• Ben Simmons became the first rookie since Magic Johnson to post a triple double in the postseason, helping pilot the Sixers' comeback victory in Game 4 to claim a 3-1 series lead over the Heat.
By Ben Golliver
April 21, 2018

The Sixers have treated their first-round series against the Heat like it’s a checklist, coolly ticking their way through the standard questions and concerns that welcome untested teams in the playoffs.

They handled years of pent-up hype and excitement in Game 1, running and gunning their way to a win without Joel Embiid in front of a raucous crowd. They won on the road in Game 3, shaking off their first loss in a month and reincorporating Embiid after his bold push to return to the court from injury. Then, on Saturday, they claimed Game 4 over the Heat 106-102 in Miami, weathering a steep deficit, a chippy atmosphere and a whopping 27 turnovers to take a commanding 3-1 series lead. 

Ben Simmons has been a revelation, tallying 17 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists in Game 4. That line made him the third-youngest player in modern NBA history to register a playoff triple double, trailing only a pair of all-timers in Magic Johnson and LeBron James. He also became the first rookie since Johnson in 1980 to register a postseason triple double.

"I'm just doing my job,” he told reporters. “The stats I've averaged all season have been up there so it's not really anything new for the team or myself. As long as we’re winning I’m happy. All those accolades will come if we’re all doing the right thing."  

In truth, Simmons nearly had a quadruple double, as he tied his career-high with seven turnovers. Philly spent much of Saturday out of sync, making unforced mistakes and forcing ill-timed passes—Joel Embiid had eight turnovers against just two made baskets. Credit the Heat for dictating the game’s style: Simmons went head-to-head with James Johnson after one end-to-end sequence and a total of four technical fouls were handed out.

But Simmons and the Sixers tightened up down the stretch, committing just two turnovers in the fourth quarter and executing when they needed to in the closing moments.

“We flipped our whole discipline in the fourth period,” said coach Brett Brown. “The fact that you actually can with this volume of turnovers is mind-boggling.”

The back-breaking highlight came with a minute left and Philly clinging to a one-point lead. Simmons used a high screen to attack the paint going right, picking up speed as the defense failed to rotate to block his path. Four Heat players closed on him, but it was too late. Simmons, who had played the entire fourth quarter without a rest, soared above them all for a two-handed slam.

While Embiid struggled from the field and looked bothered by his protective mask, he paraded to the line for 13 free-throw attempts, blocked five shots and grabbed 12 rebounds. Three of his blocks came in the final quarter.

“I think those two players have the chance to be great,” Brown said of Simmons and Embiid. “And they are ours. … Joel was massive defensively. Ben’s composure down the stretch. I didn’t take him out. He’s one of these rare athletes where I say that Ben Simmons is tired. He doesn’t seem to fatigue blatantly. … I think there’s greatness in both of those two players.”

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Indeed, it’s already time to raise the bar for the Sixers, who have now won despite their inexperience, despite the Heat’s physicality and despite their own self-inflicted mistakes. They have made such a smooth transition to the playoffs that they’ve flipped the question game on its head. Which other teams in the East can win by playing fast or slow? Who can match their shooting when their bench has it going? Who has a better defensive centerpiece than Embiid? Who can keep him off the foul line? What’s the best way to defend Simmons? Will he ever play like a rookie?

If the Sixers win Game 5 at home on Tuesday, they would advance to the second round and await the winner of the Celtics and Bucks. Either way, Philadelphia would enter that series as the favorite thanks to its pair of young stars.

As he delivered his post-game comments, Brown sounded less like a coach breaking down a game and more like a biologist overseeing a twin metamorphosis.

“[Embiid and Simmons] are fantastic teammates, they co-exist well,” he said. “The whole territorial side of NBA basketball, how you deal with fame and notoriety, that is an evolution and part of what I really pay attention to. How do you really grow those two guys together? They need each other, and they understand that. They were exceptional tonight, mentally and physically, and certainly drove the win home.” 

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