“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."