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How Ben Simmons And The Sixers Are Outsmarting Defenders

The Philadelphia 76ers, who went from being the NBA’s perennial punching bag to Rocky Marciano in his prime seemingly overnight, are rolling. In what some figured would be a challenging playoff opener against a stout Miami defense, Ben Simmons and his band broke the Heat, 130-103, and did so without their star center, Joel Embiid, who’s still on the mend after breaking a bone near his eye.

Simmons, in particular, passed his first postseason test with flying colors, nearly logging a triple-double despite facing alignments that sought to challenge his limited range as a shooter. One way he managed this: By playing fast, in transition, and making use of the incredible shooting talent around him, which distracts the defense just enough to allow him to make his own move to the basket at times.

Take this beautiful ball fake, for instance, where he blows by two defenders on a quick hitter.

The swift action was brilliant in that it was quick enough to leave both Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson — the two best wing stoppers on a team that tied for fifth in defensive efficiency after the All-Star break — so confused over who would stay with sharpshooter J.J. Redick that neither man ended up hanging with Simmons.

Philadelphia uses plays like these quite often. In fact, the Sixers ranked fourth in the NBA in fake handoffs per 100 possessions during the regular season, according to Second Spectrum and NBA Advanced Stats. And among teams that used fakes at least 200 times, the Sixers led the league in efficiency on such plays, scoring just over a point per fake.1

This partly explains how Philly is getting so much out of Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli, a pair of scrap-heap signings who, between them, have played for nearly half of the NBA’s teams. They hit enough shots to keep defenses honest, which frees up players like Simmons and Markelle Fultz, who haven’t yet given defenders a good reason to closely guard the rookies all the way out on the perimeter.

As good as the team looks — the Sixers set a record by entering the playoffs on a 16-game winning streak — it’s worth wondering how things might change once Embiid returns. Yes, he’s a dominant force on both ends, but his post-ups figure to slow down the team’s breakneck pace on offense, which in turn could help Miami by giving the Heat more time to align their defense properly.

The Sixers will cross that Ben Franklin Bridge when they get there, though. For now, they look unstoppable.

Footnotes

  1. Interestingly, Miami — which uses the same tactic with the threat of Wayne Ellington — ranks second in efficiency on these plays.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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