Ben Simmons did not attempt a three-pointer Monday night. See how silly it sounds? Not always. But often. It sure sounded that way Monday night, when Simmons was exactly the player his team needs him to be. He was decisive. He was aggressive. He was undeterred.
With Joel Embiid on the bench, in one of the NBA’s toughest road environments, against a team that entered the night with the best record in the West, Simmons was the only thing standing between the Sixers and total defeat.
In the end, it was a defeat, the third straight for the Sixers, this one a 134-123 barnburner. For Simmons, though, it was an individual win. The headline is the 42 points that he scored, eight more than his previous career high and twice as many as he had scored in all but one game this season. But the meat of the story lies in how he came by them. For 38 minutes, Simmons played basketball like one of those runaway coal carts in the Saturday morning cartoons, careening down the court with a wild combination of force and momentum while somehow keeping his wheels on the tracks. He sought the rim. He sought contact. He sought to be the scorer the Sixers needed him to be.
“From the start of the game, he was just on a mission out there,” Tobias Harris said.
It was the mission the Sixers needed him to be on. For most of the day, they’d anticipated playing without Dwight Howard, who was dealing with a death in his family. Just before tipoff, they found out that Embiid would not be able to play because of a lingering case of lower-back tightness. The circumstances prompted Doc Rivers to turn to a small-ball lineup that ostensibly had Mike Scott at center but was really positionless in nature. The Jazz countered by matching up two-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert on Simmons, who quickly ascertained the path of least resistance.
“I loved when I saw Rudy was guarding me,” Simmons said. “I love being able to go at somebody like that. I felt like it was a little bit disrespectful putting him on me, but it is what it is.”
Simmons spent most of the first quarter on the attack, blowing by the bigger Gobert with his dribble and finishing at the rim. When he checked out of the game with a minute left in the first quarter, he had already scored 19 points, just four fewer than his high for the season.
The Jazz spent the rest of the game trying to figure out how to slow him down. Gobert was too slow to stop him. Bojan Bogdanović and Joe Ingles were too small. With the possible exception of Royce O’Neale, who battled Simmons to a draw in the fourth quarter, Utah never really found a workable solution.
For 38 minutes, Simmons played basketball like one of those runaway coal carts in the Saturday morning cartoons, careening down the court with a wild combination of force and momentum while somehow keeping his wheels on the tracks.
“Ben’s a guy, he pretty much evaluates a game as he is playing,” Harris said. “You could see in the beginning of the game he knew he could get by those guys with his speed. We just started finding different ways to get him involved. But it was also a game where I saw him working on some things, getting in the post and using his body down there against guys who aren’t as big as him and shooting over them.
“It’s just the evolution of his game continuing to come together game after game, but he also had that mindset where he was going to do whatever he could to help us win tonight.”
The box score doesn’t always tell the story, particularly when Simmons is the protagonist. In this case, though, it’s right there to see. Simmons attempted a career-high 26 shots. He made a career-high 15 of them. He went 12-for-13 from the foul line. Oh, and he had 12 assists.
The question now is whether Simmons can maintain it. As much focus as there is on his reluctance to shoot a jumper, the gulf between Simmons and offensive greatness measures about 7 feet from the baseline to the paint. On Monday night, it was an area that could have turned a dominant night into a heroic one. As good as Simmons was, there were still plenty of moments where he ended up off-balance despite a full head of steam, unable to finish in one-on-one situations where he seemed to have the advantage. On one costly fourth-quarter possession, O’Neale knocked him to the court after he attempted to use his body with the ball in his hand.
The good news is, Simmons seems to understand who he needs to be, to be great. Even before Monday night, he’d shown some encouraging signs of life on the offensive end, averaging 17.9 points in his previous six games (up from 12.9 for the season). Everyone talks about his basketball IQ, but equally as strong is his emotional intelligence. Behind that stoic exterior is a player who is incredibly self-aware, both of his strengths and his shortcomings.
“Honestly, I’ve just been working on my mentality a lot past few weeks,” Simmons said. “It’s not easy to do that, change the way you play. ... Certain things in the game come naturally to certain people. I feel like I’m figuring it out. Obviously, my scoring has been a lot higher the last five, six games. As long as I can keep doing that, stay locked in, keep working my mental, it’s scary.”
Sure, a jumper would only help matters. But the focus on his shooting tends to blur the reality of his game. It’s in the paint, and at the rim, where he is best equipped to thrive.