Not every regular-season game signifies something profound.
Sometimes a team wins because it makes more difficult shots than its opponent. Sometimes the Sixers have won primarily because they’ve had more healthy players, or because Joel Embiid is the most dominant player on the floor.
The Sixers have gone 7-3 since Embiid suffered a left knee bone bruise, though, and that can’t be attributed only to scheduling quirks or brushed aside as a complete coincidence.
With Embiid expected to return this weekend, those 10 games without him confirmed a few things we’d seen before the All-Star break. They didn’t answer every big question about the Sixers, though.
Head coach Doc Rivers encapsulated one of the key takeaways well Thursday night with his explanation of why he again started Mike Scott after going with Dwight Howard for a game. He also cut Howard’s minutes with Ben Simmons from 18 Tuesday night against the Nuggets to six Thursday in Cleveland.
“Just the numbers tell us,” he said. “I don’t need numbers — my eyes tell me. When Dwight starts with that unit, we haven’t gotten off to good starts. And so we like Dwight to stay with his unit. He’s better with that second unit, and so that was our thought going into it.”
When Howard and Simmons play together, the Sixers have a minus-10.9 net rating and 102.9 offensive rating, per Cleaning the Glass. The pairing clearly does not bring out the best in Simmons, to the extent that it was logical to start Scott again even though he’s shot 23.8 percent from the floor and 23.0 percent from three-point range since Embiid’s injury. (For those curious, the Sixers have a plus-2.1 net rating with Simmons-Scott lineups. Again, the key factor there is Howard not being on the floor for 392 of those 422 possessions.)
So, did the Sixers learn anything about what minutes with Embiid on the bench will look like in the playoffs?
One thought is the team could attempt to keep Simmons and Embiid together at nearly all times, minimizing Howard-Simmons minutes and leaning on lineups with Howard surrounded by shooters like Shake Milton, Seth Curry and George Hill who won’t be as bothered by the 35-year-old’s presence in the dunker spot. Another thought is that Simmons at the five lineups are still a viable postseason option, even though Tony Bradley (now a member of the Thunder), Scott and Howard were the Sixers’ three main centers without Embiid.
“I don’t know what the minutes will look like, because hopefully Joel is playing 38 minutes a night,” Rivers said. “What you can’t ever count on in a playoff game is foul trouble — or anything. … I’d rather figure it out having Joel all the time. But the fact that he hasn’t been there, I think more not for me but for our guys to understand we can still play — we have to still play, and we have to still win games — I think we’ve crossed over to that side now. Early in the year, Ben or Joel missed a game and we were losing it. You could just feel it. Now, they don’t look … they don’t care. They’re just going to win. Our mindset absolutely had an adjustment, and it’s been great to watch.”
Despite being limited to 15 minutes Thursday because of foul trouble, Tobias Harris has posted 21.6 points per game on 52.4/42.3/94.3 shooting splits over his last 10 contests. He’s played intelligent, confident basketball, making sound decisions in the pick-and-roll and when double teamed in the mid-post. Not a new development, but still a positive.
Nothing Harris has done this season strikes one as unsustainable in a playoff setting, although he’ll need to prove that’s the case when the time comes.
“We know as a team we have a style of play, we have a system, and it has worked all year,” he said. “We have to just stick to the script with this, and have guys step up and have big games and make shots. We were able to do that, and that’s a good sign of a really good team. We’ve just got to keep on going. … We’ll continue to build our chemistry as a unit and continue to ride this thing out and, God willing, stay healthy.”
The last couple of weeks have also supported the notion that Howard, Milton and Matisse Thybulle are legitimate postseason rotation pieces, while Furkan Korkmaz is not. If the Sixers aim to eliminate potential defensive weak spots and have a dependable bench, there’s no spot for Korkmaz.
Rivers has good reason to be confident George Hill will fit once he’s healthy, though he’ll have to figure out the details. It would be surprising if Korkmaz and Scott receive meaningful postseason minutes.
Of course, Simmons doesn’t align with our theme of increased certainty about who the Sixers are. He’s had 1-for-7 and 2-for-11 shooting performances, making just 45.3 percent of his field goals and 53.3 percent of his free throws after the All-Star break. Simmons is obviously a screening and rolling threat and a dynamic player in transition, but how will he be used offensively in the playoffs? Some hybrid of half-court ball handling, fast-break playmaking, screening for Curry and Harris, and lurking in the dunker spot?
Can he play efficiently and aggressively in that multi-purpose role while avoiding the costly turnovers that have been an issue of late?
Simmons, Rivers and the Sixers still have time — 24 games, to be precise — and the volume and gravity of the questions don’t feel as overwhelming as in recent years.
That’s undoubtedly a good thing, and so is the fact that the Sixers’ All-Star big man is coming back.
“I’m excited, man,” Howard said. “I think when we add Joel back to the lineup, it’ll be lights out. I think everybody’s shooting the ball well. The second unit is moving the ball; we’re finding our stride. The first unit has been great all year. So, adding Joel back is just going to make us more dominant. We miss him. We’re glad he’s healthy and he’s able to play. I think it was kind of a blessing for him to get some time off to really heal his body but also get that fire lit up under him, knowing that it’s the second half of the season — it’s his time.
“A lot of people have written him off for the MVP and stuff like that, so I’m pretty sure he’s looking forward to getting back and being the most dominant center in the NBA right now. I can’t wait to see him on the court.”