The Philadelphia 76ers will conclude a three-game road trip Wednesday against the Houston Rockets seeking to extend their winning streak to six games and continue their penchant for late-game defensive heroics.
The Sixers have come to rely upon guard Ben Simmons in end-game situations, with an exceptional defensive play by him often providing the 76ers with a stop at a most critical juncture.
Simmons remains integral to everything the 76ers do, on both ends of the court, but it is his defensive might that earns constant raves. Simmons, exceptional defensively throughout the season, continues to make a habit of thriving when the moment is dire and the need pressing.
"Every night," 76ers coach Doc Rivers said when asked to distill two specific defensive plays that Simmons made to preserve recent Philadelphia victories. "You don't see me campaigning and I'm not going to, I'm just going to say it again: There's not a better defender in this league.
"We're talking about ultra-quick guys, we're talking about big guys. His ability, his strength is I think what surprises most guys that he's guarding. He's just been really good for us."
The 76ers (44-21) entered Tuesday second in the NBA to the Los Angeles Lakers in defensive rating at 106.8 points allowed per 100 possessions and Simmons, a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, ranks in the top 10 in multiple advanced statistical categories reflecting individual defensive prowess.
Solidifying the defense for the stretch run is a primary goal for the 76ers, whose offense has been pedestrian despite the presence of an MVP frontrunner in center Joel Embiid and a collection of capable shooters charged with spreading the floor for Simmons' daring forays to the rim. This latest stretch of positive results has the 76ers atop the Eastern Conference (one game ahead of the Brooklyn Nets, entering Tuesday night), and being on the brink of clinching the top seed for the playoffs is incentive for the 76ers to keep pushing.
"The last couple of games for us [has been] just trying to get our full rhythm and make a big push here towards the end of the year," 76ers forward Tobias Harris said. "Being in first place is good, it's been a goal for us all year long. We want to sustain it. We're just looking to ride this thing out being as healthy as possible and in a great rhythm for when we start the playoffs."
The Rockets' offensive struggles have been extreme, and their reliance on relatively inexperienced players has exacerbated their shortcomings. Yet, despite the numerous lumps Houston (16-49) has taken this season, the opportunity to compete against a juggernaut is embraced.
"Obviously they've got size, lots of length with Embiid," Rockets forward Kelly Olynyk said. "And they've got big guards, big wings. They can switch, they can pressure, they've got active hands. They do a lot of different things and they do them well.
"They're pretty disciplined. They're going to help recover, they close the gaps to shooters well. They have a good record for a reason, so it's going to be a good challenge for us and something we look forward to."
The challenge will be stuff for Houston, which is 6-40 after a 10-9 start to the season and owns the worst record in the NBA.
--Field Level Media
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