PHILADELPHIA – Ben Simmons’ second NBA season included many high points. A maiden All-Star appearance in February was the most glowing accomplishment. While there weren’t ground-breaking changes to his game, year two brought improvements in the face of a tumultuous season in Philadelphia.
Despite the progress, one question has lingered over everything the Australia did in his second lap around the NBA: how would Simmons look in the NBA playoffs?
Through six months of basketball, every win and every defeat, this has been the subtext to Simmons’ performance. Nothing Simmons did in the regular season could shake the memories of a below par showing against Boston last postseason. Concerns remained, and following Simmons’ game one performance in the Philadelphia 76ers 111-102 defeat to the Brooklyn Nets, local anxiety has quickly risen to alarmingly high levels.
Simmons suffered through one of his worst games as a professional Saturday. There weren’t many redeeming features from his performance. Simmons’ box score - nine points, seven rebounds and three assists - flattered his performance. If not for a couple of irrelevant dunks as garbage time set in, his scoring output would have been among the very worst of his NBA career. Only five times this season had Simmons scored fewer points than he did today.
“Just thinking too much,” Simmons said of his performance. “And not being who I am: a playmaker and making plays.”
If these comments sound familiar, it’s because they are. Similar anecdotes defined the tone coming out Simmons and the Sixers when the Australian struggled against Boston last May. Scoring is not Simmons’ best NBA skill, and a lack of personal offence isn’t indicative of whether he is impacting games for the betterment of his team. But the passive and differential version of Simmons that took the court in Philadelphia today, was a carbon copy of the player that fell short against Boston last year.
Unable to get any penetration against a relentless Nets defence, Simmons was an offensive liability. With Philadelphia unable to convert shots from the perimeter – the Sixers finished 3 of 25 from three – his playmaking didn’t lead to the energetic offensive spurts that have made the Sixers an elite team, when healthy this season.
“Ben did have a down night by his standards, obviously,” Brown said. “He’ll be back; he is too competitive and too good so he’ll be back.”
Brown has every right to feel confident and trust his point guard. There was no panic on the Sixers side postgame and the worry of a singular poor showing can be forgotten with an improved performance in game two on Monday night. It is clear though, and it only took 48 minutes of playoff basketball for this to become painfully transparent, that Simmons’ weaknesses remain obvious to the NBA world. They will be picked at until he proves good enough to overcome them.
“It felt like I hadn’t played for a while, but it is what it is,” Simmons added postgame. “They got the first win and we got to go get the second one.”
Simmons now has 48 hours to prepare for what virtually amounts to a must-win game. A Sixers victory on Monday night is the most important thing the franchise can ask for, but an improved performance from their point guard is a close second.
Other notes and observations from game one in Philadelphia
- One moment encapsulated Simmons' struggles, the weaknesses of his game and the agitation of a near-capacity crowd.
As Simmons stood at the free-throw line with 1:46 remaining in the third quarter, he had the chance to reduce the Sixers' deficit to single digits. He missed the first free throw. That alone induced a scattering of boos from the local fans. By the time Simmons missed the second, the Well Fargo Center was drowned out in a chorus of boos that were directly pointed towards their point guard.
“If you are gonna boo, stay on that side,” Simmons said postgame. “That’s how I feel. If you’re a Sixers fan and you’re gonna boo, stay on that side.”
- Here is Brett Brown speaking pre-game on whether he could identify anything different in Simmons, as he entered the NBA playoffs for the second time.
“A little bit more focused in regards to knowing what to expect more. I think that he is more aware of what to expect. As I said to the group at my opening September tip-off dinner, this is what we have learned, I have been reminded of, is that where you finished [last season] against Boston. The lessons learned against Miami and Boston, you should start the season with those things in mind and jump all over whatever it is. Situation, rotation, go to plays or whatever.
“I think from his standpoint, and the conversations I have had with him, seem to circle back to that notion of he went and invested a year’s worth of work in some things as a reminder of where he finished, he should start. I think that, for all those reasons, there is a comfort level because I think he knows what to expect and what is coming.”
- There was one comment from Brown’s postgame availability that hits on the challenges of playing Simmons and Embiid together.
Brown was asked about Simmons’ reluctance to drive through the paint and take on the multiple Brooklyn defenders that were often in his way.
“Ben’s trying to play with that pace and speed and still be a point guard and share the ball. I think the notion that you are going to take a sagging defensive player, that crowds the paint and plays him the way they do, and you’re going to drive that, that is even more traffic. I think if you had asked the question, ‘should he have dribbled up and shot some top of the key jump shots?’ then maybe.”
Maybe is the operative word in that entire quote. All year, Brown has battered away a bounty of questions regarding Simmons’ shooting. He has consistently told the media that Simmons will start taking outside shots on his own personal timetable. Perhaps that time is now?
- It must be noted that Simmons wasn’t the only Sixers player to fail in game one. Tobias Harris and J.J. Redick were both impotent offensively, combining to score just nine points on two field goals each.
- Jimmy Butler finished with a playoff career-high 36 points to go along with nine rebounds, two steals and two blocks.
Butler’s offensive performance during the second and third quarters was the sole reason Philadelphia lingered during a game where they could not consistently get stops on the defensive end. Brown repeatedly referred to Butler as the “adult in the room” when speaking postgame.
- Here is Butler’s response to Brown’s calling him the adult in the room.
“I mean, I think I can score the ball pretty decent. The thing that bothered me most though, tell you the truth, is the fact I didn’t have a single assist. I think if I’m getting everybody involved and getting everybody else easy shots, I think the game goes a different way. You know, I’ll go study the film and see how I can find my teammates better to tell you the truth. I think if everybody’s clicking, Tobias, J.J., it takes away from my points, so be it, I’m fine with that, but I think we have a better shot at winning.
- Joel Embiid played 25 minutes after being under an injury cloud all week due to left knee soreness. He finished with 22 points, a game-high 15 rebounds, four assists and a game-high five blocks.
Embiid was asked if he was disheartened by the defeat, and he gave voice to the concerns that hover over a Sixers team that had only played 10 games together at full strength entering the postseason.
"I don’t know. I think it’s—I mean we’ve had so many setbacks since the Miami trade, since we got all together. We haven’t really gotten the rhythm that we hoped, but it’s basketball. We’re all so talented, so it’s on us to figure it out, with the help of coaches, but you know we only basically played 10 games together, so we just have to make sure we talk to each other, we communicate, we watch film, try to figure out what exactly is going on and what happened tonight and get back on Monday and win that game."
- Jonah Bolden recovered from his own bout of left knee soreness and was active for game one. The Australian played just five minutes in the fourth quarter as Brown searched for an answer to Brooklyn’s hyper-effective pick-and-roll attack.
- A maddening day for the Sixers was only made worse thanks to Amir Johnson being caught texting during the fourth quarter.
"It's completely unacceptable and we will deal with it internally, very soon,” Brown said after the game. It's not something we are and certainly don't condone."
News broke some 90 minutes after the game that Johnson had been fined for the incident.