A few weeks back, Joel Embiid went from questionable, to probable, to out against Toronto.
Last night, he went from doubtful, to very doubtful, to officially out, to the starting five.
Pregame, we were told by Brett Brown that Embiid had swelling and bruising in his shooting hand, resulting in difficulty catching the ball in the post. That was corroborated by Embiid, the discomfort part, who spoke at his locker around 5:30 p.m.
After warmups, however, he apparently told Sixers’ staff he was good to go, per Brown’s post-game explanation:
“This is the world we all live because I get up here and I tell everybody pregame everything I know, the whole truth and nothing but the truth (laughter), and you pivot out of that when it gets to the game-time decision and that’s what it is. It’s happened quite a bit, in Toronto you learn he’s gonna play or not. Tonight, there was nothing in my mind that suggested he was going to play based on the swelling in his hand and what we saw at practice. He went out and had a good warmup then he felt quite good about himself and with about 35:50, 36 minutes on the clock – I meet the team at 35 – it was announced to us that he felt good enough to play. And I think to Joel Embiid’s complete credit, he came in and he surprised me, he actually made some shots. If you saw the swelling in his hand you wouldn’t think that would be the impact, he would’ve blocked shots, he would’ve rebounded, he would’ve been physical defensively. But he actually still had some touch and finesse to his shot with a swollen right hand. It happened quick, it was completely unexpected and I give him a lot of credit for playing through complete pain and trying to play in front of the Philadelphia fans and help his teammates, that’s a gutsy effort.”
Embiid finished with 21 points, 11 rebounds, 4 assists, and 4 blocks. He favored the right hand at times but it didn’t seem to bother him much. He wore a wrist wrap in the first half, then took it off for the second half, explaining that he didn’t feel like it was making much of a difference.
He also told us that part of the reason he wanted to play was to get Brett Brown his first win against mentor Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs, leading to this pretty cool moment after the victory:
RING US INTO THE NEW YEAR, COACH! pic.twitter.com/eGKrO2jaMV
— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) January 4, 2018
I think the biggest takeaway from the win was Ben Simmons’ team-high 26 points, team-high 18 field goal attempts, and team-high 15 free throw attempts.
For the second-straight game, he was aggressive and efficient in the fourth quarter, compiling the following stats after the Spurs tied the game at 96 with 4:54 remaining:
- 1 rebound
- 4/5 free throw shooting
- 4 points on 2/3 FG shooting
He scored eight of the team’s final 20 points and successfully navigated a short-lived “Hack-a-Ben” strategy employed by Popovich.
Brett Brown on his point guard:
“The thing that always attracted me to Ben Simmons was that when you went to his LSU numbers, he shot 10 free throws a game. That’s a big number in a 40-minute game. And tonight when you look down, he shot 15 free throws. That in itself is a huge win for me when he gets back to the line. It’s a mentality more than it is a skill and that mentality of him attacking the basket and going to the free throw line then growing the confidence that you’re referring to. That’s a hell of a package and it starts with getting there.”
Simmons went 10 for 15 from the line, which isn’t great, but it was his FT shooting down the stretch that made a difference.
One thing to point out, and this is more of a macro thing than a micro, game-specific, thing, but Simmons continued to push the pace when the game was tied. If you go back and watch the first two possessions after 96-96, he’s working up-tempo across the floor:
Sorry that clip is cut off, blame the NBCSP director for that cutaway shot of a dorky Spurs fan.
It looks like a sloppy possession, but Simmons decides to push in transition and does get the ball down low to Embiid, who feels a double team, passes out to JJ Redick, and then re-positions himself in the post. He loses the handle, picks up the loose ball, and hits a mid-range jumper.
This was the next offensive possession:
Again, Simmons in transition, pushes the pace, finds Dario Saric who rips off a nice pump fake and can’t get his floater to go.
I’m alright with that. Simmons’ willingness to push it there created a good transitional look that probably should have been finished. And in the first clip, when the transition bucket wasn’t there, Embiid hit the reset button and they cycled it back to the perimeter instead.
Those clips show me that the Sixers are committed to staying with their identity and doing what they do best even after giving up these huge leads. Last night they found a way to hang on and get the job done, and that’s huge for a team that I’ve said many times before is still learning how to win. The numbers back up the idea that they are better at tempo, and they’re going to have to learn to navigate 4th quarter leads, almost like a football team that needs to chew clock or run the ball after throwing it 40 times through the first three quarters (like Andy Reid or any pass-happy college spread offense).
Free throws at large
It wasn’t just Simmons’ getting to the line, it was the free throw disparity in general that put the Sixers over the top last night.
They were only averaging 23 per game coming into this one, but finished 33-43 for a 76.7% clip. That doesn’t sound great, but it’s actually higher than their 27th-ranked 75.2% season average. They were only making 17.3 of their attempts per game, so they actually had a +15.7 raw point swing in free throw shooting last night, which, I think, was the key to the win.
They also only committed 21 personal fouls, which is down from their 30th-ranked 23.9 per game.
And the Sixers only turned the ball over 13 times, which is 5.1 fewer than their season average of 18.1
When you make improvements in the three categories that haunt you the most, you start to win these types of close contests.
Shoot the ball?
The only real blemish on Simmons’ game was a pair of air balls at the second half which he left inexplicably short. He finished 8-18 from the field, which really should be 8-17 if you remove a late-quarter heave from mid court.
He was 1-8 from shots he took on or outside the restricted area, missing everything from further than five feet away. Inside the area, he was 7-8
There was a point about in the third quarter where he turned the ball over while trying to kick it out from under the rim, which resulted in audible groaning from the crowd. One guy in row four stood up, beer in left hand, put his right hand in the air and yelled, “shoot the ball!”
Here ya go:
When you take a look at Ben’s hexmap on NBA.com, it confirms what we all know – league average numbers on a heavy volume of close range efforts and a drop of almost 10% on anything outside of six or seven feet:
He’ll get there. Just gotta keep shooting the rock.
Spurs’ junior varsity team
The Spurs played last night without Kawhi Leonard (injury management), Danny Green (injured), Rudy Gay (injured), Tony Parker (injury management), and Manu Ginobili (rest).
Between Leonard and Green, that’s 26 points per game at the forward position, then you lose the three veteran guards that contribute a combined 25/8/6 per game.
So it’s easy to slap an asterisk on this win and say the Sixers beat a summer league team, but the Spurs have been doing this for years and still beating good opponents. Patty Mills is a player. LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol started the game. They got 15 from Bryn Forbes and 13 from Davis Bertans, guys who are averaging 6.9 and 4.5 points per game. The Spurs have 11 guys averaging 17 minutes or more this season, while the Sixers only really have 7 guys logging those types of minutes.
It feels like San Antonio never really rebuilds, they just reload. This was the second night of a back-to-back on the road and they held a fourth-quarter lead while missing five players, so I’ll give credit where it’s due instead of poo-pooing the win.