The first game of Christmas is the battle of the unicorns. There is no doubt that 76ers vs Knicks is a matchup designed for the two unicorns — Joel Embiid and Kristap Porzingis — to go at each other. However, besides the exciting end of first quarter one-on-one between the unicorns, both teams stuck to their defensive assignments for the most part, with Kanter guarding Embiid and Saric guarding Porzingis. That took much of the fun out of watching this game, but there were still many elements of the game that were interesting. Here are some observations I made during the game:
Observation 1: Joel Embiid has a smoother touch than Kristap Porzingis
Kristap Porzingis has a much more wirey body frame than Joel Embiid and seems a little bit shy of Embiid’s comfortableness finishing around the rim. Multiple times in this game, Porzingis could not lay the ball in after being fouled. He will definitely improve finishing around the rim as he gets stronger and improves his post moves so he can get closer to the rim.
Observation 2: Ben Simmons is a player that needs the middle more so than anyone else
Ben Simmons is like a rookie Lebron. His point-forward playstyle is similar to that of Lebron in the sense that his predominant tendency is to drive into the paint and kick out to shooters or slashers after the defense has already shifted enough to be easily broken down. However, unlike Lebron who has an outside shot and knows the offense well enough to do backdoor cuts, Ben Simmons can only drive and kick. He can also finish, but unless he gets all the way to the rim, it is obvious he is reluctant to finish.
In this game, particularly in the 2nd quarter, the Knicks did a very good job forcing Simmons to go left instead of middle after Embiid set screens for him. Simmons drives were stopped properly and the weak side had the shooters covered properly so Simmons could only back out and hit Embiid in the post.
It just seems to me that although Simmons has huge gravity and attracts a lot of defenders, he won’t attract much if he doesn’t go middle. And since he is not yet comfortable finishing by himself unless he goes all the way to the rim, his orchestrating the offense just isn’t effective if he doesn’t drive middle. In short, Simmons should improve his finishing, and in the mean time, drive middle to be able to distribute the weak side more. Brett Brown should also help him out by having the weak side move around more to get openings instead of expecting Simmons to be like Lebron and perform over-the-defense passes every possession.
Observation 3: Both teams don’t realize shot-creation potential of post-ups enough
Both teams made it clear that hitting their unicorns in the post was a big part of their offense. For the 76ers, giving the ball to Embiid in the post is also their fallback plan if they can’t get anything going and the clock is running out. However, both teams should use the post-up to find shots for teammates more than they currently do.
In the current NBA, teams like to shadow double team, where perimeter defenders shadow between their assignment and the post player and commits to a hard double team if the post player tries to finish. This entails that teammates on the perimeter will often have a few feet of room away from their defenders. Post-players should kick out to these teammates who have their defenders a few feet away from them more so that they can create something. More obviously, they should kick out to the weak-side teammates who are completely left open after defenses rotate to double team. Both Philadelphia and New York need to realize that their post players create many openings on the perimeter and to have their bigs find them.
Observation 4: T.J. McConnell shows the NBA isn’t just a Talent-driven league
Objectively speaking, there is nothing about T.J. McConnell’s game that is special. As a point guard, he cannot get more than a half step ahead of his defender nor can he shoot the lights out on demand like the star point guards do in this league. However, with 15 points, 4 assists and a very important steal in the 4th, McConnell shows why he is a key rotational player in the league. With his height and wingspan, he never has much room to operate, but he always holds the reaching arms of the defenders off just enough to get a pass to a cutting teammate off. He always makes the right passes to the open teammates. And when he is open, he sure does knock his shots down. I just find it inspiring that there is so little room for error for a player like him, yet he performs so well. Granted, the league’s superstars will be the ones with the most talent, but McConnell very much shows that there is a place for players with less talent like him in the league by doing all the right things at the right time.