It happened midway through the third quarter, with the Sixers up 20. The horn rang, Markelle Fultz loped onto the court, and Ben Simmons stayed right where he was. Granted, the place where Simmons was standing was the foul line, where he was preparing to shoot a couple of free throws. But even after the league's best rookie made one of two, the Sixers bench remained motionless as play continued.
This was a significant development, as interesting a moment as can possibly occur in the second half of a blowout against one of the league's worst teams. Standing between the Sixers and the end of the regular season were 2-1/2 quarters that would decide what kind of role Fultz would occupy come playoff time. In his first four games since returning from his five-month sabbatical late last month, the enigmatic rookie had logged 118 minutes of court time, many of which offered a tantalizing glimpse of the potential that prompted the Sixers to trade up to select him at No. 1 overall in last June's draft. Yet every single one of those minutes had transpired with Simmons sitting on the bench.
That changed on Tuesday night. The stint lasted just 3 minutes, 27 seconds, ending when Simmons checked out with 4:25 remaining in the third quarter for his customary late-third-quarter breather. Still, it was long enough to add an intriguing new piece to the puzzle that the Sixers must solve before they embark on the postseason.
"At this stage, I just wanted to be good and simple," coach Brett Brown said after the Sixers improved to 47-30 with a 121-95 win over the Nets. "We still have time to talk about him with Ben and drilling him at a 'two,' but it's certainly not a level that I feel comfortable with from a play-call standpoint right now. Having said that, I do like what I saw. I thought they did simple well."
The Sixers outscored the Nets, 12-11, during the time Simmons and Fultz spent on the court together. As JJ Redick said after the game when asked for his impression on the duo, there isn't much in the way of concrete evaluation that one can glean from such limited action. Yet there hasn't been much of anything concrete with regard to Fultz this season. Everything has been projection and wait-and-see, right up to the moment he rejoined the team five games ago. Since then, the actuality has looked a lot less disruptive than you might have expected. On both ends of the court, Fultz has surpassed expectations, and that trend continued in Tuesday night's win.
Before the game, Brown spoke at length about the balancing act he must play in utilizing Fultz. On the one hand, Fultz has transitioned into his new role as Simmons' 15-minute-a-night backup with surprising ease, bringing a new dimension to the court without disrupting the rhythm the Sixers have developed over the course of this season. They have not lost since Fultz's return, and rarely have they been outscored when he is on the court. On the other hand, Fultz is not yet the player the Sixers thought they were getting when they selected him at No. 1 overall and penciled him into the starting lineup alongside Simmons. Back then, they projected him as a combo guard who could extend a defense with his three-point shot. Now, he is similar to Simmons in his reluctance to shoot beyond 15 feet, something you saw on one particular possession when he passed up a wide-open look from behind the arc and instead went to the dribble and ended up sinking a baseline jumper.
"Obviously, we need to surround both of them with shooting," Redick said, "but they are both intelligent enough and athletic enough to figure it out, and they will figure it out. It's going to take some time. I don't think it's going to be in Game 77 that they'll figure it out, but they'll both figure it out."
The big question is what they will end up figuring over the next five games. Before Tuesday night's win, Brown said his primary goal remains winning out the rest of the schedule and securing home-court advantage for a first-round series, something that, as the fourth-place team in the Eastern Conference, they currently are in position to do.
"I want to win, and if it contradicts or doesn't feel right, it's too risky, the game's not in a position to make me feel comfortable, then I'm not doing it," he said. "And so if the game presents itself in a way that I just said and I feel like we're not hurting the team, we're not just trying to make stuff up, then I'll do that. I do hope to do that. I really do hope to do that, but it comes with rules."
Against the Nets, such an opportunity presented itself, and the result was another positive development to factor into the equation that eventually will determine the Sixers' postseason rotation.
"I think I can help," said Fultz, who finished with 10 points on 5-of-8 shooting and three assists in 21 minutes. "That's all up to the coaching staff. Whatever they do with me, if I'm in there for one second, I'm gonna give it my all. If I'm out there a longer time, I'm gonna give it my all."