NEW YORK – Every Ben Simmons jump shot travels the same ugly, uncertain journey, the ball tumbling toward the hoop like a satellite that has been thrown off its orbit and is hurtling through space.
To watch him warm up for Thursday night’s Game 3 against the Nets at the Barclays Center, for a 131-115 76ers victory, was to watch a how-to in what not to do when shooting a basketball --his left elbow rigid and bent to the side like a folding-chair leg, his left hand hooked against the ball, creating that sideways spin that gives Simmons no grace once the ball touches the rim. He labors to shoot. Nothing about it appears comfortable or fluid, even when he makes one, and the result he usually gets -- a miss -- might only reinforce his unwillingness to take a jump shot during a game. To watch him is to understand why he must work on his shot, and why he would be so reluctant to.
But mercy, to watch him do just about anything else on a basketball court -- to watch him for most of Thursday’s game, for example -- can make you a witness to so much of what makes the sport beautiful and thrilling. As the national anthem ended, Simmons was the first Sixers player to leave the line of teammates on the court. He walked to the sideline and sat on a chair, his forearms on his knees, his head down as if he were deep in thought or prayer, and once he bounced to his feet during introductions he began one of the best nights of his brief NBA career.
Take your pick from his marvelous performance: 31 points, 11-of-13 from the field, 9-for-11 from the foul line, all of it on a night when Joel Embiid’s left knee was too sore for him to play. There was Simmons, swooping in from the right wing on a fast break, banking in a soft runner for his second basket, contrasting those stiff-armed jump shots with several smooth, liquid sequences when he was on the move. There he was, leaping to block a Caris LeVert jump shot and force a Nets shot-clock violation. There he was, gathering and dunking a missed shot by JJ Redick with one second left in the first half, then staring down the arena full of fans who booed him every time the ball was in his hands.
“People are going to say what they want to say,” Simmons said. “I can’t let that affect me.”
That residue from the series’ first two games was to be expected, what with Simmons’ complaints about the Sixers’ being booed in the Wells Fargo Center during their Game 1 loss. Simmons and Embiid were happy to keep the bad blood flowing during and after Game 2, when Embiid clocked Jarrett Allen with an elbow then laughed about it later with Simmons. But the subtlest shot of the series came Wednesday from Nets veteran Jared Dudley, who told reporters, “Once you slow [Simmons] up in the half-court, I think he’s average.”
You want to get a young player, even one as gifted as Simmons, off his game? You get him thinking about his softest target and greatest weakness. For Simmons, that’s his jump shot. It was a smart gambit by Dudley. But Simmons shooed away the comments -- “I’m not worried about it,” he said after the game -- and the Nets never did force him into those uncomfortable choices. They never did make him pull up or settle for a shot from beyond six or seven feet, let alone 10 or 15, and when they fouled him on three consecutive possessions late in the fourth quarter, in the hope that he would miss often enough to keep them close, he sank four of six free throws.
“I thought Ben was exceptional,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said. “When you look at his confidence, his body language with walking to the line, with just organic play, I give Ben a tremendous amount of credit. We needed it all tonight, especially without Joel. …
“The thing that we all make a mistake of -- and I do, too -- is he’s 22 years old. People, I don’t think, think enough about that. The focus on his 15-foot shot, it gets so much attention, and I get why, and I feel it, too. You’re always trying to find ways to best place him because, at this stage, that’s not really a part of his game. You see in the playoffs that people defend him accordingly.”
That defense, generally, takes the same form: The player guarding Simmons gives him a halo of five feet or so, daring him to shoot a jumper, and once Simmons declines the offer and starts to drive, the player’s teammates try to wall off Simmons from the basket. Brown countered that approach with a neat adjustment in Game 2, having Jimmy Butler pick Simmons’ man not when Simmons began to drive, but when Simmons entered the lane, opening space at or above the rim for Simmons to dunk the ball or drop in a layup. Without Embiid, though, Simmons had room to post up, frequently against a smaller defender. Three times in those situations, he scored with his off-hand, his right, and his size and speed on the wing disrupted the Nets’ perimeter offense all night.
“You see 6-foot-10, and it’s not like a fake 6-10,” Brown said. “He’s every bit of 6-foot-10. And then you sit him in a stance, and you sort of unwind him, and he sits down and gets long -- well, he can do that. He’s an athlete. He thinks like that. He has the ability to, maybe most dramatically, influence a game in that area, in my opinion. And so when you go to Ben, and somebody asked me about his half-court game, the areas he can control. You can rebound, both sides of the ball, offense, defense, and you can guard.”