Youth in the NBA playoffs: it's often a recipe for disaster.
Just one a week ago, Ben Simmons and the Philadelphia 76ers looked capable of bucking the trend. The Sixers had their feet up – resting gleefully after eliminating the Miami Heat – as they watched the Boston Celtics battle the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 7 of their first-round series. Boston was the victor, and a second-round playoff series with the Sixers was their reward.
Although, not many called this a prize. Not for the Celtics.
The general consensus was that this group of Sixers, these insanely talented playoff neophytes, would walk all over their opponent. Without Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving, and forced to throw a battered Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown into the fire of The Process’ coming out party, the undermanned Celtics were just another stepping stone on the Sixers path. Or so the story went.
Seven days later, and after three of their worst performances in 2018, the Sixers are on the brink of elimination.
On Sunday morning (AEDT), Philadelphia lost Game 3 of their series against the Celtics and now face the most daunting statistic in NBA history. 129 teams have fallen behind 0-3 in a playoff series, and all 129 of these have been eliminated. Their only way forward, this season at least, would be a comeback for the ages. Principally, the Sixers need an event as gargantuan as the gladiatorial battle that was Game 3 against Boston. And that’s no easy feat, as there are so many juicy talking points emanating from the Wells Fargo Centre right now.
For the victors, Al Horford had just put forth his finest moment as a professional. Do not let the box score fool you, Horford was the best player on the floor today, and it wasn’t close.
What about Aron Baynes, who arguably played the best basketball of his postseason career? The versatility he has shown over the past week has surpassed what many – myself included – believed was within his capabilities. Pick and pop threes, floor spacing, post defence on Joel Embiid, defensive switches onto J.J. Redick, tough rebounds – Baynes achieved all of this in the second half alone. He has been the most effective Australian in this postseason and deserves further examination and attention.
What else? Belinelli’s buzzer beater, Jayson Tatum performing as the series’ best rookie, the basketball seductiveness that is Brad Stevens’ playbook, the confetti cannon’s premature celebration. It goes on.
But there is only one item that appears like a basketball fatality in the moments after Game 3. That is the Sixers, and their inability to win a game they needed in the worst way. A game, that despite being played in a manner counterintuitive to their free flowing desires, was on their racket so many times.
Philadelphia led during the game's final minute and gave that up. They had an opportunity to take the last shot of regulation, and threw that away. Belinelli’s heave saved their bacon and provided more glorious opportunities in overtime. They were up four with a minute remaining. Up one with 10 seconds remaining. They had the basketball, with a chance to win in the dying moments. The Sixers were presented with chances at a season-saving victory, but ended up spewing all over themselves, in the biggest moments of their post-season campaign.
Which leads us to Simmons – and Embiid for that matter, as everything applies equally to him. Simmons just isn’t good enough yet to lead a team through the NBA playoffs. Not yet. There are clear basketball reasons why; his lack of a jump shot has rightfully been a beacon for criticism. But his failings in this moment go deeper than technical skills. It is the intrinsic side of the game that has caused trouble.
His mental aptitude has failed the test set by Stevens and the Celtics game plan. Simmons’s offensive game is out of sync. There is no question. Boston’s dedication to taking away his driving lanes has worked to perfection.
The Australian admitted he was in his own head after Game 2. While Game 3 showed improvement, it was still far below his best. Points came easier and he stuffed the stat sheet, but no metric can truly quantify the negative plays he made when Philadelphia needed fundamental, if unremarkable basketball. The exact things, by the way, that has made T.J. McConnell one of their best players in this series.
All too often Simmons would give up his dribble on the perimeter, in a manner that harkens back to his pre-Christmas growing pains. In Game 3, he was caught backing up and deferring when Shane Larkin – who in 28 cm shorter than Simmons – was in direct opposition. This cannot happen, not right now. Simmons knows this and it will likely change next season. 16 turnovers across the three games hasn’t helped either.
Simmons’ decision making came to a head with 19 seconds remaining in overtime. With Philadelphia up one, and the shot clock switched off, he collected an offensive rebound and instantly attempted a putback. He missed and Boston collected the ball enroute to their eventual game-winning basket. This was a split-second decision in a highly pressurised and fatigued environment, but Simmons made the incorrect choice.
He tried making the home run play, when something simpler was needed.
“I think it was just natural instinct,” Simmons said post-game. “Right next the rim, it’s a shot I take every practice. Every day, every game, I take one of those. I missed it.”
This one play didn’t cost Philadelphia the game, as there were dozens of momentary instances that can be singled out in a similar vein. Although this one is instructive and representative of a budding franchise player who, just like his bourgeoning and potentially dynastic team, isn’t ready to for the NBA’s holy grail.
“If it was a point blank dunk,” Brown said, in reference to Simmons’ late put back attempt. “Then you would take that.
“It’s true that he makes that all the time in practice. There is 19 seconds left. If we had it again, you would probably bring that out and let them chase you and foul it and chew up the clock.
“On so many levels, and this being one of them, it’s the thing that I see and feel, and hear internally the loudest, that our young guys, at times, look young. We are going to have to find places in this experiences and learn from it. That was a great example of one of them.”
Brown’s last point is telling. Simmons and Embiid predictably look young. Their coming out party over the past two months has caught everyone in a fluster, but there is no hiding their inexperience in this moment. They must get tougher, both physically and mentally. That sounds like a flaming hot take, and it very well might be, but in this instance, it is the truth. Powered by a game plan from one of the best coaches in basketball, the Celtics are playing harder and smarter basketball than the Sixers. Simmons especially has been aloof for too many stretches in this series. His defence has been bad, bordering on horrible. Too much ball watching and a general laziness has been telling.
Similar criticism extends across the entire Philadelphia roster and their performances this week. Possessions are being squandered at both ends of the Sixers floor. No one moment is devastating, but the cumulative impact of their malaise has this team facing elimination, in a manner that looks so different from their dominance in recent memory.
"When you win 17 games in a row,” Brown said. “Then 4-1 against Miami, there are expectations, and rightfully so. The regular season is very different from the playoffs. Fact is, the Celtics do expose some of our weaknesses.”
The Celtics have indeed exposed those of Simmons, which, in a funny way might be the best thing for his career. Remember, there was a time when LeBron James was flustered by J.J. Barea. These things happen to any great player. Judgments in this moment are far from definitive. Simmons’ response, which barring a miracle over the coming days will begin in October, will be the examination of whether these moments can be harnessed for good. To his credit, Simmons claims to be absorbing knowledge, at a time when the criticism is loudest. He was asked post-game about what he’s learning about himself in the playoffs.
“That I’ve got a lot of growing to do,” Simmons said. “It’s the first season I’ve played, the first time I’ve played in the playoffs. I’m learning a lot.”
As painful as it appears, the lessons learnt from Philadelphia's defeats this week could be the making of Ben Simmons. Not as a basketballer, but as an athlete ready to lead his team through the rigours of an NBA postseason. Time will tell.