For roughly 90 seconds, Ben Simmons looked like a rookie playing in his first playoff game in front of an expectant crowd. From there, he was the life of the best party that Philadelphia basketball has seen in years.
The Sixers trounced the Heat 130-103 at home Saturday, decisively claiming Game 1 of their first-round series despite the absence of All-Star center Joel Embiid, who was sidelined with an orbital fracture.
With the home crowd hyped for the franchise’s first playoff game since 2012, Simmons shot out of the gate from the opening tip, missing his first attempt just seconds into the game. Shortly thereafter, he missed a wild spinning shot and a putback attempt to start 0-3.
It was all uphill from there: Simmons slammed home his fourth shot, punctuated it with a scream and never looked back. During the decisive third quarter, Simmons, who fell one rebound shy of a triple double, guided small-ball lineups that blew open the game and left Miami forced to contemplate lineup changes.
Simmons finished with 17 points (on 5-13 shooting), 9 rebounds and 14 assists while posting a +15 in 34 minutes. He fired laser passes to cutters, consistently attacked the basket and was the driving force of the game flow. Trailing by four at halftime, Sixers coach Brett Brown replaced starting center Amir Johnson with stretch forward Ersan Ilyasova in his second-half starting group. That proved to be the exact right button to push: Philadelphia won the third quarter 34-18, as Simmons picked apart the Miami defense with well-timed passes to shooters and cutters alike.
“Simmons was able to create, and then the threes started going from there,” said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. “We couldn’t keep it to within striking distance from that point. It just went.”
Philadelphia shot 18-28 (64.3%) from deep, tying its regular-season high for made threes. Ilyasova hit three three-pointers en route to 17 points, Marco Belinelli hit four three-pointers to post 25 points and J.J. Redick hit four three-pointers to finish with a team-high 28 points. Thanks in large part to Simmons, Philadelphia finished with 34 assists on 45 made baskets.
“They unleashed a flurry of tough shots,” said Heat forward Kelly Olynyk. “They play really, really fast. Lots of stuff in transition. They’ve got those shooters coming off staggered screens full-speed, nonstop. When they have four shooters out there with Simmons, it’s tough to help.”
Indeed, the Sixers have compensated for Embiid’s absence by picking up the pace, shooting more threes and turning Simmons loose.
Before Embiid’s injury, Philly played at a 101.6 pace, posted a 107.4 offensive rating, and had a 19.2 assist ratio. During their final eight games of the season—all without Embiid—Philly’s pace soared to 106.7 (No. 1 during that stretch), its offensive rating spiked to 112.6 (No. 2 during that stretch) and its assist ratio increased to 22.1 (No. 1 during that stretch).
“For me, just being more aggressive,” Simmons said, while explaining his approach without Embiid. “Attacking the rim. Knocking down free throws, when I get the opportunity. Moving the ball. Playing the way I play. I don’t need to take all the shots. I have guys who can hit shots. As long as I’m getting them open and good shots, we’re fine.”
Simmons, the odds-on favorite to win Rookie of the Year, nearly became just the third player since 1964 to register a triple double in his postseason debut. With one more rebound, he would have joined Hall of Famer Magic Johnson and four-time MVP LeBron James in that exclusive club.
“I’ve never seen [Simmons] so demonstrative before a game,” Redick said. “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.”
While Philly is unlikely to maintain its torrid shooting throughout the series, Miami can’t afford to delay the adjustment game. Starting center Hassan Whiteside was a minus-16 in just 12 minutes, and he may find it hard to stay on the court until Embiid, a more traditional center, returns. Spoelstra can turn to Olynyk and rookie Bam Adebayo, or he could try playing five wings and guards to counter Philly’s spacing and versatility.
Seemingly overnight, the Sixers have transformed from a team that couldn't match up with anyone to a squad with a real shot at the East finals, one that forces opponents to pick its poison on a nightly basis. Two years after suffering through a demoralizing 10-win season, Philly just completed a perfect month, winning their 17thstraight game since March 13. Simmons blasted through the rookie wall, and now he’s gotten his feet wet in the postseason. Ilyasova and Belinelli, two unheralded midseason acquisitions, have given Philly’s offense an added dimension. And Embiid, an All-NBA-worthy center, is expected to return to the court soon.
Perhaps that’s why Brown, clearly soaked in the positivity of Simmons’s big night and his first career playoff win as a head coach, issued a proclamation that sounded almost like a warning to the rest of the NBA.
"We're trending in tremendous ways,” said Brown. “I look at the future of our organization, with a healthy Joel Embiid, an improving Markelle Fultz, and draft picks and cap space. … I’m excited for our fans and our young team [about this win], but there's a lot more coming."