Ben Simmons and the Philadelphia 76ers looked just fine under the bright lights of the NBA playoffs.
Simmons, playing in his first NBA playoff game, led the 76ers to an impressive victory over the Miami Heat in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference playoff series on Sunday morning. The Australian recorded 17 points, 14 assists, 9 rebounds and 2 steals in 34 minutes of action.
While he missed a maiden postseason triple double by just one rebound, nothing could dampen Simmons’ mood postgame, and nor should it. Simmons is the first rookie in NBA history to ever record this stat line in a playoff game. He put forth one of the best playoff games ever by a rookie in his postseason debut.
“Everybody was locked in and we brought it on defence and offence,” Simmons said postgame. “I think we played well tonight. We are going to have a tough one up next, and then off to Miami.”
Victory was built on the back of a transcendent third quarter from Philadelphia, one which saw them turn a seven-point deficit into a double-digit lead. By the time Simmons checked out for his customary rest with 3:39 remaining in the third, the 76ers had paralysed the Heat with a 25-10 scoring blitz that secured a lead they would never surrender.
Philadelphia outscored Miami 74-43 in the second half, and virtually every statistical measure was indicative of their dominance. The 76ers shot 57% from the field and a filthy 11-15 from three after intermission. Better yet, they only committed one turnover over the final 24 minutes.
Turnovers have plagued the 76ers all reason long, and it reared its ugly head early in Game 1. Philadelphia committed 9 turnovers in the first half, with 5 of these coming from Simmons. Securing the basketball gave one of the NBA’s most lethal shooting arsenals, the opportunities they needed to dominate.
Marco Belinelli and J.J. Redick were radiant for Philadelphia at the offensive end. The pair combined for 53 points, on 17-30 shooting from the field and 8-13 from three point range, and provided much-needed space for Simmons to pick defenses apart with his passing. The shooting threat offered by this duo is vital to Philadelphia’s lethal attack. Simmons knows that better than anyone.
“That’s our team right there,” Simmons said postgame, when asked to explain Redick and Belinelli's impact. “It’s me finding the guys and they knock down shots.”
With Redick departing for the locker-room in the early minutes, Belinelli stepped up and was Philadelphia’s most active offensive threat. His energy and movement offered a tremendous boost. After the break, it was Redick’s turn to burn the Heat.
Miami tried a number of different options on Simmons defensively, but couldn’t find any solution that effectively curtailed his impact. Josh Richardson was the initial matchup and quickly got the treatment. During the game’s opening stretch, Simmons was tremendous at seeking out transition chances and attacking the Heat downhill. Richardson was unable to curtail Simmons in either the half court, nor the open court.
Things changed slightly for Miami when Justise Winslow checked into the game. The Duke product instantly took responsibility for Simmons defensively. His length and lateral movement was somewhat effective in curtailing Simmons during the second quarter. It proved a useful tool in keeping him outside of the restricted area. Simmons’ turnover issues came when directly opposed by Winslow, but these quickly went away in the second half. Miami crumbled under the pressure created by Simmons and a close game descended into a blowout very quickly.
While Simmons and his long-range snipers held down the offence, Philadelphia’s defence deserves equal credit for limiting a Miami attack that looked capable of causing an upset during the game’s infancy. The length of Robert Covington and Dario Saric especially helped curtail the much smaller Miami backcourt. Covington’s performance drew the eye of 76ers head coach Brett Brown. “I thought he was unbelievable defensively,” Brown said of Covington.
Brown made the first adjustment of the series, when he inserted Ersan Ilyasova into the starting line-up over Amir Johnson to start the third quarter. Right away, Brown’s move gave the 76ers a bounce as they opened the third quarter on a 10-3 run. Much of this came at the expense of Hassan Whiteside. Inserting Ilyasova provided greater spacing around Simmons, while forcing Whiteside into decisions that he cannot make. The Heat big man was routinely drawn away from the rim and forced to defend the bevy of 76ers gunners spotting up from the outside.
This has long been the weakness in Whiteside’s game, and needless to say, he struggled mightily. He was minus 16 in his 12 minutes of action and looked borderline unplayable as he departed for good early in the third quarter. It will be interesting to see how Erik Spoelstra sets his rotation for Game 2 on Tuesday morning. Simmons collected a number of assists by ruthlessly targeting Whiteside’s opponent during his brief minutes on the floor.
Simmons shows no signs of slowing down, and Joel Embiid could be back by the week's end. Today was just the beginning, and the 76ers look ready for a sustained playoff run.