The issue isn’t going away. The question is, how serious an issue will it prove to be? We’re talking about what went down with 23 seconds remaining at American Airlines Arena on Tuesday night.
The Sixers were in Miami for the second of three straight games that carry significant playoff implications. Their seven-game win streak had ended two days earlier against the Wizards, and now they were squaring off against a Heat team that had dropped eight of its last 11 to fall from fourth place in the conference to eighth, where they trailed the Sixers by three games in the loss column.
By the time Dwyane Wade stepped to the foul line with 27 seconds remaining, he had already rattled off a five-minute stretch that seemed ripped from his athletic prime, 10 straight points on four contested shots and a couple of free throws followed by a beautiful entry pass from the top of the arc deep into the post for an assist. After each of these vintage possessions, the Sixers had fought back, so when a foul from downtown gave Wade a trio of free throws, the future Hall of Famer needed to hit all three to tie.
What happened next is the issue. Wade sank his shots, giving the Sixers the ball in a tie game with three seconds separating the shot clock and the game clock. But instead of dropping back to play defense, Wade waited for Ben Simmons to receive the inbounds pass and then pounced on him, delivering a two-handed bump to the chest for an intentional foul.
This was a remarkable decision, one of a kind that you never see made. Nine times this season, the Sixers had found themselves in a similar situation, the ball in their hands with 30 seconds to go, needing a bucket to tie or take the lead. Nine times, they’d failed to convert.
The odds said Simmons, a 56.8 percent shooter from the line in his rookie season, had a 81 percent chance of hitting at least one of two and, thus, a 81 percent chance of giving the Sixers the lead. That’s a much better percentage than the 52 percent that the Sixers were shooting from two-point range as a team. That said, fouling Simmons would enable the Heat to get the ball back with 23 seconds left to tie or take the lead. Combine all of the odds into an estimator known as Win Probability and the Heat’s chances of winning dipped by about 10 percent, from 39 to 29, on Wade’s decision to foul.
Yet regardless of what the math says, the fact is the decision was made. Simmons missed his first attempt, then hit his second, then, 18 seconds later, watched Wade bury a 21-footer that would prove the game-winner.
This wasn’t the first time an opponent had attempted to exploit the one glaring weakness present in the Sixers’ otherworldly rookie. But it might have been the first time it worked, costing the Sixers a game they might otherwise have won. There was a playoff-type feel to this loss, and you couldn’t help but wonder what it might portend for the actual postseason. In a seven-game series against one of the top eight teams in the conference, how big a role will Simmons’ performance at the foul line play?
Of the Sixers’ 27 losses this season, five have come by deficits that could have been erased had Simmons’ misses from the foul line instead been makes. In those five games, Simmons shot a combined 10 for 23 from the line and the Sixers lost by a combined six points. It’s also worth noting that four of those five losses were to teams currently in playoff position.
The flip side is that Tuesday night’s loss to the Heat was the only one of those games that featured a critical miss down the stretch. Against the Kings, Simmons did not attempt a free throw in the last 10:22. Against the Rockets, Bulls and Thunder, he did not attempt a free throw in the second half.
Given all that, the more pertinent issue than Simmons’ success at the stripe might be any reluctance he has in getting himself there to begin with. When Simmons is attacking the rim and finishing strong, it gives the Sixers’ offense an element that doesn’t really exist otherwise. Markelle Fultz was supposed to be a player capable of bringing that kind of game, and maybe he still will be, but until Fultz is on the court, the Sixers don’t have another player who can consistently penetrate from the perimeter and finish at the rim.
Simmons isn’t a great foul shooter, but the Sixers are a better team when he is getting to the line. All six of the games in which he has attempted at least nine free throws have ended up as wins.
Ben Simmons, most free-throw attempts in a game
The reality is, Hack-a-Ben isn’t a strategy that has had much of an impact on the bottom line this season. There is no such thing as a fully formed rookie, and Simmons’ production at the foul line is certainly one of his rougher edges. Still, for the Sixers to be at their best, he needs to be there more, not less.