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PHILLY FLYERS

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No Process? No problem. Joel Embiid went down, but Ben Simmons kept the Sixers soaring by upping the pace

Critics of Ben Simmons's hotly contested Rookie of the Year case were quick to point out how different his performance looked when undisputed Tweeter of the Year Joel Embiid was on the bench. For most of the season, that trope held true. Through March 28, Philly had a --2.5 rating when Simmons played without Embiid.

That night, with the Sixers in the midst of a seven-game winning streak, Embiid suffered a facial fracture, placing the onus on Simmons to keep the team hot heading into the playoffs. And the rookie delivered.

After Embiid went down, the 76ers had a 9--0 record and a +16.7 net rating with Simmons on the floor, a mark that, had it been over the course of the season, would have led the NBA by a full-court heave. "Without [Joel], we had to play faster," Redick said before Game 1 of Philly's opening-round series with the Heat. "The spacing is different. We've probably had more minutes with five shooters on the floor than prior. That's allowed Ben to play in space. I don't think Ben's scoring numbers have gone up. But his assists have, because he's creating a disadvantage with all the space, and our shooters have benefited."

Indeed, in Game 1, Simmons dished out 14 assists (and took just 13 shots) and the Sixers steamrolled Miami 130--103. Simmons showcased his polished set of skills that should see him thrive in the postseason. He's a willing and capable defender. He knows his limitations, eschewing jump shots (nearly 80% of his attempts this season were inside 10 feet) in favor of drives to the rim and an array of hooks, layups and dunks.

The Heat sagged off Simmons every time down the floor, and he happily took the space and worked his way into the paint, putting pressure on defenders. Redick and Marco Belinelli feasted from three, as Simmons willingly found his shooters coming off screens or when he forayed into the paint.

A maiden trip to the playoffs often proves difficult for the game's stars. LeBron James's Cavs had a --4.8 net rating in his first postseason run, in his third year in the league. Carmelo Anthony's Nuggets were even worse when he made the playoffs as a rookie, at --10.1. But Simmons has the help and the makeup to buck that trend. "Ben is not affected by pressure," Redick said before Game 1. "He always rises to the occasion. There's a competitive juice that he has for big games. He takes things personally."

And when Embiid returns—possibly later in round 1—Philly can go back to starting a lineup that had a net rating of 21.4, easily the best mark by any group that played more than 300 minutes together. Embiid may have been the Sixers' only All-Star, but Simmons has shown that he's knocking on the door himself, with or without his big man by his side.