PHILADELPHIA, PA – It was an evening marked by experimentation and noteworthy veteran contributions, but the 76ers’ pre-season pairing with the Boston Celtics Friday at The Center ended in defeat, 110-102.
Even with the loss, Brett Brown sounded relatively satisfied with how his group held up in a physical tussle versus a talent-laden opponent.
“I think we ran better,” said Brown, comparing Friday’s exhibition game to Wednesday’s opener against the Memphis Grizzlies. “[The Celtics] have a really good team. I thought our guys, for the most part, played hard. There are stats that you look at that you would like to take back – the offensive rebounding (the Sixers were -7 in this category) and turnovers (the Sixers had 24 of them, which led to 29 Boston points). In general, I leave tonight happy with a lot of things.”
Taking into account that this time of year (the preseason) allows for the luxury of tinkering without consequence to records or placement in the standings, Brown entered Friday’s tilt wanting to try out a few new wrinkles, particularly in respect to deploying a top prospect.
Whereas Ben Simmons (8 pts, 3 reb, 5 ast, 3 stl, 22 min) was used almost exclusively as a point guard on offense Wednesday, Brown presented the 2016 No. 1 pick with more all-encompassing duties Friday, specifically on defense.
The plan was one Brown foreshadowed during his pre-game media availability.
“You’re going to see us do some different things with defensive match ups,” he said prior to tip-off. “We’re curious about the versatility, for example, with Ben. Can he go guard smaller guys? We’ve had him lately a lot on four-men.”
Throughout Friday’s affair, Brown followed through on his word, with Simmons essentially seeing a decent amount of time at all defensive positions, aside from center.
To start the game, Simmons was thrown right into the fire, being asked to mark forward Gordon Hayward, the Celtics’ All-Star off-season free agent acquisition. After returning to the floor following his first substitution break, the 21-year old was then put on Jaylen Brown, the guard-forward tweener who last year was chosen two spots behind Simmons in the draft.
Before the end of the night, Simmons also had the chance to guard Jayson Tatum, this year’s No. 3 selection. The Aussie’s toughest defensive assignment, arguably, came at the beginning of the second half, when he was summoned to go toe-to-toe with point guard Kyrie Irving, a four-time All-Star, and one of the NBA’s most dangerous isolation threats.
Hayward, Brown, Tatum, and certainly Irving are not only all shorter than Simmons, they weigh anywhere from several to many pounds less, too.
“I thought he did ok,” said Brown, when asked during his post-game Q-&-A about how Simmons fared Friday on the defensive end. “The sample size was small. We had him on Kyrie for a while. I want to keep looking at that.”
It’s the rare combination of athleticism and length for a player of Simmons’ height that has Brown most intrigued.
Looking at the big picture, the Sixers’ probably won’t be inclined to have Simmons defend the likes of John Wall or Russell Westbrook – backcourt “roadrunners” and “greyhounds,” as Brown describes them. But in calculated situations involving guards with slightly less speed, the fifth-year head coach thinks, at least for now, Simmons will be able to hold his own, and serve a valuable role.
“When you really look at him as an athlete, his ability to move from A to B up and down a floor, go east-west, north-south, up and down, side to side, and then you say, by the way, he’s 6-foot-10, with a pretty impressive wingspan doing what he’s doing – I think at times people undersell his ability to do things on different guards,” Brown said Friday.
“In my old life [as a San Antonio Spurs assistant coach], I saw what [defensive] length did to Tony Parker, and you wonder,” Brown continued.
Wondering that becomes all the more comfortable, reasonable, and tempting to act upon in the context of pre-season basketball.
Discussing his efforts afterwards, Simmons reflected on his defensive performance, especially his third-quarter stretch against Irving.
“It was good to be matched up against a great point guard like him, and get a feel for what it’s like to guard somebody like that,” Simmons said of Irving, who netted a game-high 21 points. “I feel like it’s all going to come together once our communication starts to get a lot better, and our movement improves.”
Irving offered a few thoughts of of his own.
“It’s going to be an adjustment,” said Irving, referring to Simmons’ multi-faceted responsibilities, “understanding that when he’s at the point guard role, he’s going to be going against some dynamic players, including myself. He did an incredible job of running the team. He’s a great young player, and he’s going to continue to get better.”
When the Sixers were on offense Friday, Simmons was again utilized as one of the team’s primary ball-handlers, as he was Wednesday. He did, however, seem to get a few more opportunities to move down to the forward spot and play off the ball.
Simmons acknowledged Friday there’s room for personal improvement.
“Too many turnovers, too many offensive fouls. It’s just one of those things you have to learn, who you’re playing against.”
In a chippy – sometimes choppy – contest, a contingent of veterans brought a steadying effect to the Sixers. Jerryd Bayless paced the squad with 15 points, while Amir Johnson, in his first pre-season game, and JJ Redick each posted 12 points.
“I think we’re coming along great,” said Bayless. “I think it’s a bit cliched, it’s a process, but we have a lot of younger players who are going to go through ups and downs, as well as the older players, just trying to figure out everything, and how it fits. It’s a puzzle, so it’s going to take a little bit of time, but I think it will come together sooner rather than later.”
On the heels of his promising pre-season debut Wednesday, Jahlil Okafor produced another sound stat line, one highlighted by 11 points and 6 boards. Justin Anderson was impactful on both ends, with 10 points, 6 rebounds, and 3 blocks.
The Sixers kept pace with Boston throughout Friday’s opening half, trailing by one point after the first quarter, and then by two at the break. The C’s opened things up in the third period, when they manufactured 32 points.
A gif-worthy chasedown block in the fourth quarter it was served up by Justin Anderson in the fourth quarter. No apologies to Boston’s Abdul Nader…
The Sixers and C’s will do it again, this time Monday in Boston at TD Garden. The match-up will be the second and final one of the preseason between the Atlantic Division foes, which will square off again on four occasions during the regular season, including the Sixers’ October 20th home opener.