TORONTO — Before Game 2 of their Eastern Conference semifinal, 76ers point guard Ben Simmons said that he expected to guard Raptors scoring machine Kawhi Leonard more.
Simmons was the primary defender, and even though Leonard had another big game on Monday, it didn’t quite match his opening-game performance.
More impressively, as the Sixers evened the series at one game apiece with a 94-89 win over the Raptors at Scotiabank Arena, Simmons barely left the floor.
He played a career-high 44 minutes, 22 seconds and finished with six points on 3-for-6 shooting, seven rebounds, five assists, and four turnovers. His previous career high also came in a playoff game when he played 42:41 on May 5, 2018, against the Boston Celtics.
On Monday, offense wasn’t his main priority. Guarding Leonard was. At 6-foot-10, Simmons offers the type of height that the 6-7 Leonard doesn’t always see.
The Sixers also changed their defensive strategy on Leonard, frequently sending a weakside defender to help. That didn’t happen much in Toronto’s Game 1 win, when Leonard had free paths to the basket and torched the Sixers for 45 points.
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It’s not as if Leonard was shut down in Game 2. He finished with 35 points on 13-for-24 shooting, including 3 of 10 from three-point range. Leonard also hit 6 of 7 foul shots after getting to the free-throw line 11 times in Game 1.
“I thought Ben was great tonight,” said Sixers guard JJ Redick. “Kawhi still got a crazy number, but Ben made things tough on him and I though he did a phenomenal job on the basketball.”
Simmons’ main goal was to make Leonard work.
“I was just trying to make it hard,” Simmons said. “Obviously, Kawhi is a very talented guy, an All-Star. He is great. Just make it tough on him offensively was really my job.”
It’s a job that Simmons had outwardly campaigned for. “I am glad I got that role,” he said.
Leonard talked about the difficulties that Simmons poses as a defender.
“He is long, so I was just trying to operate and not zone in on the one-on-one play early and get my teammates involved,” Leonard said. “I tried to punch the gap and see if everybody collapses so we can get an open shot.”
The problem was that his teammates were consistently missing those open shots.
In Game 1, Leonard was able to take it all the way to the basket on several occasions, but on Monday, Simmons’ length, plus the Sixers’ help defense, forced him to pass more often.
Toronto couldn’t deliver with those passes. The rest of the Raptors shot 20 for 67 (29.8 percent) from the field, including 7 for 27 (25.9 percent) from beyond the arc.
The Sixers set the tone by outscoring the Raptors, 26-17, in the first quarter. In Game 1, it was Toronto that set the tone with a 39-31 first-quarter advantage.
In the first quarter on Monday, Leonard attempted only three shots (making two) for four points.
There were frequent double teams in that opening quarter, forcing Leonard to pass the ball.
“They actually had help guys tonight,” Leonard said. “They did a good job bouncing back and have to give them credit.”
Leonard also said the Sixers deserved credit for the way they played offensively.
“They pushed the pace a little bit, they got the shooters the ball and they scored,” he said.
Guarding Leonard is an exhausting task, but after the game, Simmons looked pretty fresh for somebody who set his career high in minutes.
“I am good, I really don’t get fatigued,” Simmons said. “I feel good.”