That’s how you start the Playoff Process. The Philadelphia 76ers beat the Miami Heat 130-103 after making some adjustments and finding their stride to dominate the second half 74-43. Joel Embiid even donned a Phantom of the Opera mask to ring the bell before tip-off. Except for some defensive slips in the first half, Game 1 had everything Sixers fans could ask for.
One of the biggest things I was eager to focus on was how the Heat set up their defense to stop Ben Simmons, and how he operated and attacked different matchups. Especially with Embiid absent right now, it will be key in determining how the Sixers’ offense runs this series. And depending on how difficult life is in the playoffs for him, it could alter how much urgency Simmons puts on developing a jumper going forward.
As we saw pretty quickly, though, Simmons knows exactly what to do right away. He finished with 17 points, nine rebounds, 14 assists and two steals, putting together an all-around performance that was commanding in every sense of the word.
The Heat started out with a bit of a surprise, placing the elite but smaller defensive wing Josh Richardson on Simmons. Simmons went at him aggressively immediately, going into a post-up on the game’s first possession and driving at him with more downhill speed and brute strength than he could handle. Richardson guarded him tighter on-ball than you might think early on, which you can see Simmons exploit in the following clip.
He’s a freight train when going to the rim, amped up with almost unparalleled vision and playmaking to pick apart back-pedalling defenses when they try to slow him down. In the first quarter, we saw a perfect example of that two-parted skill set. Simmons barrelled down the court and tricked Richardson immediately:
Simmons can often initiate a dribble hand-off in this situation, and seeing as he knew Richardson might be expecting this with Marco Belinelli, Simmons gestured to Belinelli with a turned head and slight dribble hesitation to slow Richardson, before turning on the jets and exploding for a dunk. There’s nothing Richardson can do if he’s caught off guard and overpowered at the basket.
Halfway through the first quarter, Miami switched James Johnson onto Simmons. As a gritty swiss army knife on defense with a long, powerful, 6’9” frame, Johnson has the best kind of physical profile to take some contact and pester Simmons on the ball. He was happy leaving Simmons several feet of space right away (as any defender should), but Simmons remained aggressive, making quick decisions when looking to pass or drive. And to keep the offense running so effectively (130 points and 18 3s for this young team’s playoff debut is quite something), the Sixers utilized some brilliant off-ball movement.
Dario Saric’s smart cutting worked here as Belinelli created misdirection by darting through the lane, faking towards the top of the arc before snagging Richardson and the attention of Dwyane Wade, who was guarding Saric. As J.J. Redick came into position to set a clever screen for Saric, Wade turned, slammed into the pick, and Hassan Whiteside never knew what was going on behind him as Dario slipped in for the layup:
When guys work this well off the ball and Simmons is left in space to fire like a quarterback, capable of making any pass he wants, it’s easy for him to thread the ball inside no matter how annoying his defender tries to be by sagging off.
Here, Johnson tested what Simmons could do once again by giving him plenty of space, ensuring he couldn’t blow by as easily with a baseline drive. Instead, Simmons waited for Belinelli to make a perfect cut — who messed with his defender, Wayne Ellington, while Ersan Ilyasova got in the way to help Belinelli catch Ellington flat-footed — and dropped a bounce pass right on time for another layup:
Later in the first quarter, we saw Justise Winslow enter the game and get his first minutes on Simmons. He once again played way off Simmons in an attempt to mess up passing lanes, but Simmons was comfortable taking him into the post to draw fouls or pass as teammates moved around him.
On this possession, Simmons simply outsmarted everyone to get his own bucket. He knew Miami might be anticipating a quick Redick 3, so he faked a dribble hand-off to leave Winslow lost at the arc, tore down the now open lane, euro-stepped Kelly Olynyk, and tipped in the ball after missing the initial layup:
There’s nothing a defense can do about that. And whether it’s Redick, Belinelli or Ilyasova, the Sixers’ improved shooting helps worry opponents to the point that Simmons can find these chances to score without needing to isolate.
The second half
After half time, the game turned in a hurry. Brett Brown opted for a lineup change that surrounded Simmons with four shooters — Redick, Robert Covington, Saric and Ilyasova — and it did wonders for Philly’s offense. The uptick in shooting that helped the Sixers win the third quarter 34-18 and change the game punished Hassan Whiteside, who was essentially played off the court after he recorded just two points in 12 minutes and was beaten by the Sixers’ smaller adjustments.
It didn’t matter that Johnson was sinking into the paint on possessions like this:
With Philly shifting to four shooters, Miami opted to put Johnson back on Simmons and use Richardson on the reduced off-the-dribble threat of Ilyasova. However, by running Ilyasova off a screen set by Saric (guarded by Whiteside), the Sixers got a quick open 3 — attacking Whiteside’s limited speed and effort at the perimeter when he’d rather be around the paint worked, as Richardson was taken out by the screen and Whiteside didn’t switch.
Then, the Sixers used Simmons in sets like this, which show Brett Brown’s creativity with a roster that has such unique size and skill. Belinelli drops the ball into Simmons in the post, Redick comes over and sets a flare screen so Saric can pop into space at the top of the arc, and Simmons has an easy time hitting his man for another 3:
Posting up with a point guard, screening with a shooting guard, and running a sharpshooting power forward off a flare screen is just beautifully weird offense.
Simmons also found some success as a scorer himself. He can finish over/through Richardson and had an effortless layup against Johnson in transition. In the third quarter, Simmons destroyed a mismatch on Kelly Olynyk — he took his defender outside, eyed him up, then showed off his incredible combination of ball handling and lateral quickness with a crossover and dunk:
“I’ve never seen [Simmons] so demonstrative before a game,” Redick said, per Sports Illustrated’s Ben Golliver. “I expected him to rise to the moment. … He was awesome tonight. He’s got a quiet cockiness about his game that I love. … He’s not afraid of the moment.”
There’s no way to argue with what Redick said. Simmons’ calm yet aggressive hold of the game didn’t shy away in his first playoff test.
Of course, Johnson, Winslow and the Heat could benefit from more practice of figuring out how to handle Simmons. Erik Spoelstra is one of the league’s best coaches who will tinker with adjustments to do all he can to keep his team competitive.
The problem for Miami is that Ben Simmons is unlike anyone else in the NBA. Not to mention the Sixers have immense size, defense, an improved bench, fluid off-ball movement, and a masked Joel Embiid yet to play that give them advantages in numerous areas. Miami should be done in five or six games.
With Simmons maintaining total control of how he wants to control the pace and pick teams apart, totally unfazed by his first postseason game, it’s clear that he’s going to give playoff opponents nightmares as they wrack their brains with ways to guard him.