Shorthanded Sixers Find Winning Formula In Ben Simmons’ Return To Philadelphia

Brooklyn Nets forward Ben Simmons made his long-awaited return to the court in Philadelphia on Tuesday night, but it didn’t go quite as planned.

Despite missing their three best players, the shorthanded Philadelphia 76ers beat Simmons and the Nets, 115-106, in perhaps the most unexpected victory of the season.

In doing so, they might have stumbled upon a formula that can help them steal some wins until Joel Embiid, James Harden and Tyrese Maxey return from their respective foot injuries.

Other than T.J. Warren, who has yet to make his Nets debut, and Yuta Watanabe, Brooklyn was at full strength on Tuesday. That showed early on, as the Nets jumped out to an early 10-2 lead fueled by three straight Simmons assists.

The injury-ravaged Sixers soon began battling back despite being at a massive talent deficit, though. They closed out the quarter on a 31-16 run and maintained a steady lead for most of the second quarter, too.

Rebounding was the story of the game. The Sixers came into Tuesday averaging an NBA-worst 7.2 offensive rebounds, but they hauled in 13 offensive boards in the first half alone. The Nets had 14 total rebounds in the first half, which helps explain why the Sixers took 51 shots to Brooklyn’s 39 in the opening 24 minutes.

The Nets narrowed that rebounding margin the second half, as the Sixers’ shooters cooled off. After shooting 10-of-19 from three-point range and 45.1 percent overall in the first half, the Sixers were 6-of-13 from deep and shot 41.7 percent overall in the second half. The Sixers still outrebounded the Nets 7-2 on the offensive glass in the second half, but the Nets had a 19-16 advantage in defensive rebounds.

The Sixers had only two second-half turnovers, though, which largely prevented the Nets from getting out in transition and generating easy buckets. They also stayed out of foul trouble, sending Brooklyn to the charity stripe only 13 times on the night.

The Nets entered this game with the NBA’s worst defensive rebounding rate (68.0 percent), so the shorthanded Sixers’ domination of the glass might not be sustainable. Brooklyn lacks frontcourt size and physicality, which the Sixers exploited all night despite having zero rotation players above 6’9″. Third-year big man Paul Reed played especially well, finishing with 19 points on 7-of-9 shooting, 10 rebounds, three steals, two blocks, and perhaps most importantly, zero fouls.

Until Embiid, Harden and Maxey return, the Sixers will have a much smaller margin for error. On nights where their shooters aren’t hot—they knocked down 50.0 percent of their three-point attempts (16-of-32) on Tuesday—they’ll need to exploit half-court mismatches and keep the ball moving on offense.

Perhaps no Sixers player was more emblematic of that approach Tuesday than Tobias Harris.

The 12th-year veteran was largely abysmal in the first half—he had six points on 3-of-8 shooting (0-of-2 from deep) and three turnovers—but he came alive with a team-high 18 points on 7-of-13 shooting in the second half. When the Nets tried to stick a smaller defender such as Joe Harris on him, he used his size to his advantage and backed his way into a close-range shot.

“He obviously has to get used—the most on our team—to not touching the ball as much as he has in the past,” Sixers head coach Doc Rivers said earlier this season before the team’s injury issues arose. “And I really think he’s trying to do that. He’s catch-and-shooting pretty well. You still want to feature him on the post when he has a matchup.”

Harris briefly left Tuesday’s game with an ankle injury, which is worth monitoring in the days ahead. The last thing the shorthanded Sixers can afford is another starter being sidelined. But if Harris doesn’t miss any time, his malleability may be the Sixers’ saving grace until Maxey, Harden and/or Embiid return.

Harris entered Tuesday night averaging only 14.7 points per game, his lowest mark since the 2015-16 season. He’s overqualified as a No. 4 option, but that’s the role the Sixers need him to play most nights when they’re at full strength. He can also scale up and take on more of a featured role, though, which he proved against the Nets.

Harris and Reed weren’t the only ones to play well on Tuesday, though. The Sixers also got strong games from De’Anthony Melton (22 points, six triples, four rebounds, four assists, three steals), Shake Milton (16 points, six rebounds and five assists) and Georges Niang (16 points, five rebounds, four triples and two assists). P.J. Tucker went 0-of-6 from the floor—and made some ignominious NBA history in the process—but his defense was key against Kevin Durant for most of the night.

The Sixers now head to Charlotte to face a 4-14 Hornets team without star guard LaMelo Ball, who has already been declared out with a left ankle sprain. After that, they have two straight road games against the Orlando Magic, who will be coming off three days of rest but have plenty of injury issues of their own.

Simmons’ return to Philadelphia added some juice to Tuesday’s game—as much as the Sixers might try to deny it—which could make Wednesday’s matchup against the bottom-feeding Hornets a trap game. If the Sixers continue dominating the glass and limiting their turnovers and fouls, though, they might be able to keep stealing victories until their three stars return.

Unless otherwise noted, all stats via NBA.com, PBPStats, Cleaning the Glass or Basketball Reference. All salary information via Spotrac or RealGM. All odds via FanDuel Sportsbook.

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