PHILADELPHIA - Questions remained entering the Philadelphia 76ers' must-win Game 6 on Thursday night. To be more specific, doubts remained over whether Ben Simmons could be at his best against an elite NBA outfit like the Toronto Raptors, but Simmons delivered the most illustrious postseason performance of his career in a dominant 112-101 Sixers victory.
Simmons has been the focus of much attention during his second NBA playoff campaign; a return to the NBA’s biggest stage has at times brought out the very best of Simmons. Game 3 in Brooklyn was the leading example that he is capable of showing out during the NBA’s postseason tournament.
The Raptors had seemingly solved the Simmons equation, entering Game 6. Australia’s first All-Star had just 30 points and recorded just 19 assists over the past four games. Worst of all, he looked ill-equipped to deal with a focused defensive scheme that emphasised denial of his athletic gifts. A round 1 beat down of the Nets had suddenly been rendered irrelevant. Instead, memories of a rookie fadeout permeated the North American media, and the goodwill of an All-Star appearance had been replaced with criticism and talk of trade demands.
There is some validity to the criticism that has been showered upon Simmons over the past few days. Maybe, just maybe - a high tempo and spaced offence is needed for the Victorian to reach his NBA ceiling. But that doesn’t mean Simmons isn’t already great in the NBA. And that doesn’t mean he cannot surpass what is considered capable for most professional sophomores by dominating against the best competition in the NBA.
The final Game 6 margin flatters Toronto, as they were thoroughly outplayed before garbage time set in. The result? A winner takes all Game 7 in Canada this Sunday. On a night where the Sixers extended their season with a commanding performance, Brett Brown anointed his point guard as the team’s best performer while praising Simmons' growing talents.
“For Ben to be our bell ringer, with some of the other performances confirms what he did tonight,” Brown said postgame. “His no turnovers and his attack mode. His four offensive rebounds his push and pace on missed shots especially. All of those things are what made him be an NBA All-Star at 22-years old. I thought he was excellent tonight and we needed it all.”
The all that Brown references, was Simmons excelling in ways that address the specific criticisms levelled his way. Simmons played 34 minutes and committed zero turnovers. He avoided the very ailment that has been a personal bugaboo in almost every poor showing during his career. It certainly plagued him during the a Game 5 beat down in Toronto. Game 6 was only the sixth time that Simmons has gone through a full game without committing a single turnover. Simmons also made his force felt on the offensive glass.
His positioning and all-around effectiveness away from the basketball has been questioned this week. Tonight, Simmons made his mark with four offensive rebounds, all of which resulted in second chance points for Philadelphia.
“I really loved his no turnovers and I really loved his offensive rebounds,” Brown added. “I thought those two things amongst everything I just said are what stood out the most. It is the evolution of a 6’10” point guard who used to be a college four man. I see it very clearly.”
What could be seen clearly tonight was the most aggressive version of Simmons. It was that intangible force that is always raised when prognostications are made over Simmons’ career. While it is impossible to articulate where this comes from, or how it even arrives, there was no doubting its power during Game 6. Simmons drove through the paint and lowered his shoulder from the opening tip. He was everywhere defensively. With the Sixers season on the line, Simmons stepped up and delivered a 21 point, eight rebound and six assist showing - just as required.
“He attacked in transition and he made some free throws,” said Jimmy Butler. “That’s how we need him to be.”
Toronto wasn’t at their best in Game 6 and their failings helped free Simmons. Their poor shooting – 43% from the field overall and 9 of 36 from three-point rage – drew flashbacks to the Sixers' own inaccuracy two nights earlier in Game 5. The bounty of defensive rebounds gave Simmons and the Sixers every opportunity to attack in transition. This was an opening they seized upon, much to the chagrin of the Raptors.
“I think our poor shooting got [Ben Simmons] out in the open a lot,” Nick Nurse explained. “I think he was certainly aggressive. Give him credit. I thought he made a lot more straight line, non-hesitant moves tonight. When he decided to go, he decided to go and he wasn’t thinking about passing, He was taking to the rim and we weren’t providing enough help down there.
“He hurt us on the glass early. We had a couple of good defensive possessions and then his big arms and hands came up and tipped them in. They are tough when you’ve had a good defensive possession and they are still getting a good percentage tip in. He was really good tonight. He is a really good player.”
Simmons is indeed really good, and he now faces the biggest test of his professional career. A Game 7 on the road is the NBA’s ultimate examination. Home teams have an enviable record in such contests and despite the impressive showings from all in Sixers white tonight, they head north as underdogs, with their season on the line. Philadelphia has everything needed to render the weight of history useless, when Game 7 tips. The Sixers have shown they can beat these Raptors. Both in the United States and in Canada.
This series has produced two blowouts for either team and two close slugfests. The scorecard is even with one round remaining. The Sixers won’t have a home crowd to boost them on Sunday, but they have a point guard coming off a glowing performance and a head coach who is ready for the pressure that awaits. Brett Brown’s Game 7 resume during his time with the San Antonio Spurs is illustrious. It gives him a perspective nobody else in this series has and it has him excited for a potential life changing experience.
“A Game 6 close out game that has allowed us to go and play and to have an amazing experience. I have been fortunate to be in a few Game 7s and they are very unique. They are special. They are a life lesson. A life opportunity.”
A tremendous occasion awaits the Sixers. There are so many unanswered questions hovering over the franchise and these will likely find closure on Sunday evening. There is so much on the line but at the end of the day, there is just one more basketball game to play for a place in the Eastern Conference Finals. According to Simmons, the Sixers have all the talent needed to rise to the occasion.
“We’ve got a lot of talent and with that comes responsibility,” Simmons said. “Everybody has to do their job. It goes back to starting with defence, playing together, sharing the ball and moving it. It’s special.”