Ben Simmons makes things look so easy that it's easy to forget that he even did them.
After the 119-109 win over the Hawks on Wednesday night, much of the attention focused on the ferocious dunk that the rookie threw down to punctuate a rollicking fourth quarter in which the Sixers outscored Atlanta, 26-16, to snuff out the upset bid.
And for good reason: It was a ridiculous display of athleticism, the kind of play that underscores just how much potential lurks inside this kid, a one-act exemplification of the combination of size, quickness, hops, and vision that Simmons brings to the court. There were three Hawks defenders between him and the basket and his man was playing six feet off him, yet in just two dribbles and four strides, he traveled more than 20 feet, taking off halfway down the lane for a dunk that looked like the love child of Dominique Wilkins and Dr. J.
But within the context of the game, that fourth-quarter play was little more than dessert compared with the meat and potatoes that Simmons served up during a pivotal stretch in the third quarter. After jumping out to a 25-8 lead in the first seven minutes of the game, the Sixers spent most of the next 2 1/2 periods missing jumpers, lapsing on defense, and allowing an overmatched Atlanta team to claw its way back into the game. One minute into the third quarter, the game was tied, and four minutes later, the Hawks had a seven-point lead.
At that point, Simmons had attempted just seven shots, with two of his three makes coming on jumpers. Given how the game had gone, it was easy to think that he was being too tentative, much the same way LeBron sometimes gets criticized. When a player makes things look this easy, the tendency is to think that he should do those things on every possession. I wonder, though, if the proper way to look at Simmons' relative silence in the first half is as a testament to his maturity as a player. Remember, this guy is a point guard. He plays the same position as T.J. McConnell. When the Sixers are knocking down six straight from downtown to start the game, Simmons is in the middle of that. They scored 59 points in the first half. They just scored the bulk of them in the game's opening minutes. The offense that Simmons was running was generating open shots. The Sixers were just missing. J.J. Redick started 0 for 5 from three-point range. If he hits at his usual percentage, the Hawks never grab the lead.
"I tried to let the game come to me in the first half," Simmons said afterward.
Five minutes into the third quarter, that changed. With the Hawks leading, 73-66, Simmons took a pass from McConnell at the top of the arc and soft-pedaled a running righthanded floater over two defenders to cut the lead to five.
On two of the Sixers' next three possessions, he found open men on plays that should have led to five points, a sequence that exemplified the illusory nature of assists as a performance metric. While Simmons got a notch on the stat sheet for a glorified handoff to Robert Covington that preceded a deep three, his more impressive play came on his next trip down the court, when he tipped an Atlanta miss to Covington to start a three-on-two transition break, filled the left-hand lane, took a pass from Covington on the opposite end of the court, and immediately saw Jerryd Bayless settling into the weak-side wing. After driving the middle to draw both defenders, Simmons threw a midair pass to Bayless and continued toward the rim, clearing out one of the defenders and allowing the trailing Amir Johnson to settle in behind him for what should have been an easy dunk on a wide-open pass from Bayless. In the end, Johnson went to the line and missed 2 of 2.
But. . .
Simmons grabbed the rebound off Johnson's miss and drove baseline to draw a foul, then hit 1 of 2 from the line.
Two possessions later, Simmons drove to the rim, drew two defenders, then flipped a righthanded pass behind his head to Johnson for an open three-footer.
Next trip down the court, after an Atlanta three-pointer, Simmons took a pass from McConnell and floated another running righthander for a bucket.
Next trip down the court, Simmons again drove right but crossed over to his left in the paint, floated a lefthander that rattled out, then grabbed his own miss and put it back.
Simmons ended up going to the bench with 3 minutes, 45 seconds remaining in the third, after adding another free throw on the Hawks' decision to foul him off the ball. Atlanta's deployment of the Hack-a-Ben was a testament to Simmons' ability to seize control of the game and restore the Sixers to a position where they were dictating to the opponent. During that stretch, he scored eight points and had two assists that contributed to five more points as the Sixers outscored the Hawks, 14-7. Again, the Sixers scored 14 points; Simmons scored or assisted on 13 of them.
Afterward, somebody asked Simmons how much more he has left to improve.
"There's more," he said, shaking his head in a you-don't-even-know-the-half-of-it manner. "There's a lot more."
Even more breathtaking then the pinpricks of scoring dominance we've seen is Simmons' willingness, as he said earlier, to let the game come to him. He does not take bad shots. He does not force the issue. As he gets a better feel for his own game and for the flow of an NBA game, I'd expect stretches like the middle of the third quarter against the Hawks to become more prevalent. For now, he's way ahead of where we see most rookies outside of LeBron and Durant. That's something.