The Sixers’ Game 4 loss in their first-round series with the Wizards sometimes seems like it took place in a different era.
It was just a few weeks ago, though, that Sixers head coach Doc Rivers defended keeping Ben Simmons in the game after the Wizards intentionally fouled him, noting it was analytically acceptable for the Sixers if he split his free throws. Rivers acted as if removing Simmons from the game would have been absurd.
With the Sixers on the edge of elimination, Rivers’ thinking was different Friday night during the Sixers’ 104-99 Game 6 win over the Hawks at State Farm Arena. Simmons went 2 for 4 on foul shots the Hawks asked him to take in the fourth quarter. Rivers then took him out with 6:04 remaining and didn’t bring him back until there was 1:59 left.
Simmons had five fouls, though Rivers did not pretend that was the sole reason he’d sent his All-Star point guard to the bench.
At shootaround, he'd let Tyrese Maxey know he would play important minutes. Maxey wound up playing 30 minutes, five more than Simmons, and scored a crucial 16 points in addition to playing tough defense on Hawks star Trae Young. Rivers thought it was Maxey’s best defensive game of the season.
“The first two games, I thought he struggled,” Rivers said. “They game planned him. He’s young. You could tell he didn’t know what to do. They were taking him away from the basket. We showed him a bunch of film. I talked to him this morning. I lied, because I said, ‘You’re going to be the first guy off the bench tonight.’ We were going to go with a different lineup, but then the fouls killed us, actually, early on.
“And we also told him, down the stretch of the game, we were going to need him on the floor with Ben, because we needed a ball handler. … By putting it in Tyrese’s hands and making Ben a picker, it allowed Ben to stay on the floor and it allowed us to still run our offense. It worked out for us.”
Maxey, the 21st pick in the 2020 draft, made his first four field goals. He was 1 for 8 after that, though it would be unfair to criticize any aspect of his performance. It’s rare for a rookie to be so comfortable in a must-win game, and to not turn the ball over once.
“You can’t be surprised by the moment,” Maxey said. “Like I’ve said all year, if you prepare, nothing will surprise you. (Rivers) came up to me at shootaround and told me that, and I told him I was ready. I told him I was ready and he said, ‘All right, let’s do it.’ The rest is history.”
The rest of Maxey’s day wasn’t shaken by that news.
“I went to shootaround, got done with shootaround, got me some pasta, called my mom, and then sleep,” he said. “Woke up, and then came to the gym — was ready to go.”
The long-term implications of a rookie essentially serving as a workaround for Simmons’ deficiencies are unpleasant to consider. The short term is all that matters for now, though. If the Sixers win Sunday night in Philadelphia, they’ll reach their first conference finals in 20 years.
Even for the immediate future, however, is it possible to keep winning on nights when Simmons goes 2 for 6 from the floor (0 for 1 in the second half) and scores six points?
The formula for Simmons’ offensive success at present appears to be defensive stops leading into transition opportunities. His best stretch of the game was the first 2:14 of the third quarter, when he assisted on three Seth Curry three-pointers and wasn’t stuck playing half-court possession after half-court possession.
Besides the occasional outlier evening, transition offense is very efficient in the NBA. To Simmons’ credit, he leads a lot of it. He’s ranked in the 99th percentile or higher in on/off transition frequency each of the past three seasons, according to Cleaning the Glass. While that’s a statistic influenced by who’s been on the court with him, it’s clear Simmons has a knack for creating looks against defenses that aren't set.
Relying on Simmons’ open-floor playmaking and a 20-year-old’s love of big moments is not ideal. And, as Joel Embiid implied, any flow the Sixers might establish with Simmons on the court can always be stopped if the opponent decides to start hacking him.
“We moved the ball a little better,” Embiid said, “and I think in Game 4 and especially Game 5 for me, the rhythm was kind of messed up because they kept fouling. In those situations, when you lose your rhythm — and then it’s on me to figure it out, too — but when you lose your rhythm because you’re not getting possessions offensively and the other team keeps going and you’ve got to play defense, and then offensively, you don’t get to share the ball or move the ball … I think that played a huge role in it.
“But tonight we just moved the ball, whether it was Ben when he came back in with two minutes left or Tyrese at the point. Tobias (Harris) made plays tonight. As at team, everybody did their job.”
Another possible move with Simmons is giving him Dwight Howard’s backup center minutes. That wouldn’t account for the potential of intentional fouls, but it would certainly make sense if Rivers doesn’t plan to use Simmons as a half-court ball handler, enabling the Sixers to play lineups with greater defensive talent and versatility.
Of course, Maxey should not be worried about any of that. He helped keep the Sixers’ season alive and seemed to enjoy every second of it.
“It was amazing,” he said. “I always tell my mom that I wake up every morning and get on my knees automatically and start thanking the Lord, because I get to do what I love every single day. I get to do it for a living, and it’s just amazing. Every time I step on the court, I won’t take it for granted.”