PHILADELPHIA - Ben Simmons and the Philadelphia 76ers are headed to Brooklyn tomorrow for Game 3 of their first round series against the Nets.
Game 2 brought a return to form, both for Simmons and his basketball team, following a disappointing playoff opener. Before the series shifts to Brooklyn, here are some leftover thoughts on how Simmons and the Sixers turned things around in Game 2.
Simmons shuts down Russell
Much was made of Simmons’ historic triple-double, but his defensive performance is what truly stood out. Game 2 was arguably the most engaged perimeter defence Simmons has played in the NBA. It was definitely the most disciplined defence I have seen Simmons play since he was a senior at Montverde. Fittingly, it was his high school teammate, D’Angelo Russell, who played victim to Simmons' newfound focus.
Simmons guarded D'Angelo Russell on 35 possessions in Game 2. He limited Russell to four made field goals and only one assist, and induced three turnovers when directly matched up. A few things really stood out with how Simmons defended Russell.
Firstly, the way Simmons focused on curtailing Russell was noticeable.
Simmons has a nasty habit of trying to do too much on defence. He likes to roam away from his direct opponent and this can lead to him getting caught in between defensive assignments. Such issues arose during Game 1, but there was none of this on Monday night.
Face-guarding Russell was a tactic Simmons deployed from the opening tip in Game 2. His on-ball defence was much improved, and the tactics deployed by Simmons made Russell work extra hard just to get his hands on the ball.
Brooklyn was able to get their point guard the ball, but Simmons was omnipresent, always ready to contest and take away Russell’s bread and butter: his left side drives.
With Simmons hanging over his left shoulder, Russell took the Sixers bait and stepped into a number of contested long twos. Simmons leveraged his athletic gifts to take away half of the court. Russell was forced into driving where the Sixers wanted, and with Joel Embiid stepping up to cramp driving lanes, his options were limited with Simmons on his back.
The Nets will invariably adjust going forward in this series. Changing up Russell’s court positioning and the situations where he receives the basketball are tweaks Kenny Atkinson will likely experiment with when the series shifts to Brooklyn on Thursday night. But Simmons took the chocolates in Game 2 and it stemmed from his aggressive disposition. As we touched on in the aftermath of game one, Simmons’ defensive mindset is firmly within his control and something that can be expected throughout the postseason.
“I thought his defensive effort on D’Angelo was spectacular, his aggression especially,” said Brett Brown of Simmons following Game 2.
Simmons starting the game on fire
Now to the sexy part of Simmons’ performance. He was dynamite offensively and it started from the opening tip.
Simmons used four shooting possessions in the opening three minutes of Game 2 and with the Nets missing Jared Dudley (more on this below), he was able to immediately beast on a smaller batch of Nets defenders. Simmons showed more vigour in the opening moments of Game 2 than he did during the entirety of Game 1.
Simmons finished the night with 14 shooting possessions and 11 driving plays. Both numbers dwarf his output from Game 1 and it's even more promising, seeing how Simmons played less minutes thanks to the Sixers' blowout victory.
It must also be acknowledged that Philadelphia’s defence is linked to many of Simmons’ driving plays. He is one of the most lethal transition threats in the Association and receiving the basketball in live situations, after a Sixers defensive rebound, gives Simmons the advantage he needs to attack downhill.
Nets missing Dudley
Brooklyn really missed Jared Dudley during Game 2. Dudley, who was absent with a calf injury, was Atkinson’s primary defensive option on Simmons in Game 1, and defended the Australian for 22 possessions. No other Brooklyn player took Simmons for more than 11 possessions on Saturday and Dudley’s absence was clearly felt as Simmons exploded.
Without Dudley, Treveon Graham and Rodions Kurucs were left to cover Simmons. That was problematic for Brooklyn as the pair showed their inexperience by offering Simmons opportunities to attack the basket unencumbered.
Simmons didn’t suddenly turn into a scoring machine, but he was able to find his offensive groove and do what he does best: facilitate the Sixers offence. Simmons racked up nine assists and the Sixers posted a 156 offensive rating when Graham and Kurucs were defending Simmons in game two, per NBA.com.
It is currently unknown whether Dudley will be available for Game 3. If he is unable to play, Brooklyn will be forced to experiment further with the Simmons matchup. The Australian referred to Kurucs as “the other kid” when speaking between Game 1 and 2. That alone shows how much he respects the Nets rookie. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is one option off their bench, although anything he brings to the table defensively will be mitigated by his lack of offence.
Jumbo Jonah time.... maybe?
Jonah Bolden only received three minutes of playing time during the competitive portion of Game 2 but this brief stint was instructive because of who he shared the court with. Philadelphia opened the second quarter with a lineup featuring Bolden alongside Simmons, Embiid, Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris. The smallest player in this five man group Butler at 203cm.
Bolden was always going to struggle for playing time if Embiid was fit and given the playoff form Boban Marjanović, it appears Bolden won't be receiving minutes at the five against Brooklyn. Getting limited minutes as a four man will likely be his contribution to this series. Philadelphia outscored Brooklyn 10-9 during the 171 seconds this grouping shared the floor.
Sixers getting slack defending the three-point line
The Sixers played an excellent first half in Game 2 but the combination of Brooklyn's three-point shooting and a discombobulated closing sequence meant that Brooklyn only trailed by one point at the half.
Brooklyn shot 10-23 from three-point range in the first half and it was the sole reason they lingered around in the game. As this series goes along, it really wouldn’t be surprising to see the Nets try and ratchet up the volume of attempts from behind the arc. In addition to being a great underdog strategy, Brooklyn has proven over the first two games of this series that they can exploit the Sixers’ wing defence.
Plays like the above were more frequent in Game 1, although they still lingered around in Game 2. Check out Brown's reaction - he wasn’t a happy man. I'm guessing plays like this brought on the half time tirade the Sixers players spoke of post game. Brown elicited a response from his team in the second half of Game 2 but Philadelphia must improve their defensive focus as they chase road victories in this series.