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Tracking Ben Simmons' development shows encouraging signs for future

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Tracking Ben Simmons' development shows encouraging signs for future

An obvious narrative after the Sixers' loss Wednesday night to the Raptors, their 13th straight in Toronto, is that the team’s young stars still aren’t “ready for prime time,” still aren't capable of competing against the elite class of the NBA. 

Though Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons performed below expectations, one game is not proof that both players aren’t good enough to help the Sixers win late-round playoff series.

Embiid is in a mini-slump over the past three games but Simmons has shown noticeable development. Over the last nine games, he’s averaging 17 points, 8.7 assists, 8.6 rebounds, and shooting 62.6 percent from the floor. 

There are still legitimate questions about whether his game, specifically his lack of a jump shot, will be as effective in the postseason. Yet there are a few positive signs for Simmons in this recent stretch. Perhaps the most encouraging is his well-documented chemistry with Jimmy Butler.

Butler brings out the best in Simmons

With Butler in the fold, we’ve seen more of Simmons as a screener in the pick-and-roll. His size and strength make him difficult to stop in that role, and he’s finally getting to play with a competent perimeter pick-and-roll player in Butler. 

Butler and Simmons already appear to have a nuanced understanding of each other on the floor. On this play from Sunday's win over the Grizzlies, JJ Redick sets a clever back screen for Butler, and Simmons hits Butler with the lob.

Overall, Simmons has 27 assists to Butler in their first 11 games together. Butler has shot 40 for 80 on passes from Simmons.

It’s not as if Toronto snuffed out that chemistry. Simmons had four assists on Wednesday to Butler, who shot 8 for 11 off Simmons’ passes. This play below received the most attention for Simmons’ innovative behind-the-back pass, and for good reason. But it's also worth noting Butler stealthily cutting behind a good defender in Danny Green, who seemed mesmerized by Simmons’ moves, and giving Simmons an outlet.

Simmons’ efficiency in the post has been his biggest area of improvement this season.

He was poor in that category as a rookie, averaging 0.69 points per possession on post-ups, which was worse than 83.3 percent of players in the NBA.

This season, all of Simmons’ relevant numbers are much better in the post. He’s posting up more (12.4 percent frequency vs. 9.2 percent); getting to the free throw line a ton more (29.4 percent free throw frequency vs. 11.5 percent); and as you’d expect, scoring at a higher rate (1.0 points per possession vs. 0.69).

Butler’s presence on the perimeter gives Simmons more space in the post, and his ability as a cutter helps Simmons make the most of his unique point-forward skills. 

What to make of Simmons' struggles in Toronto

On Oct. 30 in Toronto, Simmons had a career-high 11 turnovers. There were plenty of plays like the one below, in which Simmons flew into the lane, realized he was in no man’s land, and forced a bad pass.

Simmons had seven turnovers Wednesday night. It’s better than 11, but it’s nothing to be thrilled about. 

A few of those turnovers were not unique to Simmons or his style of play — no matter how careful you are with the ball, chances are Kawhi Leonard is going to strip it away from you one or two times.

Simmons also had two offensive fouls, one on a moving screen, one while trying to establish post position. You can live with those kinds of turnovers.

What Simmons still needs to clean up are the plays where he attempts to make the perfect pass, like the one below. Butler has the right idea with his backdoor cut but there’s no window for Simmons to thread the ball through against a rangy defender like Pascal Siakam.

Against elite teams such as Toronto, Simmons can’t create as many plays simply by virtue of being a special athlete.

He tracked Marshon Brooks from behind and made a sensational steal Sunday night vs. the Grizzlies.

On the following play in Toronto, Simmons is freed up for an easy lay-up by Redick’s back screen. After his miss, he finds his way back into the play to tail Leonard. Unlike Brooks, Leonard doesn’t allow Simmons to make an improbable steal.

Without the luxury of a consistent, gaping athletic advantage against most playoff teams, Simmons will need to sharpen the other parts of his game — continuing to improve his post play; increasing his free throw percentage; cutting down on his turnovers; and maintaining the "defensive accountability" Brett Brown has seen from Simmons since Butler's arrival. 

In the long term, there’s zero doubt a jump shot would help. For the time being, though, Simmons is 3 for 24 on field goal attempts greater than 10 feet.

In the short term, he can maximize his efficiency if he keeps moving in the right direction with the other parts of his game.
 
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Sixers know Blazers 'beat our a--' but team needs to move on quickly

Sixers know Blazers 'beat our a--' but team needs to move on quickly

Well, that wasn’t pretty.

Without Joel Embiid, the Sixers were beat up on the boards, 53-33, with 19 of those 53 coming on the offensive glass. They were yet again exposed defensively in the pick-and-roll, allowing a 41-point third quarter. 

It all added up to a 130-115 beatdown by the Blazers at the Wells Fargo Center Saturday afternoon (see observations).

Missing the league’s third-leading rebounder against the league’s second-best rebounding team isn’t ideal, but the Sixers weren’t prepared to use that excuse.

“I think as a team collectively we just didn’t rebound good enough against a team like this,” Ben Simmons said. “It’s a group effort, rebounding, and I think just all of us combined, I don’t think we did enough. Obviously we didn’t do enough.”

The shame of such a dreadful effort is that it took away from one of the best performances of Simmons’ young NBA career. The All-Star made a concerted effort to attack the basket early, posting up on some of Portland’s smaller defenders.

The results were impressive: a season-high 29 points on 11 of 17 shooting, 10 assists and seven rebounds. And those numbers weren’t hollow in the sense that he was excellent from the opening tip. 

Tobias Harris (20 points) and Jimmy Butler (15 points) were also solid. It was the play of the supporting cast that hurt.

JJ Redick made just one field goal on 10 shots. The seven-point performance ended his career-high 64-game double-figure point streak.

After a fantastic game against Miami on Thursday, Boban Marjanovic was exposed mightily against the Blazers. Portland was able to pick on Marjanovic in pick-and-rolls with All-Star guard Damian Lillard and center Jusuf Nurkic. 

Whether it was Marjanovic, Amir Johnson — who oddly supplanted Jonah Bolden in the second half — or Mike Scott when the Sixers went small, it didn’t matter. Nurkic and new backup center Enes Kanter killed the Sixers, combining for 40 points and 18 rebounds.

Despite a significant offensive rebounding gap, the Sixers found themselves down by just three at halftime. Then they allowed the Blazers to shoot 63 percent in a 41-point third period.

Embiid’s absence hurts, but the Sixers had enough talent on the floor to not turn in such a poor defensive effort.

 “Clearly we miss Joel,” Harris said. “There’s no getting around that. He’s a big piece to our team, but we don’t have him right now and we have to be able to get efforts from everybody else on the team.”

In two games against Portland without Embiid, the Sixers have lost by a combined 49 points. 

What can the Sixers take away from a drubbing by the Blazers without Embiid? Not much. They're neck-and-neck with the Celtics and just behind the Pacers for the third seed in the East. 

The only thing they can really do is move on to the Pelicans — who may or may not have All-NBA big Anthony Davis in the lineup — in a road matchup on Monday night. Their focus should be there, not on Portland.

“Learn and get better from it,” Butler said. “Put it behind us. What else can you do? They beat our a-- twice.”

Butler, who was as somber as we’ve seen after a loss, was asked why this lost seemed to sting so much.

“Because they beat our a-- twice. Easily, too.”

On to New Orleans.

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Blazers 130, Sixers 115: Without Joel Embiid, Sixers beat up on glass, scoreboard

Blazers 130, Sixers 115: Without Joel Embiid, Sixers beat up on glass, scoreboard

BOX SCORE

Joel Embiid's absence was certainly felt on Saturday.

Without the All-Star center, the Sixers were beat up on the glass and on the scoreboard in a 130-115 loss to the Blazers in a matinee at the Wells Fargo Center.

This one wasn't pretty. The sold out crowd started clearing their seats with a little over five minutes left in the third.

The loss drops the Sixers to 24-8 at home and 38-22 overall.

Here are observations from the loss.

• Defense — especially from a communication standpoint with new pieces — continues to be an issue at times, but in the first half, the Sixers were solid in this one, holding Portland to 41 percent shooting. In the second half, Blazers coach Terry Stotts exposed more mismatches and the Sixers didn't have answers, letting Portland shoot 63 percent in a 41-point third quarter.

• What hurt most in the first half was the Blazers hitting the offensive glass. Portland grabbed an incredible 14 offensive rebounds before halftime. Overall, the Blazers outrebounded the Sixers, 53-33. Boban Marjanovic seems to struggle in controlling rebounds. What also hurt was when Marjanovic got in pick-and-roll situations with Damian Lillard and Jusuf Nurkic. On those plays, Marjanovic is scrambling defensively, which hurts him on the boards.

• In general, Nurkic gave Marjanovic a hard time. Brett Brown actually went to Amir Johnson, fresh off his stint with the Delaware Blue Coats on Friday night, early in the third quarter to try to mitigate some of the defensive issues … it did not help. Brown also tried tried to go small, going with Mike Scott at the five, also with poor results. It was odd that Brown didn't go back to Jonah Bolden, who was solid defensively in the first half.

Nurkic went for 24 points and 10 rebounds and new backup Enes Kanter went for 16 points and eight rebounds.

• Things normally go well for Ben Simmons when he’s aggressive and looking for his shot early. He did so in this one and picked up where he left off against the Heat, where he punished them in the post.

He attacked Portland’s smaller guards early and often and it seemed to help him get into the flow of the game.

He also took another mid-range jumper from the left wing that was in and out. It looked like he thought about pulling up from three, but took a couple dribbles in and pulled up. In that situation, he’s probably better off taking the three and looking to get the extra point on a low-percentage shot.

Despite the loss, Simmons was good in this one, finishing with 29 points (11 of 17), 10 assists and seven rebounds. It's a shame one of his better NBA performances was wasted in a blowout.

• During the All-Star break, Simmons referred to Tobias Harris as a “silent assassin" while on ESPN’s The Jump. It’s such a perfect way to put it. There’s nothing flashy to Harris’ game, he’s just really, really good.

As much as having an experienced backup five like Boban Marjanovic can help mitigate the absence of Embiid — obviously not on Saturday — it’s even more crucial that the Sixers have another elite scorer like Harris. He’s stepped up with the All-Star center out the last two games. It wasn't enough, but he was also big, recording 20 points (8 of 14, 3 of 7 from three) and eight rebounds.

• Jimmy Butler’s aggressiveness offensively is certainly a good sign for the Sixers. He scored the first two buckets of the game for the Sixers and looked to get to the basket frequently.

The amount of body control he has in the air is insane. On one play, T.J. McConnell attempted an alley-oop but the pass was a little too high for Butler to finish. Butler was able to gather it, come down with it, dribble from underneath the basket and get an easy basket on the other side of the rim.

Butler had 15 points (5 of 9). The Sixers' three stars were all good in this one. Everyone else ... not so much.

• JJ Redick went to the All-Star break playing some of his best basketball, shooting 48 percent from three over the 11 games prior to the break. In his first two after the break, he's really struggled. He was just 4 for 12 (3 of 10 from three) on Thursday vs. Miami. Those struggles continued Saturday as Redick scored just seven points on 1 of 10 (1 of 5 from three).

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