5 biggest takeaways from the Sixers' scrimmages

5 biggest takeaways from the Sixers' scrimmages

The Sixers wrapped up their three-game scrimmage slate with an overtime loss to the Mavericks. The team’s 1-2 record is irrelevant. 

What is relevant is how the Sixers played in those contests and what it means going into their first seeding game Saturday against the Pacers. 

There were dominant moments and encouraging signs throughout the scrimmages. Let’s take a look at a few takeaways ahead of the games that count in the standings.

The ascension of Ben Simmons

During the first two scrimmages, Ben Simmons looked like the best player on the floor. Sure, the three he hit in the Grizzlies game was good to see, but his overall play was excellent. He averaged 11.5 points, nine rebounds, nine assists and two steals in less than 25 minutes a game against Memphis and Oklahoma City.

While the move to the four seems like it could unlock more of Simmons’ potential and allow him to play more freely, there are going to be bumps along the way. Against the Mavericks, Simmons struggled from the field (2 of 10) and had just two assists in under 20 minutes. Simmons did have issues finishing around the basket, but the team’s horrendous shooting start — 26.3 percent in the first half — also hurt him.

That’s in stark contrast to the first two scrimmages where the Sixers shot the ball extremely well when their regulars were playing. Simmons has the ability to take over games, but to an extent that’s contingent on his teammates making shots.

Defensively, Simmons was exceptional in all three games. While he struggled offensively against Dallas, he was tasked with guarding potential MVP candidate Luke Doncic. Just like in their previous matchup, Simmons frustrated Doncic like few players can. Simmons has become one of the most dominant defensive players in the NBA.

Joel Embiid’s health

After just 13 minutes of action against Memphis, Embiid left the game with discomfort in his right calf. He then missed the final two scrimmages with what’s being described as right calf tightness. The team has said it’s precautionary and Brett Brown has repeated that message. Brown also said his expectation is that Embiid will be available for Saturday’s game.

It’s fair to be skeptical. Embiid’s health has been a constant issue since the Sixers drafted him. We’d heard about the great shape he’d kept himself in, working out six days a week. It’s understandable if you’re discouraged by his inability to play more than 13 minutes during the “preseason.”

But at the same time, the Sixers can’t take any chances. The injury occurred last Friday, meaning Embiid will have had a full week’s rest before Saturday’s game against Indiana. There is nothing more important to the Sixers' chances of a deep playoff run than Embiid’s health. 

It would’ve been great to see Embiid play in the scrimmages and build chemistry with a new starting five, but let’s be real, those scrimmages don’t matter in the big picture. What matters is Embiid being healthy and in shape for the playoffs. He’ll have eight seeding games to work with.

Shake Milton is going to be just fine

We all rightfully made a big deal about Shake Milton being inserted into the starting lineup as the team’s point guard. In the three scrimmages, Milton looked solid. Shooting is the biggest thing Milton brings to the table, and he hit 5 of 11 from three in three games. He also showed chemistry with Simmons, albeit in a very small sample size.

The level of intensity will elevate when the seeding games begin and be ratcheted up even more when the playoffs start. Aside from his shooting ability, the second-year guard’s poise is likely his biggest asset. Brown mentioned after the game against Oklahoma City that he expects teams to try to play the 23-year-old aggressively in an effort to speed him up.

“The physicality today I thought equaled what you’d see from the Celtics or Toronto as an example,” Brown said. “And I think he’s coming around from that perspective, dealing with the physicality things and still getting us into things, I think well. And he’s going to have to. To be the sort of starting point guard with a team that’s pretty good, there’s a hell of lot of responsibility in that role.”

If we’ve learned anything about Milton, it’s that he’s tough to rattle. He’s passed this early test. Now, eight more await him before the postseason begins.

Bully ball defense

Coming into the season, Brown talked about playing “bully ball defense.” This roster was built to form a defensive identity, perhaps sacrificing an offensive identity in the process.

In all three scrimmages, the Sixers were stingy. During the first half of those games — when the regulars were playing — the Grizzlies (28.6), Thunder (36.7) and Mavericks (35.6) all struggled from the field against the Sixers. Dallas is one of the best three-point shooting teams in the NBA, currently sitting second in both makes and attempts per game. The Sixers, who allow the fewest makes and attempts per game in the league, held them to 5 of 17 in the first half and 7 of 26 through three quarters.

“We played pretty good defense when we had our core players in the game,” Brown said postgame Tuesday. “I think the first three periods of each of the games, I like what I’m seeing with our defense.”

Even with Milton in the starting lineup, the offense may still look clunky at times with a lack of shot creators. As Brown likes to say, defense is where his team’s bread will be buttered.

Winging it

There’s still going to be competition for wing minutes going forward, but Matisse Thybulle and Glenn Robinson III really seemed to separate themselves from the rest of the group.

Thybulle, who leads all rookies in steals this season, continued his disruptive ways, collecting eight steals in three scrimmages. Thybulle’s on-ball defense has also been excellent at times this season. The concerns will be with discipline and making shots. Thybulle committed just two fouls in the first two scrimmages but had five against the Mavericks. His shot was a little off (3 of 12 from three), but Thybulle can make such a big impact even when his shot isn’t falling.

“Part of his evolution, and it needs to be a quick evolution — I think he’s doing great — is just trying to be wiser,” Brown said Tuesday, “trying to be aware of clock situations or bonus situations where you’ve got to be a little bit more sort of patient with things evolving.

"And I think that he plays at such a pace and a speed, and for the most part he really does create havoc and good things happen, but I feel like with Luka or just his experience playing right before players come around, all those things add up to give me more confidence.”

As for Robinson, who missed Tuesday’s scrimmage with a left hip pointer, Brown has praised him throughout camp and the first two scrimmages. Robinson was extremely active against Memphis and Oklahoma City and he shot the ball well (3 of 4 from three). His athleticism has stood out, whether it’s on the fast break or as a cutter or hustling after loose balls.

Some questions need to be answered in the rotation, but Thybulle and Robinson should be a part of it.

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Trying to answer initial questions with Ben Simmons' knee injury

Trying to answer initial questions with Ben Simmons' knee injury

Updated: 8:42 p.m.

Ben Simmons is out for the Sixers’ seeding game Friday against the Orlando Magic with a left patella subluxation and there's not currently a timeline for his return as he considers treatment options. That news is clearly significant in the Sixers’ world, and it raises a range of questions. 

Let’s run through some of the bigger ones: 

What exactly is the injury? 

A simpler way to classify the injury is as a partial dislocation of the kneecap. 

How long will Simmons be out?

This is the largest question and still murky. Brett Brown on Thursday said “stuff is still being evaluated” and that he wasn’t in a position to offer a timeline. Presumably, factors such as the state of the ligaments around the knee could play a key role in determining how long Simmons is out. 

Outside of Simmons’ physical status, the team’s approach will be important. There’s no reason to put Simmons back on the court before he’s healthy. 

Shake Milton is hoping for a speedy return.

“It’s tough for us,” he said Thursday. “Ben is an incredible player, an incredible athlete. I don’t know, he’s like a freaking superhuman, so hopefully he’s able to heal super fast and get back on the court, because we definitely need him.”

How will the starting lineup change?

On March 11, the Sixers’ final pre-hiatus game, the team started Milton, Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris, Al Horford and Joel Embiid. That’s one possibility. The Horford-Embiid pairing is still the Sixers’ worst regular duo in terms of net rating despite having a plus-15.6 net rating in 40 minutes together at Disney World.

If Brown wants to prepare for a scenario in which Simmons is available and in the postseason starting five, he could keep Horford as the sixth man. He could instead turn to a wing such as Matisse Thybulle, Furkan Korkmaz or Glenn Robinson III, all of whom have started games for the Sixers this year. Robinson, who has missed the Sixers' first three seeding games with a left hip pointer, is doubtful for Friday's game. 

What about the rotation?

Robinson’s health is a relevant issue with the rotation, which Brown shrunk to nine players when the Sixers played the Wizards. Raul Neto didn’t play against Washington after seeing time in the first two seeding games.

It’s interesting to note that Neto started in Simmons’ place on Nov. 8 and Nov. 10 when the Australian was out with a shoulder injury. The circumstances were very different, however, as Milton was sidelined by a bone bruise and left knee sprain, leaving Neto and Trey Burke as the two main ball handlers on the roster. Trade deadline acquisition Alec Burks now appears ahead of Neto in the backup point guard pecking order, and Simmons’ injury should increase Burks' value a touch. 

As of Wednesday, Brown said his plan was still to have a nine-player rotation for the playoffs. 

What’s the intangible impact? 

When Simmons suffered a nerve impingement in his lower back on Feb. 22, Brown recalled him vomiting because of pain. He’s lauded Simmons often for the diligent rehabilitation he did to recover from that injury and be ready to go when play resumed amid a pandemic.

Injuries aren’t anything new to Brown, but he admitted it hurt some to learn about this one after witnessing the process of Simmons’ back rehabilitation. 

“It’s the life that we've lived since I have been in Philadelphia,” he said. “I’m sure every coach has some level of a similar story. This one stings, for sure. We all felt with the pandemic and are we going to play again, it obviously bought time for Ben — had the season kept going, it’s anybody’s best guess. In relation to being incredibly down about it, I’m not. When I think too long about it, probably I can go there.

“But I feel numb to it. I feel conditioned, that we’ve gone through this type of thing before. There is a level of faith that I have in the rest of the team that we can hold the fort until we hopefully get him back. But snakebitten, woe is me, I don’t go there.”

In addition to dealing with the disappointment of a star going down, the Sixers will have to tinker with ingredients like leadership that aren’t necessarily evident to an outsider.

“It’s going to be kind of everyone has to step up by committee,” Richardson said. “I think we have a few guys that can step up as leaders, who can step up and have big games for us. We don’t really like to put too much pressure on one or a few guys. Everybody’s going to step up in his absence.”

Can the Sixers manage without Simmons? 

Again, the lack of a timeline looms large here. We can say without question that the Sixers are 6-5 this season without Simmons and don’t have direct replacements for his elite defense, transition talents, creative passing and more.

It’s also logical that the Sixers will rely on Embiid defensively and feed him frequently in the post. His 34.4 percent usage rate so far in Florida may very well rise. 

“Offensively, he needs to get as many touches as we can get him,” Brown said. “And I think that one of the areas of most noticeable growth … is what he’s been doing passing out of the post. It’s maybe the single thing that stands out most to me offensively when you look at whether it’s Jo, or just us as a team — I like our post spacing.

“I like Jo’s unselfishness quarterbacking the gym. His ability to read where the double teams are coming from I think has been shown.”

Thybulle, Richardson, and perhaps Robinson when healthy could assume challenging defensive assignments that otherwise would have been Simmons’. Players like Harris and Korkmaz will miss Simmons’ ability to drive and set up three-pointers. 

Initially, the Sixers are coming to terms with the situation and hoping the injury doesn’t dent their playoff hopes.

“There’s a lot of moving parts right now and really we're all coming to grips with the news that we’ve received,” Brown said. 

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Sixers injury update: Ben Simmons has subluxation in left patella

Sixers injury update: Ben Simmons has subluxation in left patella

Updated: 8:37 p.m.

The injury Ben Simmons sustained in the Sixers' win Wednesday night over the Wizards is a subluxation of the left patella. He's out for the team's game Friday night against the Magic and treatment options are being considered.

Simmons exited Wednesday's game in the third quarter after throwing a pass for Al Horford. He immediately flexed his left knee and headed to the locker room.

Brett Brown was not prepared to give a timeline for how long Simmons will be sidelined.

"Some of the information is fluid, it’s still moving," he said Thursday. "In relation to saying any type of deadline, timeline, playoff, whatever, I’m not in a position to offer anything. Not because we don’t want to, but stuff is still being evaluated. What I do know — it’s boring, but we play Orlando tomorrow and we don’t have him. That’s kind of all I know at this point.”

The 24-year-old Simmons made his second All-Star team this season and has averaged 16.4 points, 8.0 assists and 7.8 rebounds. The Sixers shifted him to power forward in their new starting lineup, and he was open to the change.

"You've just gotta work with different things,” he said on July 14. “You’ve gotta try different things out, see if they work. We’re not at a stage where we can be comfortable yet. I’m still trying to figure it out myself ... what feels comfortable, what’s right for this team and how we’re gonna win. 

“If it’s this way, then I’m all for it. I’ve been having fun in that position — whatever you guys say, the four — whatever it is. But at the end of the day, when you see me I’m on the floor, I’m making plays."

He'd missed the Sixers' final eight games before the NBA's hiatus with a nerve impingement in his lower back but recovered from that injury and said he felt explosive heading into the restart. 

Without Simmons, Brown will have a few options to replace Simmons in the starting lineup, including original starting power forward Al Horford and wings Matisse Thybulle and Furkan Korkmaz.

Brown said he spoke with Simmons and Sixers medical director Scott Epsley on Wednesday night during a team dinner.

"There is clearly disappointment," Brown said, "because I don’t know if anybody really understood what he did to get ready to play basketball again. He really invested time, he really was diligent during the whole pandemic about recovery and rehab and strength and conditioning. ... And so I feel like there is certainly some disappointment, I think (there’s) the uncertainty of what really is it right now, is obviously there.

"But he’s a great teammate and his teammates care about him, and I think more will unfold, I suspect, in the next 24 hours where we can maybe provide more information.”

In other injury news, Mike Scott (right knee soreness) is questionable for Friday's game and Glenn Robinson III (left hip pointer) is doubtful. Both participate in the Sixers' practice Thursday after missing the team's first three seeding games. 

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