An hour and a half before the most consequential game of Ben Simmons’ short NBA career, his parents, Dave and Julie, moseyed along the east baseline of the Wells Fargo Center court, betraying no concern that the most demanding sports town in the country might soon judge their son a failure. They stopped in a corner to chat with two security guards, Dave talking hoops with one, Julie talking parenting with the other, the conversations easy and warm, like the four were longtime friends.
“That’s the Australian side of me,” Dave said. “The New Yorker wouldn’t talk to anybody.”
As much as they shaped him, those two stretches of Dave Simmons’ life — born and raised in the Bronx before spending more than a decade as a pro player and coach in Australia — seem to inform his son’s personality and playing style, too. And on Thursday night, the 76ers got the best of that city-ball side of Ben Simmons, the fearless kid ready and eager to take on all comers right here, right now.
Here in Philadelphia, everyone struggles to see beyond the six inches in front of his or her face, especially in a playoff series, especially when Simmons had appeared so passive and languid for so much of the first five games in this Eastern Conference semifinal against the Raptors. But Game 6 saw a different Simmons: 21 points, eight rebounds, six assists, zero turnovers, an aggressor on offense and a dervish on defense from beginning to end of a 112-101 Sixers victory, his performance a reminder not to be too quick to draw definitive conclusions about the course of a young player’s career.
“People are going to do it regardless, so I’m not really concerned,” Simmons said as he walked toward the arena’s players’ exit late Thursday night. “I don’t listen to what’s going on. I’m just really focused on what’s happening with my team and everybody around my family. Everything else is outside noise.”
The 48 hours from the midpoint of the Sixers’ humiliating 36-point loss Tuesday in Game 5 until tipoff Thursday demanded that Simmons don some pretty powerful earmuffs, then. Those two days had been a public referendum on the Sixers — on Joel Embiid’s toughness and fragility, on Jimmy Butler’s and Tobias Harris’ futures here, but on Simmons most of all. Five games, and he had averaged fewer than 10 points a game and attempted just four free throws, a sure sign that his fear of his greatest shortcoming — his shooting — had rendered him useless against a smart team such as Toronto. He couldn’t play with Embiid. He’d never learn to shoot. The narratives had changed. The verdicts were in. Except in Game 6, he was everything he had not been.
“Shame on us for thinking he’s going to be all day, every day, here he is, and he’s just going to go knock it out of the park. It’s just not fair,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said. “It’s the evolution of a 22-year-old, 6-10 point guard who was a college 4-man. I see it very clearly.”
It’s those array of skills that ought to give pause to anyone who argues that the Sixers ought to trade Simmons, who is consigned to the belief that the player he is now is the player he’ll always be. He had four offensive rebounds and twice immediately turned a missed shot into a putback basket, and no sequence captured Simmons’ contributions better than four consecutive Sixers possessions late in the first quarter.
He stopped a 10-0 Raptors run by banking in an alley-oop pass from Tobias Harris. He whipped a right-handed, crosscourt pass to Mike Scott for a three-pointer from the left wing. He forced a turnover by Kawhi Leonard, pushed the ball down court, made a stop-and-go move and found James Ennis III for a layup. He kicked the ball out to Harris for another three. From down two, the Sixers were suddenly up eight, and what looked like Simmons finally waking up might just have been a natural upswing for an athlete still growing his game.
“These guys are handsomely rewarded for what they do, and it’s a game, and always remember this: He’s 22,” Dave Simmons said. “I’m always looking at other guys at the same age. Look at Kawhi Leonard at 22. Jimmy Butler, 22, averaging 2.9 points or whatever. None of these were where Ben Simmons is. So these guys weren’t in that moment. So I’m very proud of where he is at the same age, and I also love the fact that everyone expects so much more of him. In some ways, it’s a great honor, but it’s a lot of pressure, too. But that’s OK. I think Ben can handle it.”
In the interest of accuracy, Leonard was two weeks away from his 23rd birthday when he was named the most valuable player of the 2014 NBA Finals, solidifying his status as a rising star in the league. But he had been more of a supporting player on that San Antonio Spurs team, which still had Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili, than Simmons has been for the Sixers in his two seasons here. The stronger point of comparison between Leonard and Simmons is their shooting abilities. Leonard so improved his that he has become an elite scorer. Simmons spent last summer purportedly working on his shot with his brother Liam and made minimal progress.
“I’ll go back to 22 years old,” Dave said. “When’s the last time we worried about a second-year player’s form and shot? We go, ‘Give it time.’ But of course, we’ve sped it all up because we’re going for a championship. Normally, you would have time to play and lose and development. We don’t have that luxury, but you know what? That’s OK. We’ll run with what we have.
“The main thing to remember is, he’s a second-year player, not even through his second year, All-Star, Rookie of the Year, and then we want more. And that’s OK, because that’s what it’s all about. That’s the path to greatness.”
Those achievements don’t absolve Simmons from putting in more time and labor and practice into his jump shot — an unsightly exercise that resembles Simmons’ raising a pickle jar over his head and trying to twist off the lid — and it’s possible that he will never fix the flaws that have manifested themselves over his first two seasons here. But it would be rash and foolish to conclude already that he can’t develop, can’t tap into that deep well of talent he possesses. Before Game 6, just after Dave Simmons had flashed a father’s fierce pride and defended his son, Ben Simmons sat in a chair next to Julius Erving. It was a brief chat, a legend telling a still-maturing player, You’ll be all right. He was more than that in Game 6. The Sixers will have a damn fine shot in Game 7 on Sunday, a damn fine shot to reach the Eastern Conference Finals, if Ben Simmons can stay that way.