Now, that was fun.
I don’t know about you guys, but I was not expecting much. Even prior to the news that Joel Embiid would be out for last night’s game vs. the Brooklyn Nets, I was having a hard time getting jazzed up about the long-awaited return of Ben Simmons to the Wells Fargo Center court to face off against the Sixers, being that the hometown team was already so undermanned. Philly’s star backcourt of James Harden and Tyrese Maxey is on the shelf until next month. The last thing I wanted was to see Joel on the court as Simmons returns and he and the Nets blowout the Sixers in South Philly and set off a week’s worth of ‘Ben Won the Breakup’ articles to follow. Preemptively, I was even sort of hoping that the Sixers would just rest Joel to punt the game altogether, take the loss, and admit defeat on this game. Enjoy beating the B-team Sixers, Ben, we’ll see you on Jan. 25 with a full deck.
So when the news of Embiid’s foot injury came out, my first reaction of course was to hope that he’s OK, and my second was mild relief that we could concede this first Ben visit as a foregone conclusion, fake loss, pathetic win for Ben and Brooklyn. Unwinninable scenario for Ben, really.
If he plays well and wins: how could he not? The Sixers’ three best players are out, Mazel Tov, big whoop.
If he plays poorly and loses: yiiiiiikes, guy.
The scenario in play is the equivalent of a batter facing off against a position player.
So I started watching the game mainly for the theatrics of it all, fully prepared to hatefully turn it off by halftime. Wouldn’t you know it, by the middle of the second quarter, the Sixers were in the thick of it, as was the crowd, and I needed the Sixers to win that game. And they freaking did.
And as for Simmons, he didn’t play poorly, but yiiiiiikes, guy. You can’t lose that game! Not after, as an adult professional basketball player, you did the Jordan shrug after making two free throws. Or after missing an uncontested layup and then making an uncontested layup and then shushing the crowd. I will admit: in the first half especially, Simmons looked good. His defense was great, he was being aggressive, he was finding his teammates, he made those legendary free throws. Sure, he scored two points after halftime and didn’t register a stat in the fourth quarter, but that was Dwight Howard’s fault.
Three of my heroes from my favorite Sixers win on the young season:
‘BBall’ Paul Reed
Our favorite backup center and part-time direct-to-consumer sweatshirt salesman was excellent all night! He played under control, put up a monster stat line (19 points, 10 boards, three steals, two blocks, game-high +21). He attacked the offensive boards with fervor and finished around the rim with patience, made his free-throws and rewarded Doc Rivers’ long leash with him as the big man played 31 minutes. Reed will even be forgiven for getting ahead of himself on those two occasions when he tried to go solo at Simmons to score and would up helplessly flailing. It happens, he was feeling himself.
“In the beginning of the first half, I thought [Montrezl Harrell] was good,” Rivers said. “The rest of the game, I thought Paul Reed was phenomenal ... I thought Paul kept the energy through the game. That’s why we kept him in.”
Here’s what Sixers’ guard De’Anthony Melton had to say about Reed postgame:
“Man, BBall Paul. … He was active tonight, and I think that’s what we need to do on both ends of the floor — getting offensive rebounds, getting in transition, cleaning stuff up, setting screens, rolling. He was great tonight for us.”
Listen, I love Georges Niang. I’m on the record about it. He’s been excellent this season, knocking down threes, creating just enough inside the arc and making some shots around the rim. But last night? C’mon! Talking trash to Kevin Durant? Guy couldn’t be more Boston if he tried. I’m skeptical about Niang’s defense come playoff time, but for now it’s certainly holding up, and it absolutely did last night, and his attitude right out the gate was exactly what the Sixers needed. He wasn’t going to back down to the Nets — not to Durant, not to Simmons, not to their documentary-enthusiast teammate — and neither were the Sixers. Late in the second quarter, Niang and Simmons met in the paint and Simmons sent Niang a forearm shiver, so Niang met him in kind, receiving a questionable Flagrant 1 for his trouble. Worth it. Let the guy know you won’t be pushed around. Niang and Simmons had words after Simmons split his free throws. It was a quintessential Georges Niang game, but interpersonally and on the stat sheet — he finished with 16 points after making four of his five attempted threes.
Melton has been so very good for the Sixers this season. He is a menace on defense, and his offense has been far more reliable than I’d anticipated when the Sixers acquired him this offseason. Last night, he tallied 22 points, four assists, four rebounds, three steals and a block in 32 minutes as he continues to start in the backcourt. He’s simply a winning player who breeds positive basketball wherever he goes. I’ve been most pleasantly surprised by his ability and willingness to create his own shot from three — last night he hit a number of self-created shots from deep, and it wasn’t the first time this season. He’s been a delight.
“Yeah, he did a great job,” Rivers said if Melton. “This is something he’s never done. This was as simple as you can keep an offense. Five wide, space, pick-and-rolls, throwing it to the elbow, cut. [The Nets are] a switching team, and so we just talked about cutting. I thought we did that.”
There are too many others to mention — Tobias Harris, Shake Milton, P.J. Tucker’s defense — it was a tremendous team victory on an emotional night born purely out of the group’s effort, togetherness, and toughness, as they faced off against a Brooklyn team leagues more talented than them but indisputably soulless.
Rivers summed it up postgame when asked about the atmosphere in the arena and how the team responded to all the talk about the return of Ben Simmons.
“There was just so much talk about the game and what was going to happen instead of the basketball part of it. We had two days and you could tell our guys, they wanted to win the game. They really wanted to win the game, and that’s what was on their mind. I thought the fans were phenomenal, and they helped the atmosphere ... the atmosphere … I don’t know if you want to call it a boxing atmosphere, but that’s what it felt like. And that’s a good atmosphere.”