Sixers observations: Big 3, second unit strong in another win over Hawks

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Noah Levick
·7 min read
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3 observations after Sixers’ Big 3, second unit strong in another decisive W originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

The Sixers’ home stretch of the regular season was full of potential on-paper wins.

So far, so good with taking care of business.

The Sixers beat the Hawks on Friday night at Wells Fargo Center, 126-104, moving to 42-21 on the season. 

Ben Simmons recorded 18 points, six rebounds and five assists. Joel Embiid scored 18 points and grabbed six rebounds. Tobias Harris had 18 points, too.

Dwight Howard scored a team-high 19 points and pulled down 11 rebounds. 

The Hawks weren't quite as shorthanded as in their loss Wednesday but still were without Bogdan Bogdanovic, Kevin Huerter, De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish. 

Next up for the Sixers is a road game Sunday against the Spurs. Here are three observations on their second consecutive win over Atlanta:

Young has success against Sixers not named Simmons 

Seth Curry started on Trae Young, who returned to action after missing four games with a left ankle sprain, and Simmons defended Solomon Hill. That didn’t work well, and the Sixers changed things up after Atlanta took an 8-2 lead that prompted head coach Doc Rivers to call a timeout. Danny Green switched onto Young. 

Young posted 10 points in the first quarter and 32 in the game. After Young's hot start, Embiid came up higher in pick-and-roll coverage and the Sixers mixed up their looks. There’s nothing inherently wrong with drop coverage but it can’t be a predictable, default option against a talent like Young.

Of course, relying too much on drop coverage wasn’t the only issue in recent years for the Sixers against shifty, skilled scorers. Pressuring such players while also being sharp with subsequent rotations is always a challenge. 

An interesting playoff question for the Sixers is just how much (and how early) Simmons will defend the opposing team’s best offensive player. Rivers has sometimes preferred to use Simmons as a “rover,” encouraging him to sniff out opportunities for deflections and steals. 

“Typically, my off-ball defense hasn’t been as good," Simmons said. “I feel like I’ve picked it up recently. I’m getting better. I think it’s just big for me to be able to communicate and help guys by communicating on the floor and putting guys in the right positions. Our defense is really based off of helping each other. … If one guy makes a call and does something, it’s going to trickle down and everybody has to do the same thing. We have each other’s backs.”

Here’s the type of play Simmons can’t make if he’s forced to stay glued to Young: 

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However, it would be damaging if a perimeter scorer lit Curry or Green up in the first quarter, putting the Sixers in a hole early in a postseason game. It will be a case-by-case judgement for Rivers.

The margin for error is not zero, though. In Green, Thybulle, and George Hill, the Sixers do have players who can give Simmons time off against star guards. 

Does Green have a preference between defending stars and having more off-ball responsibilities?

“I think it depends on the night," he said. “It depends on how I’m feeling; it depends on how fatigued I am. But I think every night … a lot of us want to guard the star player. That’s what we’re here to do. Obviously I’m not a featured guy on the offensive end of the floor, so for me to feel involved, it’s on the defensive end. To be able to guard a star, try to change the game, be active, get deflections and help my team on that end of the floor is key for me.

“It’s always good to help off the ball and know what’s needed, whether it’s shifting or double teaming or rotating or rebounding. ... But yeah, I always enjoy guarding the stars and taking on the challenge.”

Second unit turns tide 

Outside of Simmons, the Sixers did not have a strong start. They fell behind 21-8 and started 3 for 13 from the floor. 

Simmons was aggressive early, scoring 10 first-quarter points, and Rivers left him in to play a couple of minutes with the Sixers’ second-unit players.

He's liked what he's seen from Simmons in the three games since the 24-year-old returned from an illness.

“Ben, since he’s been back, he’s been a tone setter for us," Rivers said. “He’s been absolutely amazing. Not only with his defense, but with his offensive drives, his offensive vision. I don’t know if it’s the best he’s played all year, but this is close. He’s driving our team right now.

“And a lot of it doesn’t show. He had a play in the third quarter where he just put so much pressure on their defense and the ball went around the horn. He gets nothing out of that except for that play led to us getting a three-pointer, and that’s what he keeps doing.”

If Thybulle, Shake Milton, Hill and Howard are the team’s rotational bench players and share the floor in the postseason, it will be interesting to see who plays with that group the most.

Harris has often been the guy, but Rivers rode the hot hand Friday night. Furkan Korkmaz eventually replaced Simmons.

The Sixers’ bench was key in turning the game around, helping erase that aforementioned 13-point deficit swiftly. The team held a 19-point advantage by halftime.

Milton’s four-point play was a bright spot, along with a display of veteran savviness from Hill when he pulled the metaphorical chair out from Danilo Gallinari in the post.

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Howard had eight points and six rebounds in his first stint. At one point it appeared a few Sixers pulled him away from an animated conversation that perhaps could’ve become Howard’s 16th technical foul (an automatic one-game suspension). He maintained his focus and overwhelmed the Hawks physically on many occasions.

Thybulle continues to look the part of an All-Defensive Team player. His versatility, improved on-ball solidity and knack for offense-sparking steals are a tremendous combination. 

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Hill missed all six of his field-goal attempts but doesn’t need to be hitting jumpers to make positive contributions. Still, the Sixers would obviously like if he found a better offensive rhythm in the team's final nine regular-season games. 

How about that Big 3? 

We’ve tracked this stat throughout the season, but it’s a decent time to employ it again: Entering Friday’s game, the Sixers had a plus-16.6 net rating in 1,566 possessions with Embiid, Simmons and Harris on the floor together, per Cleaning the Glass.

Those three don’t all need to be at their best for the Sixers to win playoff games, but the trio’s excellence is a core part of this team’s personality. When the Sixers’ stars are all very good simultaneously, the team is tough to beat. 

Embiid had a relatively low-key night but still amassed pretty impressive numbers in his 25 minutes, as he tends to do.

A 50-40-90 season remains in play for Harris, with free throw percentage the most difficult hurdle. He’s at 89.07 percent from the foul line after a 2-for-2 game.