The words that the rest of the NBA has spent three years dreading were spoken with the cadence of defeat, a soft monotone that did not come close to betraying the significance of the development they implied.
“I think I’ve kind of figured it out,” Ben Simmons said as he stood in the center of an auxiliary room next to the visitors’ lockers at TD Garden.
This was Saturday night, a half-hour or so after the Sixers had suffered one of their more puzzling losses of a head-scratching season. They’d shot 7-for-33 from three-point range. They’d turned the ball over 14 times. By the end of a 116-95 loss to an undersized Celtics team that was playing without its most dynamic offensive player, there was little concrete evidence that either of their two big men had even made the trip. Against an opponent they’d defeated in three previous engagements and was playing without its most dynamic offensive player, the Sixers’ championship hopes had looked as much like the plotline of a drug-induced fantasy as they ever had.
But then came those words, a statement that has far more potential to echo into the playoffs than a mere ugly loss in one of 82 games.
I think I’ve kind of figured it out.
Granted, Simmons’ summation of his present state of being should not come as a surprise to anybody who has watched him play basketball, certainly not to anyone who had resisted the urge to throw a Yankee Candle through their television screen before the end of Saturday night’s proceedings. For 37 minutes and 26 seconds of the game’s 48 minutes, the best player on the court was a 23-year-old point guard who did not attempt a shot outside the paint. On a night when the rest of the team shot 22-for-70 from the field and played with all the energy of a tranquilized sloth, Simmons scored 23 points on 9-for-14 shooting and was the only reason the final deficit wasn’t twice what it ended up being.
And this wasn’t even a story that numbers could tell. At least, not in totality. Because the true essence of the tale was the method that its protagonist employed. From the opening jump, Simmons was on the attack, identifying leverage points in the defense and winning his spot with a predator’s zeal. With the ball in his hand, he played like some mythical creature, part bull, part cheetah, part shark, but with opposable thumbs and an ability to defy gravity’s supposed constraints. Late in the first quarter, he dribbled into the lane, came to a strong jump stop, and attacked the rim despite the presence of two Celtics defenders. His initial shot bounced high off the back of the rim, but Simmons grabbed the ball on its way back down and flushed it through with a two-handed dunk. The next possession, he earned a trip to the line with an aggressive drive and sank both free throws.
“I’m pretty hard to guard downhill," Simmons said, “especially when I’m trying to get into my package as far as my handles, and my finishing’s getting a lot better. So I’m only getting better.”
In his first couple of seasons, we’d seen flashes of this player, but they were almost exclusively limited to moments in the open court. Whenever the Sixers settled into their half-court offense, especially against physical teams like the Celtics, Simmons reverted to a pass-first distributor who often seemed reluctant to summon the full force of his prodigious physical gifts. There were all sorts of reasonable ways to explain this phenomenon, from his lack of confidence in his shot to his questionable fit with the personnel around him. But the theory that always made the most sense was the one that Simmons himself would routinely suggest whenever someone pressed him to assess his development on the court. I’m young, he would say. I’m still figuring it out.
One of these occasions was a couple of years ago after the Celtics spent five games shutting him down in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
“I’m still learning,” Simmons said from a TD Garden podium after the Sixers’ season-ending loss. “This is just the start for me.”
To the segment of the Sixers fan base that has long questioned the viability of a point guard who does not shoot from three-point range, these moments of self-awareness have often been misinterpreted as a fatal trait: passivity, stubbornness, or a refusal to evolve. But what they have always been are the words of a preternaturally mature basketball player who has spent his entire postpubescent life charting an intentional path forward with an unshakable confidence in where it will go. The vision that Simmons displays on the court is not something that simply turns off once the final whistle blows. What he is as much as anything is a man with an impeccable sense of timing.
Two-and-a-half years into his NBA career, the time for the next stage has come. Over his last 10 games, he is averaging 23.5 points to go with his usual nine rebounds and seven assists. That jump in scoring is due largely to the sudden regularity with which he is getting to the foul line, where he is averaging 5.5 makes on 8.0 attempts during the stretch in question. He is getting there because he is getting to the rim, and, once there, he is taking matters into his own hands to put the ball through the rim. He’s averaging nine makes on 13.8 attempts from the field, and he’s doing it with the sort of alpha-dog mentality that a team needs from a primary scorer.
“It’s just me using my ability and knowing what I’m capable of,” Simmons said. “And knowing that I’m one of those guys that can do those things on the floor, and just going out and doing it. I think I’ve let a lot of guys off [the hook] in terms of what I can do on the floor when they’re guarding me.”
I think I’ve kind of figured it out.