Learning How to Finish: Four Observations from Sixers 115, Rockets 107

Photo Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Raise your hand if you had the Sixers beating the Rockets in Houston.

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Anyone?

I didn’t think they’d get it done, not for a second-straight road win after a quality performance in Dallas.

At the risk of making these recaps redundant, I want to go over the final possessions again, because “can they finish?” really is the biggest storyline surrounding this team right now.

This time, after committing two straight turnovers, the Sixers held a 106-105 lead with 2:30 left to play. That’s the interval where they fell apart last week and failed to score another point in the 105-104 buzzer-beater loss.

Picking it up from that same position, this is how they finished on their offensive possessions:

  • Joel Embiid jump hook (108-105 Sixers)
  • Ben Simmons transition drive and dunk (110-105 Sixers)
  • shot clock violation (110-105 Sixers)
  • Embiid fouled, no free throws (110-105 Sixers)
  • Simmons fouled, misses two free throws (110-105 Sixers)
  • Simmons fouled, hits 1/2 free throws (111-105 Sixers)

At that point, Houston started fouling and Jerryd Bayless and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot went 4-4 to ice the game.

On the defensive end, T.J. McConnell had a key strip on James Harden (which lead to the Simmons dunk) while the Rockets missed seven straight shots in a two-minute time frame. The Sixers outscored the Rockets 9-2 in the final 2:30.

As was the case in Dallas, Simmons and Embiid scored the points that ultimately closed out the game. This is twice now, on the road, where the Sixers’ star pair has risen to the occasion. Simmons, I felt, looked a bit tentative at times approaching the midway point of the 4th, and he did miss 3 of 4 free throws, but that transition drive and flush opened up a five-point lead and really sucked the air out of the building.

The shot clock violation is on Embiid, who had isolation in the low post and kicked it out to McConnell with little time to heave up a three-pointer. But that sequence ended up being a wash, and Embiid’s little iso jump hook to get it to 108-105 really sparked the strong finish.

 

1) Elbow jumpers for days

24 points, 7 rebounds, and 9 assists feels like a Damian Lillard line, but last night Simmons put up those numbers.

He did it on 10-15 shooting while playing a season-high 39 minutes. The only blemishes on his excellent performance was a season-high five turnovers and a 4-9 mark at the foul line.

Simmons will be unstoppable if that mid-range game continues to develop, and you saw a good chunk of it last night. He hit three first-half elbow jumpers that didn’t look mechanically perfect, but went down really smooth:

The takeaway for me is that there really isn’t any hesitation. Simmons goes right into the shot with confidence, which is ten times more important than the motion right now (see: Markelle Fultz).

Here’s Simmons’ chart, which shows that improvement in finishing around the rim and the confidence to try some shots outside of 12 feet:

Also, don’t underestimate the importance of that veteran no-call that took place when be bullied Trevor Ariza on a second quarter drive to the rim. He did something similar on the 4th quarter dunk and he’s learning how to create separation with that forearm without drawing whistles:

If Simmons starts getting Harden and Russell Westbrook-style treatment from the refs, look out.

 

2) I am Amir Johnson

Seems like Amir responds when receiving media criticism. Joe DeCamara went first and Jake Pavorsky followed up, which resulted in some direct Twitter responses and a double-double on the floor.

Johnson had his best game of the season last night, putting up 12 and 10 in a season-high 21 minutes. He finished around the rim and played better defense overall after struggling with Houston’s pick and roll just five days prior.

Case in point, he did a good job here to get a hand on this entry pass and then recover the loose ball:

Compare that to the tape from a few days earlier, when he was getting caught in no-man’s land and giving up alley-oops to Clint Capela, with not a lot of help from Jerryd Bayless up top:

He was better in almost every facet. We’ll see what happens when Richaun Holmes comes back, which I think might be Friday night against Indiana.

 

3) Ariza, Nene, and perimeter defense

I thought the game might be a bit different with Trevor Ariza and Nene available to play, both of whom were missing via injury last week in Philadelphia.

That wasn’t the case.

Ariza had 7 points on 3-12 shooting and couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn. He combined with Ryan Anderson to shoot just 3-18 from three-point range. The rest of the Rockets went 10-29 behind the arc with the Sixers doing a great job closing out on the perimeter.

For three point comparison, Houston shot 12-39 (30.8%) in Philadelphia but just 13-47 (27.7%) last night. 47 three-point attempts!

Nene had 7 points and 3 rebounds in 10 minutes while finishing -9 on the night. I think Tarik Black might have done the better job defending Joel Embiid last week, or at least prodding him mentally, but Black was left on the bench last night.

 

4) 2nd quarter letdowns

As well as the Sixers are playing in the first half, they seem to keep hitting that late second-quarter slump when the rotation becomes foggy.

In this one, they were up 48-37 with 6:52 on the clock. They missed 5 of the next 6 shots and had a 7th blocked, resulting in Houston cutting the lead to 1 with 4:18 remaining. Embiid and Simmons re-entered the game a short time later, but even then the Sixers were sloppy, with Embiid committing a turnover before receiving a questionable third foul as the Rockets went on a 5-0 run in 3:01 to finish the half.

It’s not even a first team/second team thing, because everybody seems to lose focus at this interval. Simmons had a bad turnover and missed at the rim, along with Robert Covington.

In the Dallas win, they were outscored 33-25 in the 2nd quarter. Same thing last week against Houston, when the Rockets edged them 25-21 in the 2nd. Maybe they can take some of these fourth quarter improvements and apply them to the end of the first half.

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