PHILADELPHIA – Jonah Bolden has been waiting all season for an opportunity to impress with the Philadelphia 76ers. On Saturday night, against a Toronto Raptors team holding the NBA’s best record, Bolden got his chance. He took it with both hands.
Bolden played a career high 25 minutes in the Sixers 126-101 victory over the Raptors and showed his potential on the NBA stage.
When this night was over, the box score showed four points, nine rebounds and four blocks for the Australian, although these tangible measures fail to fully articulate his impact. Bolden provided the Sixers with an energetic defensive boost and played the best game of his brief NBA career.
Bolden entered tonight having played a total of 54 minutes across nine NBA games in his rookie season. He has spent most of this season with Philadelphia’s G League affiliation, the Delaware Blue Coats, readying himself an opportunity just like tonight.
“Coming here from the beginning I knew that we were a title contending team,” Bolden said postgame. “We have great players that are the core of this team.
“It’s turned out that I am back and forth between the G League. I have embraced that to the best of my ability. I’ve stuck at it with a positive mindset and used it as preparation for games like tonight.”
The defensive end was where Bolden made his loudest statement against Toronto. His activity and energy was telling. Bolden checked in with 6:58 remaining in the first quarter and instantly raised the energy levels with Wells Fargo Center; a flurry of three blocked shots in a five minutes stretch had the home crowd in raptures. The NBA rookie also leveraged his lofty wingspan in rotating over and closing out on Toronto’s perimeter shooters. A proficient defensive performance was the first actualisation of Bolden’s versatile potential on the NBA level.
“I’m athletic and I can guard multiple positions,” says Bolden. “If I think I can go [block a shot], then I’ll go get it."
Following his breakout performance, Bolden credited time spent in the G League as the perfect preparation for minutes at the NBA level.
“I knew to get the most out of the [G League], you need to have a positive outlook on things and use it as preparation for the Sixers.
“The whole thing is just preparation with the G League. I am getting a lot of minutes when I am down there. The plays are the exact same. I know I’m prepared. When the opportunity comes, I am going to grasp it.”
Ben Simmons, who added to the wonderful night for Australia’s Sixers contingent with his own performance, was lavish with praise for Bolden postgame.
“He was huge defensively,” Simmons said of Bolden. “Blocking a lot of shots and offensively, getting to the rim. Finding guys, if he didn’t have a shot. I loved the way he came in and effected the game.”
Simmons scored a season-high 26 points to go along with 12 rebounds, eight assists and one block in 34 minutes of play.
With Kawhi Leonard unavailable, Simmons was able to break loose against Toronto for the first time this season.
Simmons committed a total of 18 turnovers in two earlier season games against the Raptors, both double-digit Sixers losses, but impressively turned things around tonight by only giving the basketball away once. Simmons also connected on 11 of his 13 field-goal attempts from the floor, in a further sign of Leonard’s importance to this match-up.
Independent of who is opposing him, keeping turnovers to a minimum is a point of emphasis for Simmons.
“I say every game has been the focus of ‘I don’t want to turn the ball over.’ As a guy who has the ball a long time, I don’t want to be the guy with the most turnovers. It’s not easy, but I think, every night, I try to pay attention a little more offensively, what sets we’re running. “
In addition to Leonard, the Raptors were also missing Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas. That is a fact both Simmons and Joel Embiid lamented postgame, as the Sixers' leading men desperately wanted an opportunity to oppose an Eastern Conference contender at full strength. They tasted victory tonight, but will have to wait a little longer before claiming a landmark win.
Sixers head coach, Brett Brown, praised Simmons' low turnover figure postgame, but the majority of Brown’s availability was spent talking about the other Australian on show tonight.
“I feel like Jonah’s ability to go block a shot at a rim is certainly helpful. I think his ability, when he’s at a four, to switch out on things gives him another layer to play at a five or a four.
“He is a deer in open court. When you watch him run, he really can move he gets up and down the court, and I just loved his energy. He’s somebody that we’ve paid attention to for a while in relation to trying to get him on a court, and tonight he did a good job, and we felt it was his time.”
Brown now leads his Sixers into Boston for a Christmas Day showcase against the Celtics. With the Sixers heading out on their longest road trip of the season, expect Bolden to be a member of the playing rotation.
“When I looked a week ago at our schedule coming up and we weren’t entirely healthy, we all kind of had a gut feeling that, and it happened sooner, but we had a gut feeling that the West Coast road trip, especially would be a road trip, that Jonah would come in and start to play.
“He went to Vegas and you know, played in the showcase, and we told that to him, to go play basketball with the end game being we really do see you coming into especially the West Coast trip and having a chance to play.
“We came into it tonight with Wilson [Chandler] injured and you know Mike [Muscala] gets those two quick fouls, he was going to be playing regardless of the quick fouls. And so it happened sooner, it was calculated, it was pre-planned that he was going to play, not to the volume of minutes that he did, but for all those reasons it played out like it did.”