PHILADELPHIA – The attention of the NBA universe was firmly focused on Ben Simmons, following his disappointing game one showing against the Brooklyn Nets.
An unusual passivity characterised Simmons’ performance during Saturday’s series opener. The Australian promised he would be more aggressive when Game two tipped off, and proved to be a man of his word.
Simmons set the tone on the Sixers' first offensive possession, when he drove hard to the basket and established the aggressive spirit that would lead the Philadelphia 76ers to a dominant 145-123 victory over Brooklyn. After scoring just seven points and handing out only three assists in the series opener, Simmons finished with 18 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds on Monday night.
“I was just trying to be me,” Simmons said of his performance. “Be aggressive, find my guys and play the game the right way.”
The historical weight of Simmons’ performance warrants attention. Per Basketball Reference, he is only the seventh player in NBA history to record multiple triple doubles in the NBA postseason before the age of 23.
Better yet, here is the full list of eight players who have matched the stat line of Ben Simmons in an NBA playoff game before their 23rd birthday: Oscar Robertson, LeBron James, Chris Paul, Paul George, Charles Barkley, Magic Johnson, Rajon Rondo and Clyde Drexler. For those counting, that's four Hall of Famers and four current players who are all perennial All-Stars and each likely destined to end up in the Hall of Fame one day.
But something more pressing was at stake tonight.
Philadelphia needed a win in the NBA playoffs and Simmons needed to remind the NBA world of his standing within it. The noise of the postseason can be overwhelming at times, and everyone around the Sixers franchise got a very loud reminder of this over the past 48 hours, Simmons especially. Talk of boos from local fans was the only respite to his subpar showing in Game 1, and the only way to shift the narrative was a dominant performance on the court.
Simmons delivered that on Monday night.
“He had an individual performance [in game one] that wasn’t what I know he wouldn’t have wanted and for him to respond to that, like he did, he was extremely aggressive," said Brett Brown.
“I thought the way he defended D’Angelo in the third period especially, D’Angelo had no points and they had no threes in that period. So much of their firepower is the three-point shot. Going back to Ben, he was our bellringer tonight. The fact he had 10 rebounds, 12 assists and 18 points was fantastic, but I thought his defensive effort on D’Angelo was spectacular, his aggression especially.”
Brown has spoken all season on his belief that Simmons can one day become a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in the NBA. These comments have been littered in alongside some of Simmons’ best regular season showings and tonight, on the NBA’s premier stage, he gave credence to Brown’s prophesy with one of the most engaged perimeter defensive outings of his career.
“When you see your teammate play with that type of energy, it picks you up, it lifts you up and it makes you want to play the same way,” Joel Embiid said.
“I thought tonight he was fantastic and that is the energy we need for the rest of this series and the playoffs.”
Simmons and the Sixers accomplished what amounts to an infant step on what they hope is a deep playoff run. Brooklyn came to Philadelphia and wrestled away home court advantage over the weekend. That couldn’t be undone tonight but the path to rectifying it was established.
Simmons showed he can repeat his All-Star form when it is needed most. That is something his team desperately needs, both this coming weekend when the series resumes in Brooklyn and, just as Embiid identified, for the rest of this postseason, however long it lasts.
Other notes and observations from Philadelphia
- Philadelphia outscored Brooklyn 51-23 in the third quarter tonight, taking a one point game at the half and eviscerating it into a blowout. The slender half-time margin flattered Brooklyn and the scoreboard explosion reflected the Sixers' dominance as the fourth quarter began.
- The Sixers' 51 point barrage ties the 1962 Los Angeles Lakers for the highest scoring single quarter in NBA history. They scored 51 points on 26 possessions, which included scores on their first nine possessions and then 12 of their last 14 possessions of the period. Philadelphia posted an incredible offensive rating of 155 through the first three quarters tonight.
- Brett Brown on the Sixers dominant 51 point third quarter: “We did what we tried to do in the first half harder, better and longer.”
- 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.
- I have to say, this is the most engaged perimeter defence I have seen Ben Simmons play in the NBA. He took the Russell assignment and worked his backside off to fight over every screen and takeaway Russell's space. This is the elite All-NBA defender that Brown has long described, when speaking of Simmons' future.
- Brooklyn really missed Jared Dudley tonight, who was absent with a calf injury. Dudley was Atkinson’s primary defensive option on Simmons in Game 1, defending 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. It is unknown whether Dudley will be available for Game 3.
- I wonder how long it takes Brooklyn to insert either Spencer Dinwiddie or Caris LeVert into the starting lineup in this series. The Nets starting unit has consistently been the weakest aspect of their performance over these first two games. No lineup tweaks would have saved Brooklyn from the Philadelphia barrage that they encountered tonight, but deploying their lineup from the opening tip will help the Nets reach their ceiling in this series.
- Simmons worked the local fans into a frenzy in the third quarter when he imitated an old celebration from former Sixers legend Allen Iverson. Goes without saying given the result tonight, but there was an entirely different feel inside the Wells Fargo Center.
- Simmons on the third quarter celebration where he raised his hand and imitated Allen Iverson’s old celebration: “I was thinking about the boos from last game. I have a lot of love for this city and the fans here. Every time I step on the floor I try and play as hard as I can. I was just showing that. The hustle I try and give each and every game is not only for my teammates, my family, it’s for the city.”
- The 142 points scored by Philadelphia is a franchise record for points scored in a playoff game, passing a 141-point performance against San Francisco in Game 1 of the 1967 NBA Finals. The 142 points are the most a team has scored in a regulation playoff game since Boston had 157 against the New York Knicks in 1990.
- Embiid finished with 23 points, 10 rebounds, one assist and one steal in just 21 minutes.
- Boban Marjanović had a playoff career-high 16 points and eight rebounds in 18 minutes of play off the bench. He is just the fifth player in NBA history with at least 16 points and eight rebounds in 18 minutes-or-less in a playoff game.