LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The Philadelphia 76ers have no clarity on how long All-Star forward Ben Simmons will be sidelined after partially dislocating his left knee cap. For the sake of preparing his team for the postseason, however, has Sixers coach Brett Brown told his players to brace for the worst-case scenario?
"No," Brown told USA TODAY Sports following the Sixers’ 114-108 win over the Orlando Magic on Friday. "Everybody thinks different things, so I don’t want to be full of (BS) and say, 'No, everybody thinks he’s playing tomorrow.' People know we were just trying to play tonight knowing we didn’t have Ben and that we’re going to learn more later. But no is the short answer."
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The Sixers (42-27) had enough answers to prevail against the Magic (32-38), who will sneak into the playoffs as the Eastern Conference’s seventh or eighth seed amid a season-ending injury to Jonathan Isaac (left knee). Philadelphia has not measured itself against that competition, though. It has measured itself against the Eastern Conference elite, including the Milwaukee Bucks (55-14), Toronto Raptors (49-18), Boston Celtics (45-23) and Miami Heat (43-26). Yet, the Sixers rank sixth in the East for various reasons.
Their players have missed a combined 78 games because of injuries. Against Orlando, Philadelphia fielded its 22nd different starting lineup to account for those ailments and inconsistent chemistry. And the Sixers’ stalwarts in Simmons, Joel Embiid and Al Horford have not always played up to their potential.
Ben Simmons is sidelined indefinitely with a partially dislocated left knee cap. (Photo: Ashley Landis, Pool photo via USA TODAY Sports)
If the Sixers already struggled enough before, how can they overcome Simmons' latest absence? For all the debate about whether Simmons and Embiid co-existed, Simmons still averaged 16.4 points on 58% shooting with 8.0 assists and 7.8 rebounds in 35.4 minutes. Though he has shot only 2-of-7 from 3-point range all season, Simmons still helped the Sixers with his positional versatility and play-making.
"It’s hard to replace Ben. He does a lot for our group," Horford said. "The way we’re looking at it is we all just have to step up a little more. It’s going to give opportunities to guys on the bench and other guys to have an impact. We really don’t know. We just hope he can get healthy quickly."
The Sixers offered a decent first step against Orlando.
In a league that features more small-ball lineups than twin towers, the Sixers went unconventional by pairing Embiid and Horford together in the post. While Embiid finished with 23 points and 13 rebounds, Horford complemented him with 21 points and nine rebounds along with a bruising physical toughness the Sixers sorely needed. Brown tabbed Tobias Harris as the team’s new point forward. That resulted in Harris tying Embiid for a team-high 23 points along with a team-leading 21 shots and 15 rebounds. Brown touted potential other wildcards, and the latest went to reserve swingman Alec Burks (22 points).
"Without Ben Simmons, there are things that have to be done at a higher level," Brown said. "That starts with intensity."
3 in a row for Philly! 👏@tobias31 & @JoelEmbiid score 23 PTS apiece in the @sixers 3rd straight win in Orlando! #PhilaUnite#WholeNewGamepic.twitter.com/8QX0gv3nSa
That formula might be enough against the Magic. What about the Sixers’ remaining seeding games against Portland (Sunday), Phoenix (Tuesday), Toronto (Wednesday) and Houston (Aug. 14)? The Sixers will be facing two of the most dangerous Western Conference teams hoping to sneak into the playoffs (Portland, Phoenix). They will then play against two teams that have a legitimate shot to win the NBA title (Toronto, Houston).
Perhaps the Sixers may have Simmons back by then. He had just returned from the NBA shutdown healed from a back injury that sidelined him for eight games before the league suspended play. Brown reported that Simmons gained about eight pounds of muscle during the hiatus. During the Sixers’ three scrimmages, Brown featured Simmons at the power forward spot, and he seemed increasingly willing to take and make 3-pointers.
No wonder Brown said, "I feel bad for him that this situation has happened after all the hard work he has put in." And yet the Sixers have become almost resigned to accept a setback just as they showed progress.
"You’re just numb to it. You just move," Brown said. "You figure it out. You coach who you have. I do genuinely believe this can galvanize our group and bring us an inverted way together."
The Sixers will soon find out how long they have to do that without one of their best players.
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