Twice, Embiid took the potential game-winning shot. Twice he missed.
Simmons tipped in the game-winning shot. With just 5 points in 6 attempts in 34 minutes, he was, nonetheless, the hero of the game, albeit unaware that his role for the 76ers in a universe where they will be NBA champion this year is something bigger. He is expected to take up the mantle of savior of a team tagged as a championship contender for so many years now and yet constantly failing in the Playoffs.
But first, an important lesson, for both Embiid and Simmons: change the way you play, or change your goals. If they continue to play the way they do, they should downgrade their annual goals from championship to just making the Playoffs.
The problem is not Embiid taking the last shot, but the way he plays offense and defense the entire game. Still, here’s why it was a terrible attempt: a fade away against a smaller 6’5 Keldon Johnson in isolation, the lane as empty as EDSA on the day Manny Pacquiao has a fight. Why not drive for a dunk and force the defender to put you on the line where you are 7 of 7?
Common sense basketball: anywhere you shoot inside the three-point arc is two points. If you are the biggest player on the floor, you should be shooting as close to the ring as possible. Why? First, the closer you are, the higher the chance of making the shot. That is why they call it a high-percentage shot. And if you miss it? As the tallest of the 10 on the floor and that close to the basket, you should have no problem getting the offensive rebound since it’s never going to be a long rebound with a short stab like that. And that is another reason a fade-away jump shot is ill-advised for a big man, your momentum takes you away from the ball or from a position you can rebound, giving opposing players in the zone the chance to outrebound you.
I think one of the reasons why Nikola Jokić is in the position to win the MVP this season is because he changed the way he plays. He frequents the paint more. He imposes his will with his height, his dribbling savvy, and his basketball IQ. I seldom see him now being comfortable with just shooting threes the way he used to in previous years. Range – as far as the three-point arc – is a good thing to have for a big man, but you have to hit the opponents where it hurts them.
Embiid opting for a fadeaway is as terrible as him playing lackadaisical defense.
He played 34 minutes and had 0 shot blocks — this, despite the numerous incursions in the paint by San Antonio which was the reason the Spurs were in the position to pull off an upset despite playing without DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, Dejounte Murray, and Derrick White.
Watch the game and you can see the clear lack of effort to fulfill the role of a rim protector. Reliever Dwight Howard had 3 blocks, and smaller guys in the team did a better job than Embiid. Tobias Harris had 2, and even Furzan Kormaz and Danny Green both had one. And the worst part? More than once you can see Embiid shrug, drop his shoulders, or point to someone or something on the floor after the Spurs scored under the basket. A terrible body language. Was he blaming someone for a missed defensive assignment?
Change the way you play, or change your goals. Centers who became champions are tenacious defenders. Hakeem Olajuwon (3.1 bpg), David Robinson (3.0 bpg), and Shaquille O’Neal (2.3 bpg) are examples of champions and accomplished rim protectors. Embiid started his pro career with a 2.5 bpg average but he only had 1.3 bpg in 2019-2020.
As for Simmons, he should realize that one major characteristic of any NBA champion is the desire to put the team on his shoulders. To win by his hand and his will. Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Paul Pierce, Dwyane Wade, Dirk Nowitzki, Kawhi Leonard, etc. If you are not shooting the ball, you are not a threat.
And why is it Simmons and not Embiid, who will greatly influence the chances of Philadelphia winning the championship? It is because the cornerstone of champion teams is the player who can pass.
This is prime Embiid. With the wear and tear hitting his injury-prone body in the coming years, I don’t see him becoming more dominant than he is now. However, there is room for improvement on his passing, shot selection, and individual defense. If he makes this transformation at the same time Simmons stops being a mere passive facilitator and becomes an imposing presence by passing, rebounding, and constantly driving hard to the basket to score and put pressure on the defense, refusing the role as a secondary weapon in Philadelphia’s arsenal, that’ll be the time the 76ers can be considered a legitimate contender.
Until then, there is nothing but a parade of disappointing ends year after year for the 76ers, and skewed betting odds awarded to a Playoff top-tier team doomed to fall early, perhaps even a first-round exit.
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