally fouling. “Then you’re in a decision, do you take him out of the game or do you roll with him? And tonight, we decided to roll with Ben. And it’s going to be part of his evolution. He’s going to have a long career. He’s going to have to learn to navigate through this.”

It’s one thing to foul a player to stop him from scoring. It’s another to foul to stop an opponent from running its offense. Either way, it’s allowed by the NBA and a tactic implemented by teams around the league. 

The Wizards fouled Simmons for the last time with 2:23 left. The NBA implemented a rule in 2016 to curb the intentional fouling in the final two minutes. This game went two hours and 35 minutes, 29 minutes longer than the Sixers’ previous game against the Cavs. 

“It’s frustrating but you can’t do anything about it,” Embiid said. “That’s on Ben to step up and make free throws. I thought he did a great job of doing it and closing the game out.”

The Sixers are ready if opponents continue the “Hack-a-Ben” plan. They know they have to clamp down on defense if they can't get into their offense, and Simmons knows what he has to do avoid being targeted. 

"I step up," Simmons said. "I have no fear of taking free throws."

Who needs Kawhi? Aldridge drops 45 in Spurs' OT win

USA Today Images

Who needs Kawhi? Aldridge drops 45 in Spurs' OT win

SAN ANTONIO -- LaMarcus Aldridge had a career-high 45 points, helping San Antonio overcome Donovan Mitchell's 35-point performance for Utah in the Spurs' 124-120 overtime victory over the Jazz on Friday night.

The Spurs won their sixth straight and beat the Jazz for the first time in four meetings this season.

Utah's 12-game road winning streak came to an end, but only after Mitchell had 14 points in the fourth quarter, including three 3-pointers in the final two minutes to force overtime.

San Antonio remained sixth in the Western Conference with the same record as fifth-place New Orleans, a half-game behind Oklahoma City for fourth. Utah remained eighth in the West.

After free throws by Spurs guards Manu Ginobili and Patty Mills and a dunk by Jazz center Rudy Gobert put San Antonio up 114-111, Mitchell drained his third 3-pointer of the fourth with 3.6 seconds remaining to force overtime.

Mills, who finished with 23 points, had six points in overtime as the Spurs capped an undefeated six-game homestand.

Pacers use late run to edge Clippers
INDIANAPOLIS -- Bojan Bogdanovic scored 28 points and the Indiana Pacers used a late 9-0 run to hold on for a 109-104 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers on Friday night, putting them on the precipice of clinching a playoff spot.

The Pacers won for only the second time in five games but can clinch a playoff berth with one more win or a Detroit loss.

Los Angeles' fading playoff aspirations were dealt another blow. The Clippers are now three games behind Utah for the final postseason spot in the Western Conference. Utah was playing later Friday.

Lou Williams led Los Angeles with 27 points and DeAndre Jordan finished with 14 points and 11 rebounds as the Clippers lost for the fifth time in six games (see full recap).

Jokic, Murray lift Nuggets over Wizards
WASHINGTON -- Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray each scored 25 points to keep the Denver Nuggets' playoff hopes alive by beating the Washington Wizards 108-100 on Friday night.

The one-two punch of Jokic and Murray plus outside shooting from Will Barton allowed the Nuggets to withstand a third-quarter charge from the Wizards and maintain their sights on one of the final two playoff spots in the Western Conference. Denver went into the night two games back of the Minnesota Timberwolves and Utah Jazz and shot 50 percent from 3-point territory to stay very much in the race with nine games remaining.

Bradley Beal led Washington with 24 points as it failed to gain ground in a competitive East where five teams are separated in the standings by four games (see full recap).

Brett Brown's top competition for Coach of the Year

USA Today Images

Brett Brown's top competition for Coach of the Year

The Coach of the Year award in every sport typically comes down to: 

1. Which team overachieved the most?

2. Which team increased its win total the most?

3. Which team that fits both descriptions has a media-friendly coach?

Brett Brown is a deserving candidate this season. Not saying he'll win, or even that he stands out as the most deserving, but he's more than just "in the conversation."

Before getting to the other candidates and their likelihood of winning, let's acknowledge why Brown deserves serious consideration. 

We all knew the Sixers would be better this season. A second year of Joel Embiid and the first of Embiid and Ben Simmons. Finally, a good veteran shooter in JJ Redick.

But did you expect the Sixers to up their win total by 20 games? Currently, that's what they're on pace to do.

Did you expect them to pick up wins over the Rockets, Spurs, Celtics, Raptors, Cavs and Spurs again? Yeah, the Sixers have laid some eggs this season, but they have just as many high-quality wins.

Factor in the continued development of players like Dario Saric and T.J. McConnell and it should be clear that Brown has gotten a whole lot out of this team.

Now, on to the other candidates. The way I see it, there are six in addition to Brown: 

• Dwane Casey (Raptors)
• Nate McMillan (Pacers)
• Brad Stevens (Celtics)
• Mike D'Antoni (Rockets)
• Quin Snyder (Jazz)
• Doc Rivers (Clippers)

Just being realistic here, I think Casey wins it. The Raptors will be the 1-seed in the East and may even end up with the NBA's second-best record given the Warriors' injury report.

It goes beyond that, though. Toronto revamped its system to place less stress on Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. The result has been the emergence of the NBA's best bench. DeRozan is also now shooting threes, a big benefit to the Raps' spacing.

Lastly, Casey is a media darling. He's done the podcast circuit this season, and his long tenure as a personable NBA assistant will help him with voters.

Nate McMillan
McMillan's Pacers have overachieved, but that has so much more to do with Victor Oladipo than anything else. That's not meant to discredit McMillan, but the gap between expectations and reality for Oladipo is the reason the Pacers have surprised. Unless the Pacers finish several games ahead of the Sixers, I can't see McMillan finishing ahead of Brown.

Brad Stevens
The Celtics have faded of late, mostly because of mounting injuries to their backcourt. Stevens deserves a ton of credit for keeping this team 25-plus games over .500 with so many young pieces, but he won't finish ahead of Casey.

Doc Rivers
Rivers' case is dependent on whether or not the Clippers make the playoffs. The Clips, based on talent alone, have no business being 38-33 in a loaded West. They just play extremely hard and have been maybe the hungriest NBA team this season — so many contributions from guys on two-way contracts.

But LA is now 2½ games out of the 8-seed, so we can almost close the book on Rivers for COY.

Mike D'Antoni
The Rockets have been the best team this season and D'Antoni is a huge reason why. The Chris Paul addition is a bigger reason why, but the Rockets are where they are because of how Paul has been integrated into D'Antoni's system, and because Houston is finally focused on defense. D'Antoni should finish in the top three of the Coach of the Year voting, but it's hard to win when you add a veteran superstar in the offseason.

Predicted order of finish: Casey, Brown, Snyder, D'Antoni, Stevens, McMillan, Rivers