Ben Simmons shows elite defensive potential as 76ers down Bulls

PHILADELPHIA – Brett Brown has preached patience with his Philadelphia 76ers.

In the aftermath of a disappointing start to the season, the Sixers head coach reinforced that things will be ok. His team agreed.

On Tuesday night in Boston, the entire game of basketball was a miss for Philadelphia. Ben Simmons commented in the bows of TD Garden that his team needed more time in the gym to work on everything. Even still, Simmons remained calm, and the friendly opportunism of a home game against the Chicago Bulls helped ease concerns.

Playing against Chicago instantly improved aspects of the Sixers offence, but their defence, that required more of an inward touch. Especially given how Philadelphia’s home opener started. The opening 12 minutes of defence from the Sixers was worse than anything witnessed in Boston two nights ago.

Chicago scored 41 points in the first quarter – their franchise record for a season opener – on 61% shooting from the field. There was no resistance from Philadelphia. Just a friendly invitation for Bobby Portis and Zach Lavine to imitate the very best scorers in basketball.

“That’s an incredible volume of points to start a game,” Brown admitted. “Some of it was ball pressure. Some of it was us not communicating.”

Brown believes his team can become one of the stingiest in basketball. There is an outward confidence that the Sixers will be elite defensively, or a “multi positional, switchable team” as Brown explained it today. He hopes the additions of Mike Muscala and Wilson Chandler will aid in this mission, although the defensive growth from the reigning Rookie of the Year is a beacon for hope in the immediate.

Simmons finished with 13 points, 13 rebounds, 11 assists and 2 blocks against Chicago, becoming the first Sixers player to record a triple double in a home opener. It was the 13th triple double of his career, and yet, anyone focusing on Simmons reaching this arbitrary milestone is missing what truly defined his performance on this night.

“He can be elite defensively,” Brown explained of said Simmons. “He really can be elite defensively. That is where I am most proud of his growth.”

Simmons has always had the size and length. This shone through during year one, although a general malaise often characterised his play. It has only been two games, but Simmons is showing evolution as an on-ball defender. He is more instinctive with sliding his feet on the drive. He is staying connected to his opponents. He is dwarfing opposition point guards with his size.

After watching Simmons up close this week, he just seems to be more in control defensively. An immeasurable anecdotal comment, sure, but there is tranquil ambiance that can describe his defensive play. The experience of a full season in the Association, coupled with a tireless offseason is bearing fruit immediately.

“It started defensively for us,” Simmons said. “With getting stops. That always leads to offence for us. We always use our defence, and the energy from that, and put it into our offence.”

Such a movement became evident as the Sixers controlled Chicago over the middle two quarters. The Bulls scored a meagre 37 points in the 24 minutes of basketball that followed their fluorescent start. Their offensive dominance was eroded by a wonderful defensive performance from Simmons, Joel Embiid and Robert Covington.

“We came out to mean it,” Brown explained of the Sixers defensive resurgence. “I think our middle two periods, defensively, were outstanding.”

Embiid finished with 30 points and 12 rebounds in 33 minutes. His full impact was felt during the opening moments, where he scored 12 early points and kept the Sixers competitive as the Bulls took advantage of their early opportunities.

The Markelle Fultz experiment, and everything that brings, will continue to follow the Sixers as the season settles into a rhythm. The second year guard led the Sixers in field goal attempts with 15, but could only convert this into an inefficient 12 points.

Brown was quick to compliment Fultz in the postgame, although it must be acknowledged that the young guard has a long ways to go. In the first half especially, he was devoid of any shooting range and Chicago knew it. During timeouts, the Bulls coaching staff could be seen and heard, empathically employing their charges to abandon Fultz. This often led to Embiid being double-teamed and to the lesser offensive moments for Philadelphia on this night.

It was only a temporary blimp, with Philadelphia’s sublime talent more than accounting for any schematic challenges. Tougher obstacles await, although for now, the Sixers can move into their season knowing a newfound rotation can work when the games actually count. More than anything, there is a defensive identify growing, and that might be the biggest development of all.