The Philadelphia 76ers are off to a near-perfect start to the NBA playoffs, with the return of Joel Embiid, the brilliance of Ben Simmons and the steady production of Dario Saric. Riding the wave of Philly's fairytale postseason, Andrew Sharp and Ben Golliver of the Open Floor podcast discuss the Sixers' run thus far and contemplate their future.
Andrew Sharp: We should just talk about this series, and for me, to my eyes, I think that this is the ultimate testament to that cliche, "Styles make fights." Because Philly is great and is clearly the better team, but this Heat is so perfectly constituted to bother guys like Ben Simmons. They go 10 deep with athletes, they have an unlimited number of fouls to throw at these guys, and they're a great foil for a Sixers team that is ascending and looks like a legitimately great team. We could not have asked for a better test in the first round, and I have to give you credit here, because on our playoff preview a week ago, you said that this was the series you were most looking forward to. And I didn't object on the pod, but in my head I was like, "I don't know how much of the Heat Ben has watched." I just didn't think that they were ever going to be able to score with Philly, and they have for the most part. I think we saw in the fourth quarter they couldn't keep pace with the Sixers when it really counted down the stretch, but different guys on the Heat are just stepping up over and over again, and it has been awesome and you were right.
Ben Golliver: Nothing new. No, I'm kidding. I picked this series as the most interesting to watch because I thought Philly was two or three times more interesting to watch than any other team, and I felt like, "Hey, even if Miami was just a generic opponent, this series would be incredible." And they've played above that level. I was originally worried about their ability to score, but I was not worried about their preparation. And to me, their preparation has been excellent. The adjustment after Game 1 was strong, their effort level in Game 3. I was kind of making fun of Justise Winslow earlier. That guy was playing very, very hard and making some unbelievable plays. He was probably talking about three times too much for my liking after those plays, but he was really balling out and that's just sort of par for the course for all of them.
I would push back here a little bit on what maybe the e-mailer was saying and maybe a little bit of what you're saying. Are we giving Miami slightly too much credit here? It seems like they're good; I'm not sure I would consider them a top-two team in the conference. They are making a young team that's sort of still getting it's playoff legs work and pushing them and being a great foil, but I wouldn't say that they're the favorites to come out of the conference if they somehow take the series in seven games. I think that's going way too far.
Sharp: Yeah, I think that's a fair way to look at it. I loved Winslow, he got my adrenaline going. It really felt like playoff basketball, in part because, like you said, he was talking trash between every possession. He was seeking out contact on like five different Sixers, and then, of course, the mask. What did you think of the whole mask thing?
Golliver: Well, before we get to the mask, real quick on Winslow. Did you ever have this sensation where... I was all in on Micahel Kidd-Gilchrist, I loved him as a prospect and I talked myself back into after like three consecutive injuries. I never wanted to give up on him, and then I found myself liking Winslow for a lot of the same reasons I liked MKG. He had the slow acclimation in the pros and I bailed on Winslow, and so I will say that this game, while satisfying as someone who kind of always liked Winslow, I don't want to actually enjoy the satisfaction because I hold myself responsible for bailing on him too early. Have you ever had that happen? I don't deserve it, you know?
Sharp: You betrayed him early on. That's why I'm not betraying Markelle Fultz right now, even though there have been a lot of red flags. I feel similarly though about Winslow, where I spent a long time with him before last season. We spent like 30 or 45 minutes talking and I was very in on last year as the year Justise Winslow turns the corner, and then he had a number of injuries, the shot was still fully broken and I kind of just quietly gave up. And part of it was the shot, but he's also smaller. He's basically 6'4" out there, and I just didn't think that he was ever going to be able to have the impact that he did have in Game 3. I thought one of the big things for Miami was that he was hitting threes for the first three quarters and so was James Johnson, and when those guys are on Miami becomes much tougher to beat because they've got guys like Goran Dragic and Dwyane Wade and Wayne Ellington and Kelly Olynyk, who can score. But add in James Johnson and Winslow and suddenly they're really, really tough to guard.
Golliver: For the record, I want the entire Open Floor globe to recognize you pronounced Dragic right on the first try today. First time in podcast history. But in terms of Embiid and the mask, this guy is bringing his props to the game now, Andrew. Not only is he calling out his organization on his Instagram story, but he's got props that he's alternating and trying to ditch and his coach is saying you have to wear it or we're taking you out of the game. He's putting on the replacements. What a debut?
We've waited since November, if not longer to see the first vision or version of playoff Embiid. He did not disappoint. The big three to ice it down the stretch. Very cool, the dominate, and we talked about this, the consistency he'll bring to their offense in terms of, "Look, if you need a bucket, if things are getting dicey, if both teams are getting double technicals left and right," he gives you something that even Ben Simmons doesn't give you right now. There's a steadiness, a consistency factor to him and that ability to get to the free-throw line. And I think all of those things were on display, and he is very high on the list of guys that you would just not want to have to play against if you're just a random player in the league. He will wear you down, he will beat you up, he will make you work from tip to buzzer. You could tell it was pent up too. That break really got him focused, rejuvenated in terms of what he was going to be able to do in the game and he let it all out.
Sharp: It's funny, tho, because I really like Joel Embiid, was thrilled to have him back tonight. But but I was also pretty worried about how this was going to go for Philly because they'd been playing so well and stylistically it was going to be kind of an awkward transition to just slide him back in, and he hadn't played in a month. It shouldn't be understated how hard it is to just not play basketball for a month. He was in the concussion protocol and he was in the hospital for a little while and just wasn't really able to do anything. And to just come back in, especially to that atmosphere—which was just like doggy dog, bodies flying all over the place—it's a big ask. And he struggled for parts of that, and when he sat down in that first quarter, Philly broke the game open with just Simmons out there. And that's kind of what I was worried about, so it was really cool to see him come back in the fourth quarter and have it be like, "Oh, yeah, this is why they are better with Joel Embiid and he is unstoppable in the halfcourt." I think seeing him have that little stretch in the fourth made me a lot more confident in the Sixers over the next six weeks.
Golliver: A couple things: First of all, like you're saying, it wasn't the most natural offensive game for him. But 15 free-throw attempts on the road, that is steadiness and I think he can get that against a lot of teams. It's really going to be a struggle for teams to keep him off the line in the playoffs because you don't want to give him anything easy. That's going to be a very reliable source of points.
Another thing is: We need to get a word for uber versatility, where a player is not just versatile in terms of his position and not just his skills, but also his mentality. That's the tag that we want to put on Ben Simmons now, because I thought him shifting his roles from what he had done without Embiid to what he's able to do within that game when he was playing alongside Embiid, but also stepping forward when Embiid was off the court was phenomenal. He sealed a really nice night with that thunderous dunk on the cut from the baseline. He's comfortable playing off the ball, giving it up and getting it back, and they pass the ball so well. The stuff that I was really worried about was Embiid ballstopping and chucking and just launching ugly shots, and I think he mostly resisted some of those tendencies, and I think some of that stuff was coming out right before the end of the injury. Maybe it's the end of a long season, you start to wane a little bit. But I think his decision making was just a little bit better here, and then full credit to Simmons. Let's brainstorm and ask the Open Floor globe to do this: What's a better word for like three-dimensional versatility. When you can basically shape shift or morph. That's what we want to tag Ben Simmons with.
Sharp: Simmons is just mind-boggling right now, and I was wrong on him through most of the year and the last two months or so. In my defense, he has hit another level. He's gone up two or three levels from where he was in like January. It's just crazy how good he is, and some of the passes he throws in tight spaces in the lane are incredible and then he'll also throw 45-foot passes from the backcourt to the opposing three-point line and they're dead on. He's just incredible and we should probably walk more about him at a later date, but we have a lot of other stuff to get to.
Golliver: Two quick things on Simmons. I probably told this story before. I saw him play his junior or senior year in high school, and he was just so ridiculously dominant compared to the competition. It was just sad and I went away saying, "Throw this guy in the NBA right now. He's ready." And we had to wait two or three years for that to happen, but he's like 65 to 70% to that level of dominance right now as a rookie. That's how he's playing. It's kind of crazy. It's just so hard to match up with his physical tools already. It's remarkable.
My second part was I was so disappointed in him in Game 1. He spoiled any all-timer Twitter stat that I wanted to throw out. I was sure it was going for 1,000 retweets, Andrew. I don't know if you know this, but the only two players in the modern NBA's history to register triple-doubles in their postseason debuts are LeBron James and Magic Johnson, and for some reason Brett Brown took Ben Simmons out one rebound shy of a triple-double in his postseason debut. You could have had the three pictures side by side--Magic, LeBron, Ben Simmons. Elite company, rare club, however you want to pitch it. He fell one rebound short.
Sharp: Can I just say I'm really, really sorry because I know that random stats after big playoff games are one of the things you enjoy most about this time of year and I enjoy it, too. The Golliver stat is a key part of the playoff experience for me, so I know how heartbreaking that must have been for you in the moment.
Golliver: I think we should petition Brett Brown or the league office to get this fixed. Can we go back and look at the tape like Russell Westbrook does? Maybe he like poked a ball in some point in the second quarter and we can give him that 10th rebound. That's what we need, because it would've been just too perfect and it would have gotten the hype machine going even more than it already has. That's all I got on Simmons, though, we can jump on whatever else you want to talk about.