Sixers weekly observations: Ben Simmons striking the right balance, Joel Embiid's wide-ranging influence, more

Sixers weekly observations: Ben Simmons striking the right balance, Joel Embiid's wide-ranging influence, more

This week, all the speculation stopped. Well, most of it did anyway, at least the valid questions about what the Sixers would look like when Joel Embiid returned.

The Sixers (44-25) were far from perfect, but they still pulled off a 3-0 homestand with wins Sunday over the Pacers in Embiid's first game back, Tuesday vs. the Cavs in an uncomfortably close matchup, and Friday against the Kings.

Here are a few observations on the week:

• We all know and understand, on an intuitive level, how large an impact Embiid has. This week helped put the abstract truism that Embiid matters into perspective.

There were issues with double teams, instances when his wires crossed with JJ Redick’s, sluggish stretches. But for the most part, Embiid was excellent for the Sixers this week. Not many players can return from an eight-game absence and average 23.7 points, 16.0 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game.

His versatility and low-post dominance expanded the possibilities for an offense that looked, at times, lethargic and limited without him. His late-game defense gave his teammates plenty of margin for error. His presence re-introduced a familiar spark to the Wells Fargo Center.

When Embiid is off the court this season, the Sixers have a minus-3.2 net rating, which would put them 26th in the NBA. When Embiid is on the floor, the team has a plus-8.3 rating. That would be second in the NBA, behind only the Bucks. 

Embiid is a massively influential player, a special talent, an original personality, and a very compelling reason to watch Sixers basketball. Everyone associated with the team is grateful to have him back.

• Ben Simmons turned the ball over just three times this week. While there are bigger challenges in front of him Sunday against the Bucks and Wednesday vs. Boston, you have to be encouraged by the way Simmons conducted the offense. Brett Brown has mentioned Simmons’ open-court speed sometimes leads him to outrun the offense. These past three games, he initiated half-court sets when appropriate but also blew by the defense on the fast break when the opportunity presented itself.

He’ll need to keep doing a good job hitting that middle ground between full speed ahead and walking it up if he continues to play as much with Embiid as he did Friday. The duo played almost 36 minutes together vs. Sacramento, which is a significant bump up from the norm. Since Jimmy Butler’s first game as a Sixer on Nov. 14, Embiid and Simmons have shared the court for 22.9 minutes per game, which is just seventh highest of the team’s two-man pairings. With two potential playoffs opponents on deck over the next four days, it’ll be worth tracking how often Embiid and Simmons play together.

• It’s a relatively small thing, but I liked the call to rest Butler vs. the Cavs. 

There’s this difficult, tenuous line Brown and the Sixers are trying to walk between pushing to win every game left and trying to put the team in the best shape possible for the playoffs. Do you experiment with new rotations? How much should you introduce new plays or concepts, and how much should you focus on fine-tuning what you already have?

The Butler decision was a situation in which the Sixers could focus on both priorities at once. Resting Butler didn’t seriously jeopardize the Sixers' chances against the 17-win Cavs, and Butler looked rejuvenated Friday night vs. the Kings in a stellar two-way performance

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Raptors have had Sixers' number but not this version

Raptors have had Sixers' number but not this version

There’s having a team’s number and there’s what Kawhi Leonard has done to the Sixers.

In the 13 games he’s played against the Sixers since he entered the league, he’s a spotless 13-0. It’s fair to point out that he played against a lot of awful Sixers teams while playing for a couple outstanding teams.

Before this season, his numbers were fairly modest against them. After joining the Raptors in an offseason trade, he tormented the Sixers this season, averaging 30.3 points in three games.

Toronto, as a team, has given them fits recently. Kyle Lowry and company were not kind to The Process Sixers. Scotiabank Arena has been a house of horrors. The Sixers haven't won there since Nov. 10, 2012, losing 13 straight.

But that was then and this is now.

"Sixers 3.0" moved on to the second round to face the Raptors after a dominant Game 5 performance to end the Nets’ season. The team that was on the floor Tuesday doesn’t resemble the team Toronto faced in four games this season.

The Sixers suffered a deflating loss to the Raptors on Feb. 5. Then in the wee hours of the night, GM Elton Brand struck a deal with the Clippers to acquire Tobias Harris.

They aren’t putting much stock into the matchup’s history.

“We all understand what the math says with our success in Toronto and it’s not flattering. But it’s also not directed to the team that we have,” Brett Brown said. “You can credit or you can discredit it. I’m discrediting it. I think that we have a new group, we have a new opportunity …

“It’s going to be an incredibly tough series. I think that Toronto is as good as there is in the NBA. We will be tested immediately when we get up into Toronto.”

Not only do the Sixers feature a new-look starting five with Harris, they also have a completely different bench. Boban Marjanovic, Mike Scott and James Ennis also didn’t play against the Raptors as Sixers. Brown has shrunk his rotation down to eight with those three playing the biggest roles.

Sure, those three players are not likely to swing the series, especially with the depth of Toronto, but they’re still upgrades across the board.

Marjanovic is a tough matchup against any team. He’s incredibly efficient offensively and, though slow footed, did an excellent job challenging shots at the rim against the Nets. As for Scott and Ennis, they bring a toughness and represent an upgrade defensively over anyone the Raptors saw off the Sixers’ bench this season.

But it all begins and ends with the starting five. They outscored Brooklyn 31-2 in the first half Tuesday. Of all the five-man lineups that have played at least 40 minutes together this postseason, the Sixers’ starting unit has the best defensive and net rating.

Brand was candid about his team needing more before the season and he went out and got way more. He wasn't going to sit on his hands after his team was beaten soundly in the second round last season by the Boston Celtics.

Again, that was then, this is now.

“We feel pretty good about what we can do,” Embiid said. “There is definitely a difference from last year. I feel this year’s team is better than last year’s team. Last year we had a great momentum going into the playoffs and then Boston just smacked us, but go into this series it’s different because I’ve seen it. It’s my second time being here. Last year we were kind of, I would say, overconfident, but this year it’s just about respecting everything about the game of basketball and just putting the work in.”

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Sixers Talk Podcast: Sixers end up making easy work of average Nets

NBC Sports Philadelphia

Sixers Talk Podcast: Sixers end up making easy work of average Nets

On this episode of Sixers Talk, Danny Pommells and Paul Hudrick give their thoughts on the Sixers closing out the Nets in dominant fashion. Are the guys more confident where Joel Embiid's health is?

Are we starting to see more chemistry from the starters? Should the Sixers max Tobias Harris, but not Jimmy Butler?

There is a lot of energy surrounding the upcoming series against the Raptors.

0:30 - Sixers end up making easy work of the Nets.
3:00 - More confident in Embiid's health?
9:30 - What if Embiid is a 'game time decision' for Game 1?
12:00 - Starting five playing with more chemistry?
15:00 - Did Embiid play too much in game 5?
18:30 - Are we seeing the right Jimmy Butler?
23:30 - Is Jimmy worth the max?
28:00 - Buzz surrounding the Raptors series.

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