PHILADELPHIA — If you are a believer in the Sixers, Christmas Day had to feel vindicating.
It was Philadelphia 121, Milwaukee 109 inside a packed Wells Fargo Center. The offense, maligned for its perimeter problems, connected on 47.7% of its threes. Tobias Harris made five. Furkan Korkmaz made four. Joel Embiid and Al Horford each made three. Before the game, Sixers GM Elton Brand noted that Philadelphia ranked in the top-10 in three-point percentage, but their 30 attempts per game sits in the bottom third in the league. We need to shoot more threes, Brand said.
On Wednesday, the Sixers fired up 44.
The defense didn’t have its best night, but a quick glance at Giannis Antetokounmpo’s final line—18 points on 8-27 from the floor, including 0-7 from three—will tell you they will live with it. Philadelphia likes to stick Joel Embiid on Antetokounmpo, a matchup that Brett Brown admits has had “mixed results.” Embiid, though, is a defensive menace. He’s one of the few players Antetokounmpo can’t simply score over going to the basket, and with Embiid parked in the paint, the reigning MVP was forced into an awkward collection of fallaways, mid-range jumpers and off balance runners.
“I want to be Defensive Player of the Year,” Embiid said. “Tonight showed it.”
If you are a skeptic of the Sixers, the fourth quarter on Wednesday had to feel empowering.
It was Milwaukee 36, Philadelphia 21 in the final 12 minutes, with the Bucks whittling a 29-point deficit down to nine and coming within a few defensive stops of sending the 21,028 inside the building into a full blown panic.
Opponents, in an effort to exploit those same perimeter problems, have fed Philly a steady diet of zone defense. The Wizards, Mavericks, Heat and Pistons have gone zone against Philadelphia in the last two weeks, with varying degrees of success. Brown called the team’s struggles against the zone “a painful experience.” Embiid said the Sixers were “playing scared.”
The Bucks don’t zone, haven’t all season. But with Philadelphia burying them in three-pointers, Milwaukee hopped into a 2-3 late in the third quarter, sticking with it in the fourth. The result: The Sixers went 4-13 from deep, needing an Al Horford triple in the final minute to put the Bucks a way.
“We got some decent looks,” Brown said, adding that his team has taken “giant steps” in dealing with the zone.
The Sixers place in the NBA’s hierarchy is in the eye of the beholder. Even Brand isn’t sure. Before the game, the Sixers GM spoke to reporters. It was at times awkward—Brand fumbled through an answer as to why it didn’t work in Philadelphia for Jimmy Butler, citing the contract—while repeatedly calling the Sixers a “work in progress.”
“I acknowledge there are areas we need to improve on,” Brand said. “But we’re working on it daily.”
Any questions about the Sixers continue to center on Ben Simmons, and Brand was peppered with a few of them. Simmons submitted another monster stat line on Wednesday: 15 points, 14 assists and seven rebounds, all against just two turnovers. He is downright lethal in the open floor. But Simmons didn’t attempt a shot outside the paint—a common occurrence—and the reasons teams are playing this much zone is because they don’t believe he can make them.
With Butler, the Sixers ranked in the top-10 in fourth quarter rating last season.
This season, they rank in the bottom third.
Facing the media, Brand didn’t sound like a man looking to shake things up. He repeatedly cited the need for internal improvements—“Growth, continuity and chemistry, that will help us a lot”—while citing the Sixers record (Philly is now 4-1 against Milwaukee, Boston and Toronto) against conference peers.
Said Brand, “I’m encouraged by where we are.”
On Simmons, Brand stayed positive. He cited Simmons' playmaking—he's averaging a career-high 8.5 assists. He noted his defense—Simmons leads the NBA in steals and, along with Embiid, is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. He said Simmons is constantly hunting “high percentage plays” and that he trusts the looks he is creating for his teammates.
“We believe in Ben,” Brand said. “We believe in his shot and his progression … He will unlock another level of our team once he starts doing that more, and he knows that, coach knows that, and we’re working towards that.”
Brand’s backing of his co-franchise player is understandable. Right, even. Simmons is a lock to make his second All-Star team. He could be a starter. But in October, Brand declared that Simmons would “let it fly” from three. Simmons has fired up just five. Philadelphia is attempting to combat the zone defense by playing more pick-and-roll against it, but the only way to bust it is to make perimeter shots. Three-point shots.
That, Brand admitted, is something that needs to happen during the regular season for Philadelphia to have any hope of succeeding the playoffs.
“If it’s not going to happen in the regular season, the time to work on it, it won’t happen later on in the season or in the playoffs,” Brand said. “It’s a work in progress, it’s true, and once he gains the confidence and realizes that that’s a high percentage play for the team and for us, we’ll be fine. He’ll be fine.”
Criticizing the Sixers feels funny. They have an elite defense. They are physically imposing. They are built to beat Milwaukee. When the Sixers were meeting about free agency last summer, Brown said, determining how to beat Milwaukee was a big part of the conversation. It’s why they signed Al Horford to a four-year, $109 million deal. Embiid and Horford, Philadelphia reasoned, would give the 76ers two of the NBA’s best Giannis busters.
And they have. Coupled with the kind of blistering three-point shooting the Sixers showcased on Christmas, Philly is a true title contender. But the frigid fourth quarter is a reminder that the margin for error is slim. Like 6’10”, 240-pounds slim. Brown reminded reporters before the game that if Kawhi Leonard’s jumper in Game 7 of the last season’s conference semifinals had bounced out, the narrative surrounding Simmons, surrounding the Sixers, might be entirely different.
But it didn’t, so here we are. The NBA is a copycat league. Teams will look at the success opponents have had with the zone against Philadelphia and continue to deploy it. Simmons is one of the NBA’s best young players, a 23-year old superstar in the making. Brand believes the shooting will come. The Sixers playoff fate could depend on it.