Farewell Nets, hello Raptors: Ben Simmons will face his greatest challenge yet

PHILADELPHIA – Ben Simmons and the Philadelphia 76ers did what they were supposed to against the Brooklyn Nets. They beat an inferior opponent in five games to advance in the NBA playoffs.

The series was packed with drama, thanks to Brooklyn ambushing Philadelphia in Game 1 and Jared Dudley inserting himself into the public discourse. The game-to-game theatre was compelling, but any suspense in the series result was removed when the series shifted to Brooklyn last Thursday. Two road victories by Philadelphia served as the precursor to their 122-100 demolition of the Nets in Game 5.

The Sixers marched into the second round with four consecutive victories and Ben Simmons leaves the series having played the best two-way basketball of his young career.

Simmons transformed into the most aggressive version of himself following a self-diagnosed disappointing performance in Game 1. A flurry of aggressive finishing plays in Game 2 signalled Simmons’ arrival into his second career postseason, while a playoff career best 31 points in Game 3 served as the greatest reminder yet that he can dominate games on the playoff stage. While the 22-year-old showed his growing value on the offensive end, the most impressive aspect of his series came on defence. Simmons was tasked with defending D’Angelo Russell and his performance drew high praise from those around the team.

I think his effort on D’Angelo has been exceptional,” Brett Brown said.

Russel shot 33.3% with more turnovers (seven) than assists (six) in the 175 possessions Simmons defended him during the series. Brooklyn scored just 85.1 points per 100 possessions during that time. For context, the NBA’s worst offence during the regular season scored 104 points per 100 possessions. Following Philadelphia’s defensive capitulation during in Game 1, Simmons stepped up and a led a defensive attack that has restricted Brooklyn to 30% shooting from three-point range during the final four games of the series. Brett Brown has long prophesied Simmons’ potential as an All-NBA defender and the past week has validated his claims.

“Ben has done a tremendous job defending D’Angelo Russell,” Jimmy Butler said following Game 4 in Brooklyn. “He is our point guard and he is running everything because he is so smart and he knows how to get guys the ball in positions where they can score.”

Simmons is 9-6 in his infant NBA playoff career and now has two series victories under his belt. His production during the beginning of his NBA postseason career is practically unmated. With 249 points, 128 rebounds and 115 assists to his name, Simmons joins Hall of Famers Oscar Robertson and Magic Johnson as the only NBA players to record at least 200 points, 100 rebounds and 100 assists through their first 15 playoff games. Simmons accomplished the feat before the likes of LeBron James and Michael Jordan and most importantly, he did it on a winning team.

It might not sound like much, and when the book is written on his career, a first round series victory over Dudley and the Nets won’t carry the significance it does in this moment. Another series victory right now however, is a noteworthy triumph for an athlete in just his second professional season. Players on rookie scale contracts rarely lead teams to series victories. It took Giannis Antetokounmpo six years to win his first series. Kevin Durant four. Lebron James three. Learning how to navigate a seven games series is tricky business. While Simmons still must show he is capable of winning against the truly elite, the success he’s found early during his NBA career bodes well for what is next.

A date with Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors now awaits Simmons and the Sixers. For team, the Raptors series is a chance to validate the aggressive trades that brought Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris into the fold. Philadelphia believes they are going to beat Toronto. That may seem like an obvious statement; what team doesn’t believe they are going to win? But the sense of anticipation of emanating out of the Sixers’ training facility isn’t just blind faith or reckless optimism. The franchise has deliberately upped the ante over the past six months and the next two weeks will deliver the verdict on those moves.

Victory over Brooklyn was very loud, but it was simply the precursor to what really matters. The Eastern Conference playoffs begins in earnest this weekend. Toronto and Philadelphia will battle for one spot in the championship round, while Milwaukee and Boston engage in warfare for the other. It’s a battle royal to take LeBron James’ vacated seat in the NBA Finals and the stakes couldn’t be higher. A second round series defeat could carry lasting ramifications for the each of the four combatants and no franchise is under more scrutiny than the Sixers.

Butler, Harris and J.J. Redick are all free agents on 1 July. Keeping the trio will plunge the franchise into the depths of luxury tax. That is, if all three choose to return. The next two weeks could determine whether that is the case. Brown’s future was a hotbed for discussion long before erroneous reports surfaced last week. His status as head coach will be cast into doubt should the Sixers face an uncompetitive defeat against Toronto.

Simmons is eligible for a rookie extension in July. An impressive series against Toronto should guarantee he receives every dollar available to him. Conversely, a repeat of last season’s disappointing performance against Boston will focus the NBA universe’s collective attention on Simmons’ shortcomings. If you thought the noise after Game 1 of the Brooklyn series was bad, just wait and see what happens if Simmons is rendered ineffective against the Raptors. But with great stakes comes great opportunity. Facing Toronto offers Simmons a chance to validate his standing in the NBA and an opportunity to exercise the demons of his Celtics fadeout.

Finding success in the second round won’t come easy, as Simmons will likely be subject to one of the best perimeter defenders in basketball. Leonard was Toronto’s primary option on Simmons during the regular season and the former San Antonio Spurs dominated the matchup. Leonard restricted Simmons to 46% shooting from the field, 10 percentage points below his average, while also eliminating the Australian’s most lethal skill - making plays.

Simmons totalled 10 assists and nine turnovers in the 115 possessions where Leonard was his primary defender this season, per NBA.com. Both totals are among the worst outputs Simmons has against any opponent in the NBA. Turnovers are a common thread in almost every poor Simmons performance and nobody has done a better job of eliciting turnover binges from him than the Raptors. Simmons has recorded six or more turnovers in a game 22 times during his NBA career and five of these have come against Toronto. Three came this season in direct opposition to Leonard, all Philadelphia losses.

Toronto has an elite wing option in Leonard plus a secondary pool of long athletes in Serge Ibaka, Danny Green and Pascal Siakam to throw at Simmons. The size advantage Simmons enjoyed against Brooklyn is gone. An experienced Raptors team will scheme around his weaknesses with deliberate focus, much as the Celtics did 12 months ago. That is what makes the next fortnight an illuminating experience for Simmons and the status of his career development.

Speaking before the postseason began, Brown was asked if he could identify anything different in Simmons, as he entered the NBA playoffs for the second time. His response was instructive for many reasons. Brown gave voice to the specific challenge that will confront his point guard over the next seven games, while also noting that Simmons is acutely aware of what to expect.

“A little bit more focused in regards to knowing what to expect more. I think that he is more aware of what to expect,” Brown said on April 12th.

“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, it seems 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. I think that, for all those reasons, there is a comfort level because I think he knows what to expect and what is coming.”

Simmons knew this challenge was coming. Brown and the coaching staff did too. Knowing what awaits is one thing; conquering it is another. Noise over Simmons’ jump shot will not go away until he either starts making them in high leverage situations or the Sixers triumph in spite of his weaknesses.

Either the Sixers win, or Simmons’ weaknesses will become an even brighter beacon for criticism. That’s an incredibly high standard, and perhaps an unfair one, but Philadelphia is now attempting to jump from playoff side into the championship equation. NBA history shows that this is the hardest step to take and it can only happen if young All-Stars lead the way.

Moving from Brooklyn to Toronto means the goalposts have shifted for Philadelphia. The days of this Sixers team – the post Process Embiid and Simmons Sixers team, that is - being content with first round series victories is over. The stakes are much higher now. The pressures are mounting because those around the franchise believe the time is now.

“I feel that everybody has the same mindset: we want to win,” Simmons said prior to Game 5 against Brooklyn. “I know we have the pieces to do it and it’s going to be tough but we are together.”

Being together is a requisite starting point for the Sixers, although forecasting how long that lasts is a fool’s errand. This Toronto matchup might be the last series Butler, Simmons, Embiid and Harris all play together; a heavy defeat could facilitate that. Or it could signal the dawn of a Pennsylvanian dynasty in the Eastern Conference. The Sixers have the next seven games of playoff basketball to find out. Seven games for a berth in the conference finals and, perhaps, the immediate future of the franchise.