No Worries, and No Dumb Questions – Observations from Wizards 122, Sixers 114 (Game Four)

Photo Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Talk about a game. There was no shortage of talking points following Monday night’s Game Four loss to the Wizards.

It took a full sleep period just to process what even happened on the floor in Washington. This one looked like it was going to be a straightforward Sixers win, then Joel Embiid landed on his back and was ruled out with knee soreness. Some fan ran onto the court and tried to touch the rim. Ben Simmons ended up in foul trouble and then Tyrese Maxey, Furkan Korkmaz, and Raul Neto hit BIG buckets, just like we all expected. Robin Lopez poured in 16 off the bench with that hideous hook shot, and Doc Rivers won a challenge. Then we came down the stretch with the “hack-a-Ben” routine and he proceeded to hit only 50% of his free throws, all the while taking in the stench given off by the refs that proceeded to permeate through the television screen and into our nostrils.

At the end of the day, the Sixers have to come back home and win this series in five. They’ll get it done, and nobody should be worried about anything, but it would have been REALLY nice to finish the job last night and let Joel Embiid rest up and get healthy for round two. Now we’ve got a situation where it’s gonna be “should he/shouldn’t he” play for Game Five.

Doc Rivers didn’t have much to say about Embiid’s status, so we’ll find out more eventually. That was reason #1 why they lost the game. Reason #2 was Tobias Harris having a poor shooting night and reason #3 was Simmons getting into foul trouble. But the big story on Action News was reason #4 for the loss, the admittedly sidebar topic of Ben missing that handful of attempts from the free throw line.

After the game, I asked if Rivers thought about taking Ben off to keep Washington from intentionally fouling him, and this was the very brief conversation:

Crossing Broad: Does the thought cross your mind to take him out of the game there?

Rivers: No.

Crossing Broad: Why not?

Rivers: You want me to take Ben Simmons off the floor?

Crossing Broad: I gotta ask the question.

Rivers: I’ll pass on that one. He’s pretty good, so I’ll pass on that suggestion.

It wasn’t a suggestion, it was a question, but that’s alright. Doc has pretty much downplayed and laughed off every Simmons approach this year, and he’s been been effusive with praise as they try a specific approach here, to keep Ben in a good mental state and shield him from the big bad media and Philadelphia sports fans.

But to be 100% clear here, nobody is suggesting to take Simmons off the floor for the rest of the game. Not a single person. I’ll explain why the question I asked is totally legitimate:

1) Ben Simmons was fouled three times. The first one was at the 2:47 mark with the game tied at 108. This is what happened in the following possessions –

  • Simmons goes 1/2
  • Bradley Beal scores 2
  • Simmons goes 1/2
  • Daniel Gafford Dunk
  • Simmons goes 1/2
  • Gafford goes 1/2 (after a dumb foul call)

2) At which point it was Wizards 113, Sixers 111 when the sub-two minute mark hit. Washington finished +2 during the Hack-a-Ben stretch, in which he was playing with five fouls as a small ball five in Embiid’s absence. +2 points isn’t a huge swing by any stretch of the imagination, but that’s a full minute with zero offensive possessions, and your other four guys are just standing around watching Simmons shoot. When the Sixers came out of hack-a-Ben with 1:47 on the clock, they missed their next three shots. One was a wide-open Furkan Korkmaz three following an offensive rebound. I don’t know if having to stand around and watch free throws made the Sixers go cold, but it definitely does junk up the rhythm of the game when you are intentionally fouled.

3) Simmons is literally leaving the game for 45 seconds, after which you can immediately re-insert him. You can’t intentionally foul off the ball at the sub two-minute mark, so the strategy is not employable. And Ben isn’t going to have much of the ball in his hands anyway because he moves down to the dunker spot and attacks the weakside on shots from other teammates. This is literally only a problem in the minute or two preceding the two-minute mark. Simmons does not finish the game on the bench.

4) In determining whether to keep him on the floor for 47 seconds, despite his offensive liabilities, it depends on how highly you rate Ben’s defense. Are you seriously going to put a DPOY finalist on the bench for any fourth quarter possession? What if he’s in foul trouble and not playing on the perimeter? If he contributes to getting just one stop on the defensive end during that stretch, then he’s worth keeping out there. But in this case, they didn’t get those stops, and finished with a net negative at the end of the fouling routine.

5) When you have a guy who is such a liability in a specific area, anything you can do to mitigate that is worthy of consideration. You aren’t benching him for the rest of the game, you’re just countering the other coach and rolling with another two-way player for brief amount of time. How many possessions do you lose out on in 47 seconds of play? Two? Three? Four, maximum?

Later, we had Doc go back and forth with Dei Lynam on the Ben Simmons topic, which was interesting:

Lynam: I’m just curious and I know not one person saves the day, but when Joel is in trouble and gone and fans want Ben to save the day, because they look at him as the other cornerstone, and they feel he delivers less than what they’re expecting, is that fair for them to see it that way?

Rivers: No, but you guys keep this Ben Simmons narrative alive, which to me is freakin’ insane. How good this guy is and all of the things he does. Ben is not a 40-point guy. It’s not what he does. He does other things for your team. I just don’t understand why that’s not sinking in in our city. Everybody on the team does not have to be a scorer to help the team. Ben scores, but he creates scoring for us. That’s what he does. If I’m Ben at some point I’d just get tired of it. I just would. Because he’s too good and does so many good things for this team. I keep saying celebrate him. Celebrate all of the stuff he does well. We don’t do that enough. 

Lynam: In fairness, I never brought up his scoring.

Rivers: No, but in general, Ben Simmons does a lot of good things for this team. He was in foul trouble tonight. We keep hammering the kid. At some point… 

Lynam: As a point guard, he was put on the line, he could have made more free throws – 

Rivers: He could have, but he didn’t. He still does other things. He split them all. Ben’s not an 80% free throw shooter… Listen, you guys keep the Ben narrative going. We’re just gonna keep playing. 

Good for Dei, because that was a totally fair line of questioning. Doc is off-base when he talks about this “Ben Simmons narrative,” because most people in this town fairly give credit to Simmons for the things he does well and then deservingly criticize him for the fact that his free throw percentage is down this year and he has not developed any kind of jump shot over the course of five NBA seasons. All of the criticism is 100% justified but it does not mean people are incapable of giving him credit where it’s due. More than one thing can be true.

In conclusion, no, the Sixers didn’t lose because of the hack-a-Ben routine. I’d say the Embiid injury, Harris’ poor shooting night, and fouls+refs were bigger issues. But the Simmons topic gets talked about because it’s interesting and it’s something that specifically manifests in these late stages of important playoff games. Nobody expects Doc Rivers to criticize his own players or throw them under the bus, but if they’re going to treat Simmons with kid gloves, then they need to get it right on the court when it matters. Next time just hit the foul shots at your career average and it’s not even a story.

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