The Sixers went 3-1 this week, but their most recent (and most painful) memory is of the one that got away, Saturday’s 117-115 loss to the Thunder (see observations).
In the big picture, the Sixers are 30-17 and 19-9 in games in which Jimmy Butler has played.
Let’s get into a few observations:
• Ben Simmons told reporters he considered pulling up for a three-point shot on the Sixers’ final possession vs. Oklahoma City. Only Simmons can know his thoughts in that moment, but the notion that he deliberated attempting the first non-heave three-pointer of his career in the final seconds of a two-point game is dubious.
Even if he did think about pulling up for a jumper, his track record rendered his intentions irrelevant. The Thunder had no reason to believe Simmons was going to take a jumper and played him accordingly.
If Simmons isn’t going to attempt jumpers in those spots for the time being, faking the dribble handoff and attacking the basket or rolling to the rim after giving the ball to Butler are other viable late-game options off that action. He did what he felt was best in the moment Saturday, but forcing defenses to be wary of him doing something besides handing the ball off would benefit the Sixers’ late-game offense moving forward.
• The Sixers’ defense, a season-long concern, was much improved this week, and Simmons was especially impressive defensively. Victor Oladipo shot just 4 for 11 on Thursday when guarded by Simmons, and Russell Westbrook was 1 for 5.
As a team, the Sixers posted a 103.9 defensive rating this week, fourth best in the NBA, and that’s not a difficult number to believe based on the miscommunications that are gradually disappearing and the improved overall effort. As we suggested, using Jonah Bolden as Joel Embiid’s backup appears to be effectively concealing the flaws of the Sixers’ subpar perimeter defense off the bench, though Bolden will at some stage need to eradicate his habit of committing bad fouls.
• We’ve avoided All-Star voting discussion until now, but with fan voting set to close Monday at 11:59 p.m., it’s an unavoidable topic.
First, the relevant logistics: As of Thursday, Embiid had the third-most fan votes among Eastern Conference frontcourt players. Butler was fifth in that category, while Simmons was fourth among backcourt players in the East.
Three frontcourt and two backcourt players from each conference will be named starters, with fan votes weighted at 50 percent, and media and player votes at 25 percent each. Head coaches will vote for the reserves of their respective conferences.
The Sixers should have three All-Stars this year for the first time since the 1986-87 season, when Charles Barkley, Maurice Cheeks and Julius Erving were selected.
Embiid is a self-evident choice, by far the best center in the East. He’s averaging 27 points, 13.2 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game. Defensively, he’s guarding more field goals than any player in the conference, and opponents are shooting just 44.3 percent against him.
Butler may be a divisive personality, depending on who you ask, but he's an excellent basketball player. He’s made two game-winners in his first 28 games with his new team and would have had a third on Saturday if not for Paul George’s heroics. Nineteen points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game with the Sixers isn’t too shabby, especially when you consider how little Butler turns the ball over (his 7.1 turnover percentage is lower than any rotation player besides Landry Shamet’s) and the fact that he usually defends the opponent’s best player.
Simmons should have removed any doubt about his All-Star case over the last month. Since Dec. 22, he’s posted 18.4 points per game on 60 percent shooting, 10.6 rebounds and 8.8 assists.
Jump shot or not, Simmons has developed this season and is very worthy of an All-Star spot.
After shooting an abysmal 21 for 70 on 254 post-ups last season, he’s already posted up 207 times this season and shot 39 for 75 on those possessions.
Simmons is a unique player whose weaknesses (refusal to shoot jumpers and low efficiency when he does, turnovers, lapses in defensive effort) are easy to identify and criticize. He’s also a special talent who is doing a damn good job harnessing the skills he has.
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