In many ways, the only question that mattered coming into the 76ers-Hawks second-round series was how Joel Embiid would play, or whether he would play at all, on a torn right meniscus. Two games in, we have our answer. He’s fine. Embiid went for a career playoff high 40 points on Tuesday, and the Sixers defeated the Hawks 118-102 to even the series 1-1 heading to Atlanta for Game 3 on Friday.
That makes 79 points and 22 rebounds for Embiid in this series. He’s shooting 54 percent from the field. He’s gotten to the free throw line 31 times, cashing 26 of them. He’s hit three of his eight 3-point attempts. He’s dropping nifty Euro-steps and hitting fancy-footwork fadeaways that should be impossible for a man his size, let alone one with a bum knee. He’s bullying everyone in the lane.
Before the game, it was announced that Embiid finished second to Nikola Jokic in MVP voting. He received just one first-place vote, four fewer than Stephen Curry, who finished third. No matter. That’s a regular-season award. Jokic deserved it. Embiid is showing he can be the best player in the world on any given night, and the Sixers need every bit of it. Atlanta is for real. If the Sixers get past this round, Brooklyn is likely waiting.
Which is why, shortly after the Sixers’ victory, it wasn’t Embiid who was trending on Twitter.
It was Ben Simmons, who scored just four points on three shots on Tuesday.
The Simmons narrative is tired, to be sure. But it’s not without merit. A team that is aiming to win a championship with a lead ball-handler who can’t, or won’t, shoot the ball is an obstacle in perpetuity. Some nights, like Tuesday, the Sixers play so well that you can appreciate Simmons for the things he brings to the table — like the masterful defense he deployed on Trae Young — rather than begrudge the things he doesn’t provide.
In addition to Embiid, Seth Curry was lights out. He and Tobias Harris combined for 43 points on 56-percent shooting. Curry was 5 for 6 from 3. Shake Milton had a nuclear second-half stretch. When all that’s happening, you can understand Simmons taking a backseat. The Sixers needed his defense on Tuesday. He focused on giving it to them. That’s smart basketball. He’s a smart player.
But that doesn’t mean the questions constantly surrounding Simmons are dumb. Four points and 0 for 2 from the free-throw line didn’t hurt Philly, for one night, against the Hawks. But what about when these peripheral players don’t have extraordinary nights? What about when Embiid, heaven forbid, looks human? Simmons, on some level, is supposed to be a franchise player. He’s not supposed to be picked up by his teammates; he’s supposed to pick them up.
It wasn’t that long ago that it was a genuine debate as to whether the Sixers would be better off building around Simmons or Embiid should they decide to break the two up.
That debate has been put to bed. This is Embiid’s team. But the sustainability of Simmons offering up these scoring no-shows on a relatively regular basis, with the Sixers still coming out on top, is becoming increasingly uncertain. Twitter coaches love to talk about defense and “little things” to let you know they’re seeing something you’re not. But here’s a newsflash: Scoring is a big deal. Shooting is an even bigger deal. The Sixers, their performance on Tuesday night notwithstanding, don’t have a ton of either. Simmons exacerbates that.
Again, his defense on Young, and some hot nights from Harris and Curry, might be enough to get Philly past the Hawks. We’ll see. There’s a long way to go in this series. The Hawks got the split every road team fancies, and I still believe the Hawks have more ways to create easier shots, which is the ultimate difference in most playoff series. But Philly is good enough to overcome that stuff. Atlanta isn’t a great team.
Perhaps the Sixers should be happy if they just get by the Hawks. They haven’t gotten past the second round in two decades. But we know that’s not the goal. They believe they can win it all. They think they belong in the conversation with the favorites. The big dogs. Well, look around. The Nets have three big-time scorers. How can the Sixers hang with them if they only have one?
To me, that’s what all this Simmons heat is about. It’s about looking ahead. Sixers fans know they can’t hang with Brooklyn, or maybe even Atlanta over a full series, if their second-best player is always a risk to put up four points and get intentionally fouled off the court down the stretch, even if he does play great defense.
It’s the same reason Golden State Warriors fans are so hot and cold with Draymond Green’s scoring, because they know no matter how great his defense is — even with Stephen Curry on the team, even when Klay Thompson comes back — he has to make some 3-pointers and be aggressive getting into the lane and finishing coast-to-coast buckets for the Warriors to have a chance to win anything meaningful.
The Sixers don’t have Stephen Curry. They have Seth Curry. The latter is a really good player, and he’ll have his nights, but it’s a tight rope to walk to have to depend on those nights because you’re not getting them from the max-contract guy. That’s the reality of this Sixers team: They’re not stacked. They have one great player. And they’re measuring themselves against teams with two and three great players. Deep down, they know they need to make up ground somewhere. Put Simmons on a team with multiple stars and ample shooting, and his defense and playmaking would be celebrated every night.
But the Sixers, as constructed, need more from him if they want to truly compete for a title. Perhaps that’s unfortunate for Simmons, to put him in a spot where he needs to press to step outside his comfort zone, but it’s either that or lower your expectations. And I think we all know that neither the Sixers nor their fans are going to do that.