Ben Simmons

Hawks 129, Sixers 127: Sixers fall victim to dreaded letdown game vs. plucky Hawks

Hawks 129, Sixers 127: Sixers fall victim to dreaded letdown game vs. plucky Hawks

BOX SCORE

What a letdown.

Coming off a huge win over the Celtics, the Sixers came out flat in a 129-127 loss to the feisty young Hawks at State Farm Arena Saturday night.

Rookie Trae Young buried a floater with .01 seconds left to halt the Sixers' winning streak at six.

The loss drops the Sixers to 47-26 on the season.

Here are observations from the game:

• The first half was defense optional. Atlanta shot 53 percent from the floor, including 9 of 24 (37 percent) from three. The Hawks scored 74 points, the most the Sixers have surrendered to an opponent in a half this season. Still, the Sixers trailed by only six at the break.

This was just an obvious letdown early, but give the Sixers credit for turning it up. They went on a 15-3 run to close the third quarter and tie the game at 100.

But defensive issues continued to plague the Sixers in the fourth as they allowed 29 points.

• Don’t be fooled by their record, this Hawks team is a plucky bunch.

Young has been excellent since the All-Star break, averaging 24.9 points and 8.7 assists per game while shooting 40 percent from three. Second-year forward John Collins is having a strong sophomore campaign, averaging 19.5 and 9.7 rebounds a contest.

Young did his thing in this one, recording 32 points on 11 of 20 and 11 assists. The Young-Collins pick-and-roll hurt the Sixers big time. In fact, pick-and-roll defense continues to be an issue for the Sixers in general.

• Joel Embiid has been a monster since returning to the lineup against the Pacers on March 10. In those five games, he’s averaging almost 30 points, 17 rebounds and two blocks a contest. 

After hitting 20 of 21 against the Celtics Wednesday, Embiid lived at the line yet again Saturday, going 11 of 14.

He also showed off more of his guard-like skills.

He did get a little too loose with his handle on a couple plays down the stretch that led to two poorly-timed turnovers. He finished with 27 points and 12 rebounds.

• Since putting up 32 points in Oklahoma City, Tobias Harris has been mired in a mini-slump. In his last 10 games, he’s shooting just 32 percent from three.

With that in mind, Harris made a concerted effort to get to the basket and get easier looks. He made three nice floaters in the paint in the first quarter. After starting the game 4 of 4, Harris went just 1 of his next 12. He had just 13 points.

Harris struggled defensively as well, especially when switched on to rookie Young. Mike Scott helped pick up the slack a little against his former team, going 3 of 6 from three and scoring nine points.

• It was interesting to see Jimmy Butler bring the ball up the floor on the Sixers’ first possession, but certainly not surprising. This could be a formula that works. If Ben Simmons can push the ball in transition, you run. If not, you give the ball to Butler and let him work in the half court.

It was evident early on that Kevin Huerter wasn’t physically strong enough to stick with Butler as the rookie picked up two early fouls. Butler was more assertive than usual early on with 13 first-half points.

Butler was good down the stretch, but didn't handle a double team well on the Sixers' possession before Young's game-winner. He had 25 points.

• Since the Hawks don’t have a viable rim protector or player that matches up well, this looked like a matchup Simmons could do well in. He looked to get to the basket early and often, but missed a few easy looks early on, but was better after halftime. He went 9 of 16 for 21 points.

There is a wrinkle to the Sixers’ offense with the Simmons-Embiid pairing. They run a “snug” pick-and-roll which is basically just a pick-and-roll run through the post. It’s such a difficult thing to stop with their size and skills.

Simmons continues to do an excellent job taking care of the basketball. He had nine assists to just two turnovers.

• Boban Marjanovic hit his first career three and it was a beaut from the corner.

Before tonight, Marjanovic was 0 for 3 for his career. Brett Brown told us that this could be something we saw. Marjanovic has nice touch for such a massive human.

With that said, it was another tough defensive game for Marjanovic. He was a big part of the Sixers’ porous defense, especially in the pick-and-roll.

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Brett Brown gives insight into Sixers' post offense with Ben Simmons and with Joel Embiid

Brett Brown gives insight into Sixers' post offense with Ben Simmons and with Joel Embiid

While some of the Sixers’ offense is based around designed, structured actions, Brett Brown prefers to put his players in organic environments conducive to their success.

NBC Sports Philadelphia talked with Brown on Friday about the Sixers’ movement off Ben Simmons in the post and the differences with the team’s post offense around Joel Embiid. We got some insight into his thought process and details about how he wants to develop certain aspects of the Sixers' offense.  

‘Explosion’

According to Brown, “the very large majority” of the Sixers’ cutting when Simmons receives the ball in the post falls under the organic category.

We get the ball to Ben and there’s different actions that can happen behind it. The term that we use is 'Explosion.' There is a randomness to possibilities that has helped us. But the real key is movement. Playing static is not how we want to play with Ben Simmons on a back down.

The improvisation of “Explosion” makes it unpredictable. Below, after Jimmy Butler cuts to the rim, JJ Redick comes from the left corner to the left elbow to free Joel Embiid with a back screen. 

Redick often will raise his arm and move toward a teammate’s defender like he’s going to set a screen before sharply accelerating on a cut. He jogged over from the right wing to the right elbow against Sacramento, in the direction of Willie Cauley-Stein. But instead of screening for Embiid, he continued all the way to the rim.

Embiid slid over from the right elbow to the left elbow in Milwaukee to set a cross screen for Redick. Simmons waited for Redick to arrive for a handoff, and the 13-year veteran was fouled by an off-balance Eric Bledsoe.

The Sixers’ options out of “Explosion” aren’t limited to Simmons distributing the ball to others. 

“It’s still stuff we hope to get better at,” Brown said, “because, apart from his ability to pass out of it and the movement behind it, there’s still the ability or recognition that he can score.”

All the off-ball movement around Simmons is usually effective at drawing away potential help defenders and giving him room to score, as he does below against Corey Brewer. 

Simmons is also savvy at recognizing when defenders are too focused on cutters and not enough on him. Devonte’ Graham and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist both bit hard on Simmons’ fake handoff to Redick.

A different world

The Sixers’ post offense around Embiid has different underlying principles, which Brown says stem from his days as an assistant coach with the Spurs.

A little bit more static, a little bit more set the table, where Joel can be comfortable with his outlets. I’ve just pretty much replicated what we did with [Tim] Duncan for 12 years in San Antonio. We go to floor spots and use that as starting points, and then other things happen from those starting points.

When Embiid gets the ball in the post, the Sixers like to have men stationed on the weakside short corner, weakside corner, weakside wing and top of the key. Besides the player in the short corner — typically Simmons — everyone is well behind the three-point arc, behind the “four-point line.” 

The possession below against the Bucks illustrates the setup the Sixers prefer. James Ennis throws the ball into Embiid and slides over to the top of the key, while Simmons takes his spot in the right short corner, with Redick on the right wing and Mike Scott in the right corner.

You can see D.J. Wilson helps off Simmons late in an attempt to double team Embiid, but the Sixers’ spacing around their big man is designed to make effective double teams a challenge. Wilson doesn’t arrive in time to deter Embiid.

Double teams are more dangerous when the Sixers fail to occupy their proper floor spots and put Embiid in positions where he can be “comfortable with his outlets,” as Brown says.

Simmons hands it off to Embiid on this fast break vs. the Kings and, after he takes a couple of dribbles, it’s evident Embiid is in trouble. He doesn’t know where his outlets are, he’s being harassed by Harry Giles and Brewer, and he ends up trying to force a pass to Ennis.

While not being in the preferred floor spots for Embiid is an issue, being in the right spots doesn’t guarantee success. 

Everyone is where they're supposed to be on the play below, but because there’s zero movement around Embiid, it’s not too difficult for Brewer to double team off Harris at the top of the key and nearly strip away the ball. Embiid gets bailed out with a foul call. 

Brown acknowledged that more movement around Embiid might make double teaming him more difficult, or at least cause teams to be more wary of the idea. 

Maybe. The floor spots with Joel are not intended to be like, you just go there and stand. Those are the floor spots that you’d put Manu [Ginobili] in and Danny Green in — you move behind it. … I think that as the playoffs happen, as this season starts to unfold, one of the areas that we are looking at is what we call slashing. You can take home plate and somebody turns their head, and you’re going against a lot of blind defensive players that don’t know what’s going on behind you. The slashing and Tobias and Jimmy interests me a lot. And I think that we can do better with the movement behind Joel as it relates to the starting points.

Sometimes the defense dictates how the Sixers should cut when Embiid has the ball down low. The Bucks had Tony Snell looming as help on the left baseline on the play below, completely ignoring T.J. McConnell in the right corner. Embiid dribbled to the middle of the floor and McConnell found the gap in the defense.

For Brown, though, proactive movement is of greater interest. On this play vs. Sacramento, everyone started to jog over to their floor spots as Embiid got the ball. Rather than mindlessly park himself in the right corner, Simmons did well to jump in front of Nemanja Bjelica, earn position at the front of the rim, and draw a foul. 

Brown has tailored the Sixers’ post offense around Embiid in a way that plays to his strengths, just as he has with Simmons. And, though he continues to trust his players to make good things happen in advantageous situations, he knows the Sixers and Embiid might benefit from a little more of the off-ball movement characteristic of “Explosion.”

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Sixers 118, Celtics 115: Wow! Thanks to Joel Embiid's dominance, Jimmy Butler's fourth quarter, Sixers finally beat Celtics

Sixers 118, Celtics 115: Wow! Thanks to Joel Embiid's dominance, Jimmy Butler's fourth quarter, Sixers finally beat Celtics

BOX SCORE

"Here we go again."

If you're a Sixers fans, you surely said that as the Celtics took an 11-point halftime lead and took a 99-90 lead late in the fourth.

But after Joel Embiid willed them back into the game with a monster third quarter, Jimmy Butler did his thing in the fourth and the Sixers were finally able to conquer their Boston demons in a 118-115 comeback win at the Wells Fargo Center Wednesday night.

The victory prevented a Celtics season sweep and improved the Sixers to 47-25 on the season.

Here are observations from the team's sixth straight win:

• Well if there were any concerns about Embiid being able to score against the Celtics, they were put to bed in the first half. Embiid was dominant, scoring 18 points and pulling down 10 rebounds. He lived at the line, going 9 of 10.

It helped that Embiid got a deep touch on his first of the game. He was able to draw a foul on Al Horford and that seemed to set a tone. Aron Baynes just couldn’t handle Embiid. The giant Aussie was begging for calls — one of which he inexplicably got — and flopping all over the place.

This was a chippy one overall as Embiid and Marcus Smart got into it in the first minute of the second half. The players got tangled up on a side out of bounds with Smart hitting the deck. Smart then got up and shoved Embiid to the ground while the center's back was turned. Smart was given a Flagrant 2 and ejected. Embiid was assessed a technical. It seemed to fire up the crowd — and Embiid (see story).

As mentioned before, Embiid's chances of winning MVP are slim, but man, this was an MVP-type performance. It felt like he willed the Sixers back into the game with a 15-point third quarter. He also came up with a huge block on Kyrie Irving late in the game.

He finished with 37 points and 22 rebounds.

• The one thing Brad Stevens is very good at is exploiting mismatches. He got Embiid in pick-and-rolls, which forced him to cover Irving. Early on, it went predictably terrible with Irving scorching the Sixers in the first quarter.

After that, Embiid actually did a decent job. On one play, he forced Irving into an ugly missed jumper, but the refs bailed Irving out. Brett Brown let the official have it and was given a technical.

Give Brown credit as he gave Stevens a taste of his own medicine, targeting Irving on the other end.

• There’s been plenty made of Ben Simmons’ struggles against the Celtics, but he had a strong first half. He mentioned on Tuesday night that there was nothing special or different about this matchup. His determined and aggressive play Wednesday showed otherwise.

He did slow down in the second half a bit, but he was strong defensively (three steals) and took care of the basketball (two turnovers). He also gave the Sixers a 116-113 lead with 40.8 seconds to go on a nice drive and completed the three-point play with a huge made free throw. Simmons had 13 points, eight rebounds and seven assists.

• While Embiid and Simmons both did their part, the rest of the team’s starting five couldn’t get anything going early.

Tobias Harris was able to get some great looks, but went just 4 of 12 in the first half. Butler and JJ Redick went a combined 2 of 13 before halftime. 

Then fourth quarter Jimmy Butler showed up.

Butler erased a 105-99 Boston lead by nailing back-to-back threes to tie the game with 5:03 remaining. He also hit a dagger midrange jumper that put the Sixers up 118-113 with 4.7 seconds left that sent the crowd into a frenzy. Butler had 15 of his 22 points in the final period. That is why you trade for Jimmy Butler.

Harris also made a nice play to Embiid for an easy look at the basket to give the Sixers their first lead late in the fourth. Harris finished with 21 points and eight rebounds.

• Brown continues to ride with Boban Marjanovic as his backup center and it didn't look great in the first half. Marjanovic was targeted in pick-and-rolls and just doesn't have quick enough feet to play defense the way the Sixers want to. To Brown's credit, he did switch things up, going to a small-ball lineup when he could and basically matching Embiid up with Horford.

• Horford just continues to torture the Sixers on both ends of the floor. He's still the only player in the NBA I've seen that can defend both Embiid and Simmons. He was a plus-20 at one point in the first half. Say what you want about Irving or Jayson Tatum, but Horford is Boston's best player every time it plays the Sixers. He recorded 22 points, six rebounds and five assists.

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