PHILADELPHIA - Ben Simmons stormed up the court in the final seconds of Saturday’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, and looked like he was doing something completely foreign.
With his 76ers down two points and time remaining for only one attempt at the basket, Simmons started by doing what he always does: he put his head down and ploughed up the floor. He crossed half court and was, seemingly, on the precipice of driving to the basket. But he didn’t.
Instead, Simmons planted his feet behind the three-point arc and, momentarily, foreshadowed taking his first long-range attempt of the season.
“I was about to shoot it,” Simmons explained of his mindset on the final possession. It was only a fleeting thought, however, as the sophomore point guard quickly pivoted. “But I abandoned the play as I saw Jimmy’s man sag a little bit more,” Simmons added.
Sticking to the script that has defined his brief NBA career, Simmons did not shoot, and instead initiated a dribble handoff for Jimmy Butler, who attempted the game’s final heave. Butler missed, Oklahoma City saluted with a pulsating 117-115 victory and, as has become commonplace, the question of Simmons’ jump shot lingers.
The tantalising thought of Simmons launching his first three-point attempt of the season, in what was arguably the Sixers' biggest moment of the campaign, serves as the appropriate nightcap to what has a stupendous final sequence. An eight-point burst from Butler in the final minute gave Philadelphia a lead with just seconds remaining. The Wells Fargo Center was louder than it had been all season, only for Paul George to silence it. George stepped up and converted on his own three-point attempt for what proved to be the game’s decisive basket. Simmons' fleeting moment passed, and that was the game.
“I’m just trying to free myself,” George said of his match winning shot. “I’ve got the best screener cleaning my guy for me to get a free catch up top. We ran it so many times this year. You know, we’ve ran it to a T. I made it, you know, that’s a big time play for us.”
As for Simmons, we can go through the exercise of rattling off his box score statistics -- 20 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists – although that is becoming a nightly ritual. His play over the past month has elevated beyond anything seen as a rookie and the numbers are starting to bear that out.
Defensively, the Australian has given life to Brett Brown’s prophesy that he can one day become an All-NBA level defender. If George had missed his final shot, then Simmons’ role in causing Dennis Schröder’s reckless pass that Jimmy Butler took in for his final points of the game would be supplanting all talk of shooting the basketball.
Yes, the same bug-a-boos persist with Simmons. Turnovers, of which he had six tonight. In case you have been living under a rock, the lack of a three-point shot received top billing once again, although these are just periphery items for someone learning to accelerate upwards from what is already an All-Star base.
“It sucks to lose, but we learn,” Simmons said postgame. “We got to get better. At the end of the day, we want to be winning when it comes to playoffs. This is not everything, this game isn’t everything. We are going to learn from it, we’re going to go back and watch film as a team and stay strong.”
Speaking at his postgame press conference, Brown gave further context to the game’s final play.
“We were trying to create an environment where Ben could attack as best he could,” Brown said. “Keep the court spread, cut the driving line off, and run a dribble handoff to Jimmy.”
“I’m backing Ben Simmons on the fly. I wish we got it out of bounds quicker to create more of an environment that was moving and a little bit more disorganized, but there’s a lot of stuff that went on before that.”
With just a few seconds in the game tonight, Simmons threatened to shift the narrative and steal headlines. He instead stuck to the script and did what he always does: pass the basketball.
Here are some other observations from an enjoyable day in Philadelphia.
Simmons is now averaging 18.3 points, 11.7 rebounds and 9.8 assists over his past eight games. He has played his way onto the Eastern Conference All-Star team. You can retire your #SnubSZN jokes; they won’t be needed this year.
Jonah Bolden continues to serve as Joel Embiid’s reserve. He played 13 minutes tonight, all of which came with Embiid off the floor. One thing to watch going forward is how much Brown trusts Bolden in high leverage situations.
When Embiid left for a brief rest midway through the fourth quarter, Mike Muscala was inserted into the game over Bolden. Embiid was only absent from the game for two minutes so Bolden didn’t miss out any significant time, although it’s worth noting that Brown trusted the veteran Muscala over Bolden when the Sixers were attempting their comeback. Bolden finished with three points and five rebounds.
The Thunder won their 19th straight game against the 76ers today. They've only lost to them once since relocating to Oklahoma City (2008).
Simmons, who called his team soft following a defeat to the Atlanta Hawks last week, was asked if he thinks the team’s toughness has improved on defence. “I think everybody is just playing harder and realizing that there’s another level and I said today was similar to a playoff game with physicality, calls and the level of talent you’re playing against, everybody kind of fouling you, and I think it’s great for us.
The Steven Adams-Joel Embiid match-up was a throw back to old school basketball. It was legitimately cool seeing two behemoth big men dominate the game with their physically imposing skills.
To finish on the humorous side, Embiid and Westbrook resumed hostilities, both on the court and in the verbal sparring department. Things kicked-off late in the fourth quarter when Embiid fouled Westbrook and fell over his back.
This play set the scene for both men to yack back at each other postgame. Enjoy the videos and beware of some colourful language.
Simmons and the Sixers host the Houston Rockets on Monday night (Tuesday 12PM ADST) for their next game.