76ers

In a shootout, Ben Simmons comes up with huge defensive plays to seal Sixers' win over Pacers

In a shootout, Ben Simmons comes up with huge defensive plays to seal Sixers' win over Pacers

BOX SCORE

This had the makings of a low-scoring affair between two of the best defensive teams in the league.

Instead, we got a thrilling shootout, as the Sixers outlasted the Pacers in a 119-116 win at the Wells Fargo Center Saturday night.

Ben Simmons' picked off an errant pass from T.J. Warren, led the fast break and dished it to Tobias Harris for a dunk to put the Sixers up 115-114 with 9.9 seconds left. This came after Harris made two costly mistakes — fouling Warren on a three and making a poor entry pass to Joel Embiid.

It was Simmons again who picked off the inbounds pass on the ensuing possession. Harris was fouled with 5.1 seconds left and converted both free throws. With the score at 119-116, it was Simmons yet again who thwarted Indiana's desperation attempt with a steal.

The Sixers stay perfect at home (9-0) and improve to 14-6 overall. They host the Jazz Monday night.

Here are observations from the win.

Attack mode

We all expect Embiid to come out aggressive, and he did so Saturday. Myles Turner was called for two quick fouls. Domantas Sabonis, who plays him tough, isn’t quite strong enough to keep Embiid out of the paint and wound up fouling out with 1:54 left in the game. Indiana started the game by not doubling at all. As it went on, Nate McMillan began to do it more, but not enough as Embiid still finished with 32 points, 11 rebounds and four assists.

It was also a positive sign for the Sixers to see Simmons and Harris attacking the basket, though Simmons didn't shoot particularly well from the field. 

Harris probably had a couple shots that he normally makes not go down early, but he was looking for his own shot. He came up big in the fourth with a couple timely buckets while the offense was stagnant. The pick-and-roll with Embiid is looking like it may be a go-to action for the Sixers. Harris had 14 of his 22 points in the fourth.

As for Simmons, this Pacers team is good but represents a favorable matchup for him with no ideal player to guard him. His finishing at the rim just needs to get better as he went just 4 of 13 from the field. He did have 13 assists.

Both Embiid and Simmons were looking for contact and drawing fouls. They combined to go 11 of 11 from the line in the first half. The difference in the game wound up being free throws, as the Sixers held a sizeable advantage, going 32 of 36 while the Pacers went 21 of 25.

Lots of offense

When the Sixers have played well this season, most of the time it’s because of their defense. In the first half, their offense was humming. They were moving the ball and working it inside-out. As Embiid was getting double teamed, he was doing a decent job recognizing it and his teammates were making the Pacers pay.

The Sixers followed up one their finest quarters of the season in the first — in which they had just one team turnover (a shot clock violation) — with an abysmal second. After the Sixers won the first quarter 38-29, Indiana flipped the script and the teams went into the half tied at 65-65. Both teams shot the ball exceptionally well on the night.

The Pacers ran more pick-and-roll to start the second half and the Sixers didn’t handle it particularly well to start the third. The duo of Malcolm Brogdon and Warren burned them all night as they went for a combined 57 points.

Coming into tonight’s game, these were two of the best defensive teams in the NBA. You wouldn’t have known that for most of this one.

But when it mattered, Simmons came up with two enormous defensive plays to seal the win.

Plenty of whistles

In the first quarter, Brown was hit with a technical after he disagreed with a call on Simmons defending Jeremy Lamb. In the second, Embiid was hit for a Flagrant 1 when he came down hard on Sabonis on a shot attempt underneath. Then in the third, Simmons was hit for a T.

In the case of Embiid’s flagrant, it appeared to be the right call. As for the two techs, the whistles seemed to come awfully quick. Not sure what was said, but obviously the official did not take too kindly to it.

T.J.’s return

T.J. McConnell got a tribute video and got a nice applause from the Wells Fargo Center crowd. When he checked in for the first time in the first quarter, he immediately went over to Brown and gave him a hug.

On the court, it was an interesting matchup between McConnell and one of the players that replaced him, Raul Neto. McConnell had six points and three assists in his return to the Wells Fargo Center.

Ennis appreciation observation

What else can you say about the job James Ennis has done off the bench recently? Coming off a 20-point performance Friday night in New York, Ennis again gave the Sixers excellent minutes. He hit shots, made a couple plays off the dribble and played hard-nosed defense. He was in the game down the stretch along with the regular four starters. This looks like the guy that came up so huge in the Toronto series — maybe even better.

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Brett Brown makes it clear what he wants from Ben Simmons

Brett Brown makes it clear what he wants from Ben Simmons

Ben Simmons had arguably the finest game of his young NBA career. He set a career high in points (34) and made his second NBA three. He also made 9 of 12 from the free throw line.

Yes, it was against a bad team in disarray in the Cavaliers who the Sixers crushed in a 141-94 win at the Wells Fargo Center Saturday night (see observations).

But it showed us the blueprint of what Brett Brown is looking for out of his All-Star point guard.

This is what I want, OK — you can pass this along to his agent, his family and his friends and to him — I want a three-point shot a game, minimum. The pull-up twos, I'm fine with whenever he's open but I'm interested in the three-point shot. And the mentality that he has where he's turning corners and taking that long step, that gather step and bringing his shoulders to the rim and trying to dunk or finish tight, will equal higher efficiency or getting fouled. That's the world that interests me the most — those two things. And when you say, 'OK, what's the number?' I immediately throw out eight [free throws]. For whatever reason, I'm not sure, but that's a number that I think is attainable.

After an abysmal performance Thursday night where he was indecisive and turned the ball over seven times, Simmons was the complete opposite against Cleveland.

Missing Joel Embiid and Josh Richardson, the Sixers needed this version of Simmons. He attacked the rim, got to the line, hit midrange jumpers and, of course, made another three.

But what happens if/when Embiid returns to the lineup in a juicy matchup against the Raptors Sunday night? The pair have always been an imperfect fit with Simmons’ ability to push the basketball and Embiid’s dominance on the block.

If the evolution of Simmons’ game is what we saw Saturday, it could go a long in way in the duo figuring things out.

“Just learning with Jo,” Simmons said. “It’s great to have somebody like that that’s so dominant and helping him with the double teams, and just putting him in the best position to help us win games. So, having him back tomorrow is going to be great.”

For the record, there’s been no official update on Embiid, who missed the game against the Cavs with a left hip contusion.

But one the biggest things that could help Embiid navigate double teams and aid him against his boogeyman Marc Gasol is Simmons consistently attempting outside shots.

Much like the first three of his NBA career, Simmons reacted as if he’d hit 1,000 before it.

“What do you want me to do? Jump up and celebrate?”

Simmons has taken two legitimate threes this season and buried both, so the confidence isn't totally irrational. If it gets to the point where it truly isn’t newsworthy that Simmons hits a three, look out.

While Brown has been careful not to make too big a fuss over it and chosen his words carefully when talking about Simmons shooting, he couldn’t help but ponder what it would mean for Simmons — and for his basketball team as a whole.

I think the drama of it is overblown,” Brown said. “The reality that he can shoot and it ultimately, it's going to need to come into his game in a more pronounced way just from an attempt standpoint, that's not overblown. I think the drama surrounding it is completely overblown. When I just put on my coaching hat and I'm looking at a 23-year-old young man trying to grow his game, it's completely — first in his wheelhouse and secondly, he will be liberated. His world will open up. And I think, in many ways, so will ours.

His coach gave him the blueprint. Now it’s up to Simmons to implement it.

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Ben Simmons sets career high — AND makes another 3 — on record-setting night for Sixers

Ben Simmons sets career high — AND makes another 3 — on record-setting night for Sixers

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When talking with reporters after games, one of Ben Simmons’ go-to phrases is “locked in." He certainly fit that description Saturday night, requiring only 26 minutes to grab the game by the scruff of its neck.

Simmons recorded a career-high 34 points on 12 of 14 shooting (9 of 12 from the foul line) in a 141-94 Sixers win over the 5-17 Cavs that included the Australian's second regular-season NBA three-pointer.

The Sixers are now 16-7 and 11-0 at home. A much more challenging matchup awaits them Sunday when the defending champion Raptors come to town (6 p.m./NBCSP).

Josh Richardson (right hamstring tightness) and Joel Embiid (left hip contusion) were out, but the Sixers still ran into minimal resistance in dismantling the Cavs. Richardson will miss Sunday’s game as well, which will be his sixth straight absence, though a team spokesperson said before the game that the guard participated in a full-court workout Saturday. 

Here are observations from the Sixers’ blowout win: 

It happened … again 

The reaction to Simmons’ three approached the ecstasy over his long range jumper from the right corner on Nov. 20 vs. the Knicks.

It’s clear that the sight of Simmons knocking down a three is still nowhere close to normal. 

With the Sixers well on their way to an easy victory against an inferior opponent, Simmons had nothing to lose. Of course, he hasn’t previously had the same attitude in similar situations. 

Simmons spearheads historic first half 

Before the fervor inside the Wells Fargo Center on his three, Simmons was determined to put his imprint on the game early. He scored eight of the Sixers’ first 10 points, with a righty hook shot sandwiched in between two dunks and a layup.

He had 26 first-half points on 11 of 12 shooting.

One would have to look awfully hard to find anything wrong or troubling with the first half for the Sixers as they led by more points at the break than the Cavs had scored, holding a 77-36 advantage. Simmons defended second-year guard Collin Sexton well, Kevin Love missed a few open looks, Cleveland misfired on its first 11 field goal attempts and things never got much better for them. 

The Sixers’ point guard towered over Cleveland’s undersized backcourt and at times didn’t look like he belonged in the same league. He increased his NBA lead in steals with two, and he also added two blocks.

As a team, the Sixers shot 32 for 45 (71.1 percent) in the opening half and only turned it over four times. Their 25 assists were the most by any NBA team in a half this season. It was the ideal response to Thursday’s sloppy loss in Washington, D.C, in which they turned it over 21 times. 

Before Saturday night, the Sixers had never outscored an opponent in a half by more than 36 points in franchise history. They led Cleveland by 41 at the half. The 47-point win is tied for the Sixers' third-largest ever. 

Scott starts and rediscovers his shot 

Mike Scott started for the first time this season, his 12th NBA start in 459 regular-season appearances. He came in shooting an ice-cold 20.6 percent from the floor and 18.5 percent from three-point range over the Sixers’ last eight games, but an opportunity against the lowly Cavs allowed him to rediscover his offensive game. 

Scott’s first points came on a post-up against 19-year-old rookie guard Darius Garland, a mismatch which Al Horford encouraged him to exploit with a pass to Scott down low followed by a few deliberate nods of the head.

From there, Scott was looking to score, even after picking up two fouls within the first four minutes. He finished with 21 points on 9 of 12 shooting (3 for 5 from three).

Though Scott’s toughness and authenticity are part of why the Sixers like having him on their bench, one of the most important aspects of his value is simply the ability to hit open shots.

Thybulle leaves early

Matisse Thybulle, who went scoreless in nine first-half minutes, was ruled out in the third quarter after rolling his right ankle.

We’ll provide more information on Thybulle’s status as it becomes available, but the decision to hold him out of a game that was long past the point of being competitive does not seem too concerning on its surface. 

Taking care of business 

This loss was the Cavs’ 12th in 13 games. Players are “bristling” about John Belein’s coaching style, according to a report from The Athletic’s Shams Charania and Joe Vardon, and the team is ready to listen to trade offers for Love, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

Love abstained from one third-quarter huddle during a timeout, choosing to stand near the basket with an exasperated expression instead of join his teammates. 

In short, the Sixers will face far more unified and talented opponents this season. The Cavs did not play with much apparent effort or skill Saturday night, on the second night of a back-to-back. 

The Sixers were supposed to blow out the Cavs, and they did. It would be stunning if they did not face a greater challenge Sunday. 

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