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Film Study: How Sixers got Ben Simmons more involved in Game 3

Philadelphia found creative ways to utilize Ben Simmons on offense during its Game 3 win over Atlanta.

Ben Simmons scored 18 points with 7 assists in Game 3 after just four points in Game 2.

Ben Simmons is one of the best defensive players in the league and a force in transition. But, given that he doesn’t shoot from outside of 10 feet, his fit and efficacy in a half-court offense can come into question, especially with and MVP-candidate teammate who’s most effective in the post.

In Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, Simmons scored just four points and had just 15 frontcourt touches, according to Second Spectrum tracking. The Sixers won, scoring a potent 118 points on 97 possessions (1.22 per), but their second All-Star was mostly a bystander in their half-court offense.

That was the case for the first 15 minutes of Game 3 on Friday. When the Sixers took a timeout with 6:48 left in the second quarter, they had scored 43 points on 35 possessions (1.23 per), but Simmons was barely involved.

Then they came out of the timeout and ran a play where Joel Embiid fed Simmons in the post …

Sixers after-timeout play

After Simmons’ catch, Seth Curry set a back-screen for Tobias Harris. Trae Young and Solomon Hill miscommunicated on the screen, both taking Harris. So when Embiid went to set a screen for Curry, he only had to stand in front of his own defender as Curry circled to a wide-open 3.

As you might expect, the Sixers ran the same play on the next possession. This time, Curry told Harris to forget the back-screen and curl off of Embiid himself. That got Clint Capela jumping out to prevent a catch-and-shoot 3, and Harris stepped in for a runner …

Tobias Harris runner

The Sixers went back to the same play early in the third quarter. This time, Simmons didn’t wait for the off-ball screens, instead driving by John Collins for a reverse layup …

Ben Simmons drive

A couple of minutes later (and after a pair of Atlanta free throws), the Sixers went back to that play again. But after taking one step toward the back-screen for Harris, Curry instead set one for Embiid. Capela got hit by the screen, Bogdan Bogdanovic stayed attached to Curry, and Simmons hit Embiid with a lob  …

Simmons lob to Embiid

Those weren’t the only times that the Sixers worked through Simmons in the post. Late in the second quarter, Tyrese Maxey got a step-in jumper when Simmons was doubled on the right block. On their second possession of the third quarter, Tony Snell tried fronting Simmons on the left side of the floor, so Simmons took what the defense was giving him and Embiid tossed him a lob …

Embiid lob to Simmons

On the next possession, Simmons posted John Collins on the left block. Bogdanovic slid over (but didn’t commit to a double team) and Simmons threw a dart to Curry in the opposite corner …

Simmons assist to Curry

According to Second Spectrum tracking, Simmons had 38 frontcourt touches in Game 3, up from his 15 in Game 2. He had six post-ups after totaling just four in the Sixers’ previous four games (even though Embiid missing all but 11:24 of Games 4 and 5 in the first round), and maybe that was a reaction to the Hawks’ doubling Embiid in the post more aggressively than they had previously.

Given both his prowess as a passer and his limitations as shooter, Simmons’ ideal role in the half-court offense is seemingly as a hub. But if he’s in the post, Embiid isn’t. The Sixers do have a lot of options out of that after-timeout play that they ran, but the Hawks could obviously have defended it better than they did in Game 3.

Off the ball, Simmons can duck in from the opposite block when Embiid is in the post, either to score against a smaller defender or to keep a defender occupied and open up a shooter on the weak side. From the perimeter, he can attack the weak-side seam when the Sixers run their pick-and-rolls toward the middle of the floor.

One thing to watch in Game 4 on Monday (7:30 p.m. ET, TNT) is if the Hawks “ice” those side pick-and-rolls (trying to keep the ball-handler on the sideline) to keep Philly from getting into the paint as easily as they did in Game 3. Another is just how much Simmons touches the ball in the half-court offense.

As noted after Game 3, the Sixers’ offense is rolling right now. They rank second in playoff efficiency (121.8 points scored per 100 possessions), with only the eliminated Blazers (122.1) ahead of them. But as they get deeper into the playoffs, it becomes more important that all five guys on the floor present some kind of threat to the opposing defense. And making sure that Simmons stays involved could be critical.

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John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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