Two minutes into the first quarter of Game 4, Russell Westbrook
trots into a pull-up jumper at the left elbow. He missed, as he
would 14 more times from that point en route to a 3-of-19
performance. Joel Embiid grabs the rebound, takes a dribble, then
pitches the ball to Ben Simmons.
This is where the magic happens.
Simmons jogs up the floor, then veers slightly to his right.
Seth Curry, filling the right wing, runs into Westbrook before
pushing off and relocating above the break. The subtle shove acts
as a screen -- a ghost screen, really -- and forces a (soft) switch
between Westbrook and Rui Hachimura.
Hachimura now has to deal with Curry in space. Curry wins the
battle, getting Hachimura off balance with a series of moves before
getting to the basket.
This is a relatively nondescript possession on the surface. It's
notable, though, because according to both InStat and Synergy
tracking data (had to make sure I wasn't tripping), this is the
only possession that Simmons logged as a pick-and-roll
Even that isn't a huge deal on the surface.
The Sixers have rightfully run their offense through Joel Embiid.
They've gotten the goods from Tobias Harris this
season. They've run enough quick-hitting dribble handoffs or
off-ball staggers for Curry to bend the defense that way.
Simmons operating as a pick-and-roll initiator hasn't been a
huge priority. He logged just 4.8 possessions per game in that
realm during the regular season, a marked decrease from last season
(6.4), per Synergy.
But the calculus changed on Monday night.
The Sixers weren't able to run the offense through Embiid,
because he got hurt toward the end of the first quarter. ESPN's
Adrian Wojnarowski reported on Tuesday afternoon that Embiid
is doubtful for Game
With Embiid out for most of Game 4, that meant more Dwight
Howard and Simmons in the frontcourt -- an alignment that has never
Per PBP Stats, the Sixers generated
a 107.1 offensive rating with Simmons and Howard on the court
together during the regular season. That's over 13 points worse
than the Simmons-Embiid combo. The difference has been even more stark in the
postseason, though the smaller sample size leads to wonkier
It's easy to see why that pairing hasn't worked. In the
half-court, Simmons typically oscillates between roaming (and
sometimes screening from) the dunker spot or executing hard cuts
from the slot. Those are tight fits from a spacing standpoint,
which is why Embiid's scoring gravity is so important.
Simmons hanging around the dunker spot works because teams have
to double Embiid on the block. If the help comes from the baseline,
the rest of the defense has to shift around that, opening the door
for Simmons to stress the weakside defender with deep seals or
Take this play for example.
As Embiid makes the catch, Westbrook leaves Simmons to cut off a
baseline spin/drive from Embiid. That forces Raul Neto to drop down
to cut off a high-low feed from Embiid.
And that forces Hachimura to "split the
difference" between Curry and Harris. Hachimura is in a tough spot
as is, but then hurts himself by being in No Man's Land. It's an
easy feed from Embiid to Curry for a triple.
Let's just say this possession doesn't happen with Howard
Going back to Game 4, the Sixers did opt to go with a
Simmons-Mike Scott pairing in the second half. It was technically successful, though
it was a far cry from what you saw from Simmons-Embiid, because
Scott is more of a spacer in theory than he is in practice at
this point -- he drained just 34% of his threes this season -- but
that particular frontcourt pairing may be Philly's best chance at a
5-out alignment unless they go all the way small.
They can do that. The Curry-Green-Harris-Simmons quartet is a
strong enough foundation; going with George Hill or Furkan Korkmaz
are options. The issue there is two-fold.
Sifting through the lineup data at PBP Stats and NBA.com,
Simmons has simply not logged much time with him operating as the
true (read: only) big on the floor.
The Curry-Hill-Green-Harris-Simmons lineup logged a singular
minute in the regular season. Swap out Hill for Korkmaz, and you
have a five-minute sample. Swap out Korkmaz for Shake Milton, and
it's a two-minute sample. You get the point.
Beyond the willingness to go that small, Simmons' usage in those
minutes has been... questionable. I'm not sure the Sixers can
afford a repeat of Game 4, in which Simmons was mostly used as a
dunker-spot threat as opposed to a ball-handler or even a
Where were the inverted ball screens from Curry for Simmons? The
Sixers scored north of 1.3 points per possession during the regular
season when Curry screened for Simmons, per a source with access to
Second Spectrum tracking data.
Heck, where were the actions like this that got Simmons rumbling
downhill with an empty corner?
The Sixers go with "Miami" action -- a dribble handoff that
flows into a pick-and-roll -- to get Curry attacking on the
This is ultimately a blown coverage -- my read is that Westbrook
messes this up -- but the idea is sound. Use Simmons as a screener
with an empty corner and you'll either have him attacking a gap
with a full head of steam, or you'll force a switch that he should
be able to pulverize with optimal spacing around him.
With Embiid unlikely to suit up in Game 5, the Sixers will need
to find more avenues for Simmons. Emptying that corner for him to
work as the screener or the ball-handler is low-hanging fruit.
They'll need to grab it all if the Simmons-Howard frontcourt has to
log more minutes. They'll especially need to grab it if Harris
continues to cool off.
Of course, Simmons will need to hold up his end of the bargain.
He'll have to force the issue, in terms of his usage and with the
level of "oomph" he attacks with. That aggression could and should
lead to rim attempts. Those rim attempts should lead to free throw
attempts. I don't need to explain why his 25% clip in this series
won't cut it.
The Sixers' entire regular-season run had a
"can-they-score-in-the-half-court-when-it-matters" cloud hovering
over it. With Embiid currently out, and with the Sixers on the
verge of advancing deeper into the postseason, now is the time to
find the answer.