Welcome to ‘Winning Culture’ the new column focusing on the Philadelphia 76ers for tapintothemainline.com. Throughout the season we will be following the Sixers and trying to make sense of going from 10 wins to hopefully 55 in just three years. Be sure to check back each week for offbeat insights, weird references, and as many words about Joel Embiid as we can write.
When Ben Simmons put his hand to his ear in homage to Allen Iverson while the 6'1 point guard from Georgetown looked on, we knew we could close the books on game two. The moment came in the midst of a historic third quarter in which the Sixers poured in 51 points on the hapless Nets.
It was a significant moment in perhaps the most significant quarter of the season. Game one last Saturday had been a complete disaster. The team was listless, didn’t execute, and generally played like it was still late March instead of the middle of April. The crowd at the game wasn’t impressed and had let the team know it by booing them. The booing itself had taken on a life of its own by the start of game two. Ben had been asked about it post-game and his response was not very politically savvy. Arguments broke out across the internet and all the usual blow-hards on talk radio and other outlets had weighed in, many going as far as to write the Sixers off. There are no back to backs in the playoffs, which means every narrative from ever game has time to seep and fester before the ball is tipped again.
For game two the Sixers came out with more fire. Ben Simmons who, fairly or unfairly, received the lion's share of the blame for game one started out aggressive. The Sixers went up 34-28 in the first quarter before letting the Nets close the gap by the end of the second. They went into halftime leading the Nets by a mere one point.
Then everything changed.
We found out after the game Brett Brown had lit into the team during the half. He apparently was upset by their lackluster effort overall, but specifically on defense. Whatever he said, it worked.
The Sixers came out of the second half on fire. In the span of four minutes, the Sixers lead went from one point to 20, punctuated by Simmons cupping his hand to his ear and basking in the roars from the crowd. The Sixers might as well have put the famous gif of Vince Carter at the 2000 dunk contest on the jumbotron.
Simmons would finish the beatdown with a, having scored 18 points, 12 assists, 10 rebounds, to go along with two steals. It was an impressive performance by a young man with a lot of pressure on him.
Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris, and especially Boban Marjanovic all had notable games. Embiid’s work came with his ongoing and worrying knee issues. He scored 23 in a mere 21 minutes on the court. Boban was 8-14 from the field and felt like he couldn’t miss. He’s been a terrific asset in this series. Harris, who has felt like he was in a slump for weeks, finally started to hit some shots.
But it was Ben Simmons that was the story. It must have felt like the fans and the city had called him out in game one, and he responded. Still, it ended up being merely a prelude to game three.
Following game two Simmons and Embiid had a fun little moment on the podium after the game where they laughed at Embiid apologizing for throwing an elbow at Jarrett Allen. It could certainly be viewed as disrespectful, although to me it looked like a couple of young men having fun. No matter how you view it, like everything else where athletes show human emotion, it kicked off a mini-firestorm.
The Nets said they thought it was disrespectful. The same blowhards from before blew harder. WIP callers ranted about how unlikable the team was. It’s the same kind of song and dance we go through every time young athletes, especially those of color, visibly have fun and appear to not take the sports they play as deathly serious as people who call into radio shows do. It is, of course, complete nonsense. These men have a fun job and enjoy doing it. They do it under constant scrutiny with the kind of grace most of us can only imagine.
The noise reached a crescendo when Jared Dudley was asked about Simmons and replied " I think that Ben Simmons is a great player in transition. Once you slow him up in the halfcourt, I think he’s average when it comes to that.” Former Net and generally mediocre non-all star journeyman turned broadcaster Richard Jefferson chimed in saying the whole NBA felt that way. Most of the slander directed at Simmons is usually centered around his lack of a useful jump shot and his reticence towards taking bad shots. Dudley, who worked hard later in his career to turn himself into a league average 3pt shooter once he lost his athleticism and began bouncing from team to team, implied a bit more than just issues around shooting.
Simmons was asked about Dudley’s quote and responded very simply with ‘It’s coming from Jared Dudley’. His tacit dismissal of the older players comments riled up people who believe very strongly the kind of veteran leadership fading bench players like Dudley are there to provide. The back and forth dominated the news cycle right up until about half an hour before tip-off of game three when it was announced Embiid would not be playing that night.
As good as Simmons is, Embiid is the Sixers best player and the rock upon which they build their church. At least for now. Losing him right before playing on the road in front of a Brooklyn crowd getting to watch their first playoff game since May 1st, 2015, was bad news. The Nets are a very short basketball team comparatively, having only two players taller than 6’9” on the squad. They have absolutely no real answers for Embiid inside. As good as Allen is, he’s just not big enough to handle the massive Cameroonian. The Sixers announcing they were going to start Greg Monroe, signed a few weeks earlier, must have made their eyes light up. It also had the effect of shifting all the pressure from the Sixers to the Nets, making it a must-win game for them.
They also had the “physical presence” and vital “leadership” of Jared Dudley back after he was forced to miss game two. The stage was set for the Nets to go up two games to one.
Simmons has not always performed well in games where Embiid was out and he was needed to step up. Like any 22-year old, his job performance has been erratic and his intensity comes and goes.
That was not the case in game three. Ben Simmons heard all of the talk and boos and questioning of his ability and had himself a game.
The Nets came out hot, going up 9-4 early. The Sixers caught up and eventually took the lead with 6:41 left to play in the first at 18-17. The Nets would never lead again.
The Sixers had an answer for every blow the Nets struck. Tobias Harris and JJ Redick were all over the court shaking free for open look after open look. After the Nets spent the first two games top-locking JJ to keep him from being able to see the basket, he ran Joe Harris off the court. Tobias scored 29 and never missed from beyond the arc, going 6-6 from three.
Outside of Boban, the bench was erratic, which coupled with a less-than-stellar performance from Greg Monroe as the starting center, was the only thing that even kept the Nets close. The Sixers starters were simply too much for the overwhelmed Nets. And there in the middle of it, showing what he thought of being called average, was Ben Simmons.
To be fair, I don’t think Dudley’s comments or crowds booing or any of the noise had an effect on Simmons play. His team needed him to step up and he did. Brown’s getting in his ear at the half of game two probably had more impact than a thousand soon-to-be-retired journeymen with no playoff games under their belt since 2015 possibly could, no matter how many strawman arguments the internet tries to put forth. Simmons is a competitive guy. He wants to win and it showed. It looked like Simmons finally understood that it’s his team too, and if Embiid isn’t there, he has to be the guy.
For the second night in a row, Simmons obliterated the Nets from every angle. Sharp cuts, laser precision passes, rebounding, defense, everything he does was on display. He scored 31 points on 11 of 13 shooting. He went 9 of 11 from the line, despite Nets coach Kenny Atkinson hilariously instructing his team to hack him late in the 4th to send him to the line. Like everything else the team tried, it didn’t work. Simmons also notched nine assists, four rebounds, two steals, and three blocks. One of the three blocks, on a three-point attempt by Caris LeVert late in the second, was so brutal that you could almost see LeVert begin thinking about his vacation plans for next week.
Simmons capped his night with an emphatic two-handed dunk off a fake handoff that finished off whatever hope the Nets might have been entertaining of a comeback. As Ben hung from the rim with one hand, face contorted into his favorite emoji-like expression, the air left the darkened arena. Hundreds of people wearing Grind Up t-shirts, which I believe is a cross-promotion with local artisanal coffee shops but am unsure, headed to the exits. For the second night in a row the team was outmatched, outgunned, and out-averaged by the Sixers, and there in the center of it was Ben Simmons.
For his part Jared Dudley physical-presenced and veteran-leadershipped himself to a very respectable 0-4 from the field. He chipped in a strong rebounding performance, grabbing the ball once. Rounding out the grizzled veteran clutch playoff performance from Dudley were two turnovers and a foul. The highlight of the game was late in the 3rd when he sparked a run by the Nets with the Sixers leading 94-79 by airballing a wide open three-pointer in the face of Ben Simmons who was standing 10 feet off of him in the post. The airball showed the younger Nets how to play the game the right way in a highlight reel moment that will be everlasting in their careers, like a human gobstopper.
As of this writing, the Sixers are up two games to one. There’s plenty of basketball left to play in this series and this postseason. It just remains to be seen how much of that basketball is played in the borough of Brooklyn, and how much is played in the headspaces of the Nets’ zeitgeist where Ben Simmons currently lives rent-free.
Jacob Jones-Goldstein has written about the Sixers for Roundballrev.com, loves statistics, and Trusts the Process. He dabbles in fiction, watches a lot of movies, and goes to more concerts than he should.