In Review | Defense, Bench Pave Way for Second Half Breakouts
PHILADELPHIA, PA - Tell us if you’ve seen this script before:
A team from Philadelphia, relying initially on defense, grinds its way through the first half, only to seize control in the third quarter.
Pretty familiar and fresh, right?
No, the location Monday wasn’t the Lone Star State, and the contest in question didn’t involve the pigskin.
But the 76ers’ 107-86 victory over the Utah Jazz did follow a somewhat familiar pattern to the Philadelphia Eagles’ primetime blowout win Sunday against the arch rival Dallas Cowboys.
After a scrappy preliminary stanza saw the Sixers buckle down to yield their lowest first-half scoring total of the season, it was Ben Simmons who helped open things up once the teams returned to the floor.
Morphing into full-fledged, paint-punishing attack mode following intermission, the point man powered his way to a new career-high 27 points, 22 of which he scored between the third and fourth periods. The Aussie added 10 rebounds, 2 assists, and 4 steals as well, en route to his 11th double-double in 16 appearances.
The Sixers’ triumph at The Center was their first of a season-long 6-game homestand, and earned them a 2-game sweep of Utah for the first time since the 1987-1988 campaign, during which only three players on the Sixers’ current roster were alive.
Setting Simmons loose, according to Brett Brown, was a priority.
“Ben, I thought, was excellent in attacking,” said the fifth-year head coach. “As a team, it was our point of emphasis in the scouting report, and Ben did a really good job of that tonight.”
Simmons attributed his success to “staying aggressive and finishing.”
“We had to go in there, and try and score,” said the 21-year old.
As for putting up his highest scoring total yet?
“I thought I was going to have more, honestly.”
Not part of the Sixers’ contingent of players who were on the planet the last time the franchise beat the Jazzmen twice in the same season, Simmons enjoyed a breakout finish on the heels of a first half in which sunk only 2 of 9 field goal attempts, despite a positive plus-5 rating.
Nevertheless, he ended the evening hitting 11 of his last 13 shots, the bulk of which came on an array of close-range moves.
Throughout Monday’s second half, Simmons used floaters and post ups to win isolation match-ups, called upon his strength and physicality to clean up around the basket, and proved to be a side-stepping, reversing, head-of-steam threat in the open court.
Regardless of whom Utah put on Simmons, whether it was fellow countryman Joe Ingles, Thabo Sefolosha, or Donovan Mitchell, there were no answers.
“Ben set the tone to get in the paint with his ability to attack,” said JJ Redick. “I thought he was phenomenal.”
Redick himself was a difference-maker in the second half too, teeing off for all 20 of his points during the last 24 minutes of regulation. He went 0 for 3 in the first half, hit all 4 four of his field goals in the third quarter, before going 2 for 3 from the field and 6 for 6 from the foul line in the fourth.
“I think he got some better looks,” Brown said of Redick’s turnaround. “We helped him get better looks, and I especially give him a lot of credit.”
“I’m always going to be aggressive,” Redick said. “There just weren’t opportunities to get shots off in the first half. Sometimes, that happens within a game. I just knew there would be some opportunities and stayed patient.”
Joel Embiid contributed to the Sixers’ strong collective interior game, posting 15 points and 11 rebounds for his seventh double-double of the fall. The team’s dominant performance on the inside, however, wouldn’t have been possible without the efforts of back-up big man Amir Johnson.
The 13-year veteran tallied 8 points, 13 rebounds, and 4 blocks, the latter two figures representing season-highs. He was integral in helping the Sixers establish a decisive 55-34 advantage in rebounding, and 66-34 margin in respect to points scored in the paint.
“He was the MVP tonight,” Embiid said of Johnson. “He had a really great game.”
Brown agreed, revealing that on Monday, Johnson was tapped to further the Sixers’ new post-game ritual of ringing a bell inside the locker room. A different player is given the honor after each win.
“Just finding ways to help my teammates,” said Johnson. “I feel like the biggest part I can help this team out is playing defense, grabbing rebounds, and finding my way around the floor.”
Absent their typically steady perimeter touch Monday, the Sixers, which were a combined 4 for 15 from 3-point territory against the Jazz, had to resort to flexing some muscle in the lane, and they did.
“It ended up being...more of a fistfight,” said Brown, “I’m thrilled with our physicality on the defensive boards. I give our defense the most credit for this win.”
Over the course of a first half in which points were at a premium, the Sixers received a critical boost from their bench, and not only from Johnson. T.J. McConnell served as an equally important catalyst. He and Johnson subbed in together at the 7 minute, 32 second mark of quarter No. 1, and from there, the Sixers turned a 7-5 deficit into a 25-15 lead.
“TJ gave us a real spark in the first half,” Redick said. “Amir’s presence in both parts of the paint was huge.”
“The bench really helped us tonight,” said Brown.
The Jazz clawed back to within four midway through the second quarter, but Johnson stemmed the tide with back-to-back buckets - a floater, and hook. Embiid and Saric (5 pts, 7 reb, +15) came alive late, and lifted the Sixers to a 47-36 edge heading into the locker room.
The Sixers went up by as many as 21 points in the third frame, before Utah twice narrowed the gap to 11 points within the final five minutes of the fourth. Robert Covington (13 pts, 4 reb, 4 stl) ripped off 8 points in a row - a spurt bookended by threes - to seal the deal.
The Utah Jazz could do nothing to stop Ben Simmons in the second half, in which he dominated.
The Sixers reach the midway point of their season-long six-game homestand Wednesday, when they welcome the Portland Trail Blazers to The Center for a battle on Thanksgiving Eve. Rip City has held its own so far this year, having won three of four outings heading into action Monday. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum remain a dangerous backcourt duo, with Lillard ranked 10th in the NBA in scoring (24.6 ppg) as of Monday, and McCollum - the Lehigh product - third overall in 3-point percentage (51.1 3fg%).