New experiences shape all of us, forcing us to adapt and grow. It often involves growing pains, and in Ben Simmons' case, a Game 2 loss to Aron Baynes' Boston Celtics.
Simmons has been a driving force behind the youthful Philadelphia 76ers' high-octane offence, but had an inexplicably quiet performance for the second game running in this playoffs series against the Celtics.
The Philadelphia guard recorded 18 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists in Game 1, but suffered a major regression in Game 2. He ended the game with 1 point, 1 rebound, 5 assists, 2 steals and an uncharacteristic 5 turnovers in almost 31 minutes (box score). Fellow Australian, Aron Baynes made the starting lineup, and had 5 points, 4 rebounds in 21 minutes of action.
Offence and opportunity
Defending is never perfect in basketball. It's often a game of weighing the lesser evils, and taking your chances. For attackers, it comes down to the opportunities defenses offer, and being able to make them pay.
Ben Simmons thrives in transition, when defenses are scrambling and everything turns into a creative mess of opportunity. He's adept at spotting the trailing shooter, or a well-positioned cutter for the transition basket. The Sixers have matched (or even better) the fast break points they've generated in the regular season (11.5 pts), over Games 1 (10 pts) and 2 (13 pts).
When fast break opportunities fail to surface, the battle is played out on the half-court. Defenders are ready to rotate, everyone is locked in. Mismatches and flaws become harder to spot, and scoring doesn't come easy.
Simmons' reputation as a non-shooter has been well-documented. The Celtics, who have had plenty of practice handling a non-shooting point guard in Giannis Antetokounmpo during the last round, gave Simmons plenty of space on defence. Watch how his defender, Al Horford backed off to the nail in this sequence.
Simmons added his own wrinkle to the situation. He waved Robert Covington off to create space, seeing how Dario Saric had sealed his defender at the low post. He dribbled in Saric's direction, looking like he was ready to drop an entry pass off. The next instant, Simmons switched gears and drove into the paint, bumping Horford off for a whistle, and was rewarded with free throws.
That solitary made free throw in the first quarter, would be his only made basket in the entire game. The aggression that was on display earlier, had vanished. Simmons only had three field goal attempts in the second half, a stark contrast to his regular season display (Simmons averaged 11.6 field goal attempts a night).
Simmons has to become a more active participant, especially when the ball is out of his hands. There were times when Simmons would bring the ball up and pass it off to a waiting teammate, before shuffling off. He wasn't waiting out on the perimeter to get back on transition defence, nor was he jockeying for offensive rebounding position, or cutting off-ball. He would be tagged by a defender and would remain on the weak side, a spectator in no man's land, watching the play unfold.
That's not to say Simmons was entirely disengaged; Boston's defenders did their part to clamp down on his scoring opportunities. Horford and Smart especially, were very effective in keeping Simmons out of the play, when he was playing off-ball.
Watch how the Sixers managed to engineer a mismatch for Simmons in this play, and got Rozier onto him.
Credit here goes to the Celtics for staying alert, and to Jaylen Brown for switching assignments with Rozier, before Simmons had his way with Rozier in the paint. The botched entry pass was salvaged by a nasty Embiid Eurostep and finish, but Simmons was denied an easy bucket through active anticipation.
On this possession, Simmons gets walled off by Smart --let's not forget the three other defenders who were waiting to help, even if Smart got beat-- and picks his dribble up to throw a high-arcing lob to J.J Redick, who was rubbing off an Embiid screen. The slow floating lob cost Redick precious seconds, and he ended up firing a contested three-pointer with two defenders draped over him.
The lob could have been executed better, but it's not entirely on Simmons - Boston's defences gave little space, and made it harder for him.
The Sixers run the ball up to Redick initially in this play, hoping for a Saric seal in the paint, but find no luck. Redick quickly sends it back to Simmons, who attacks right off the catch. Smart swaps assignments with Baynes, taking over Embiid, but the Sixers find no joy here as Simmons is stalled by Baynes, seemingly unable to attack. He runs out of time and is forced to throw a cross-court lob to Saric on the opposite block, and the shot clock expires before Saric manages to cobble a shot together.
https://gfycat.com/UnfortunateDazzlingLeopardseal Credit to Baynes here for sealing Simmons' path off. There wasn't an easy path to the basket, but Simmons didn't do himself any favours by dribbling the clock out in that spot. Faced with an isolation situation against a traditional centre, Simmons should have had the upper hand in terms of speed.
Things to watch out for next game
There were situations, when it felt like Simmons might have made the situation better, simply by attacking the basket himself.
Over here, watch how Simmons stopped his drive and kicked it out to Embiid, who ended with a solid layup attempt. It looked like the right play, let's take it a step further: would the kick out have been unnecessary, had Simmons continued and finished his drive through Marcus Smart, or made a short jumper right then?
Stayed focused on defence
Defensive lapses are costly as well, something Philadelphia can ill-afford, especially when they result in wide-open Rozier three-point attempts. Watch how Simmons spaced out, and let Rozier stroll right out to the three-point line, with ample space secured by a hulking Horford screen.
Posting up more
Expect more post up attempts from Simmons in Game 3. Watch how quickly he seals his defender, Marcus Morris in this case, and makes a strong move towards the basket. In an alternate universe, this might have easily been a whistle on Morris, and a trip to the charity stripe for Simmons.
The Sixers need to find these opportunities for Simmons, especially when he's being guarded by defenders not named Horford or Smart, and make the Celtics pay.
“It’s a tough decision, I admit it,” Sixers head coach Brett Brown said post-game, on choosing between T.J McConnell and Ben Simmons. “This whole playoff experience is something that I want our young guys and our star players to learn from and grow. The decision do you go with T.J. or do you come back to Ben Simmons, I come back to Ben Simmons. He’s had a hell of a year. I think he’s going to have to learn how to play in these environments and I’m coming back with Ben Simmons.”
It sounds like coach Brown has full faith in Simmons overcoming this speed bump.
Two games are a relatively small sample size, especially in road situations that boast one of the most intimidating home crowds in the league. But the playoffs aren't forgiving of mistakes, not when you're already down two games in a best of seven series. If the Sixers are to turn things around, Simmons has to figure his opportunities out, and counterattack when the Celtics come visiting.
Ben Simmons' Philadelphia 76ers face Aron Baynes' Boston Celtics in Game 3 on Sunday 7 May 2018 0700hrs AEST.