Ben Simmons only took three shots in the 34 minutes he played last night, but his defensive impact was a catalyst in the Philadelphia 76ers’ 118-102 win over the Atlanta Hawks in Game 2.
There’s a reasonable separate discussion to have about paying nearly $180 million to someone of Simmons’ style of play, but by asserting himself defensively last night, he helped restrict Trae Young from playing to his playoff averages of 30.2 points and 9.8 assists per game. Young finished with 21 points and 11 assists but did so while shooting 6-for-16, thanks in part to Simmons, accumulating to a 38 / 14 shooting split between field goal and 3-point range. His respectable point total was saved by an 8-of-9 display from the free throw line.
Young gave props to the Sixers’ defense for bothering him more in Game 2 following Atlanta’s opening upset victory.
“Obviously, Ben was guarding me a little bit more tonight, but I had a lot of shots that I was open, and they just didn’t fall in,” he acknowledged.
The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor noted that Simmons and fellow defensive specialist Mattisse Thybulle just about split the possessions on Young.
Simmons himself only finished with four points, seven assists, and two steals on 2-of-3 shooting. Simmons has yet to guard Young for an entire game, and given that switching is so commonplace among NBA teams, he probably won’t in these playoffs. But the defensive pressure from him and Thybulle (who offensively logged two points on two shots in 23 minutes), along with the team’s victory, masked their offensive inactivity: As did the dude on his team who wears No. 21.
Joel Embiid finished second in MVP voting, as announced yesterday, and he later became the first 76er since 2003 to score 40 points in a playoff game since Allen Iverson. The 40 also set a personal record for postseason points.
Flawed as it would appear on the surface, it actually showcases what makes this Sixers team special when they’re clicking, even if the lack of excellent two-way players is something others harp on. None of the teams remaining are perfect, and the Sixers have meaningful contributors throughout their rotation. Plus, Embiid’s dominance against a great defensive center in Clint Capela made a statement. Tobias Harris (22 points on 11-of-19 shooting) and Seth Curry (21 points on 8-of-13 shooting) passed the 20-point threshold efficiently, and Shake Milton added a critical 14 off the bench, the impact of which was felt early in the fourth quarter with eight final period points.
Harris was a tone-setter, scoring four of the team’s first six points and 12 of the team’s first 16 as part of a 20-4 run. But as the Hawks inched closer, trailing just 35-33 in the second quarter, it was Embiid who rattled off 10 points in a five-minute span before halftime. Embiid also had 17 third-quarter points and added seven in a less than four-minute span during the fourth. It wasn’t the mere output, but how the big man achieved it as well.
Embiid’s 40 came by way of 13-of-25 shooting from the field, 2-of-5 from three, and 12-of-16 on free throws. As seen in the above video, he created his opportunities in a variety of fashions like starting from the three-point line and driving (0:05), posting and fading (0:13), facing and fading (0:22), facing and attacking (0:30), facing and stepping back (0:59).
Just last week Embiid had suffered a small lateral meniscus tear, and surprisingly has been active less than a week later. But in the first two games of this series, he has a combined 79 points and 22 rebounds while shooting 54 / 38 / 84 and heading to the free throw line 31 times.
Embiid being unstoppable isn’t alone to beat the Hawks evidently, and that’s where Simmons’ defense becomes a constant necessity, particularly when on Young (More than four points on three shots would help, too, of course). It’s what the Sixers are leaning on to drive their championship ambitions. Getting sizable contributions from Harris, Curry, Milton, and Thybulle are important, too, because in the playoffs, you don’t ever win without role players. But it does start with their two max players, who led in very different ways last night.