If Ben Simmons was Shaquille O’Neal’s teammate, he might have shown up to his postgame news conference with a black eye — literally, not just figuratively.
When Simmons passed up an open dunk under the basket with 3 minutes, 29 seconds to play in Game 7 of Sunday’s Eastern Conference semifinal, he offended basketball’s living gods. The Sixers lost the game, and they lost the series, largely because Simmons — a $30.5 million All-Star “point guard” — refused to take a shot in the fourth quarters of Games 4, 5, 6, and 7 against the Hawks.
This nauseated some of the most money players in NBA history.
Magic Johnson said Simmons could never return to the Sixers’ locker room. Simmons’ refusal to shoot drove fellow former LSU Tiger O’Neal to contemplate violence.
“If he was in my locker room, I’d have knocked his ass out,” Shaq said on TNT’s postgame show.
O’Neal’s frank and authentic comment underscores the reality of professional sports. When players like Ben Simmons refuse to do their job — when they appear fearful of failure — it affects the careers of dozens of others: support staff; coaches; general managers; and, of course, teammates. Which is why Magic said on ESPN that Ben’s days in Philly are over. His teammates and fans will never respect him again.
“The locker room won’t recover from this. He can’t recover from this,” Magic said on ESPN on Monday morning. “It’s over.”
“The great fan base in Philadelphia — all the talk now centers around him,” Magic said. “You hear Embiid say what he said. Rich Paul, who is his agent, gotta get him out of Philadelphia.”
What Joel Embiid said after Game 7 was, “I’ll be honest. I thought the turning point was when we — I don’t know how to say it — is when we had an open shot, and we made one free throw.”
Embiid averaged 30.4 points, 10.4 rebounds, and 2.0 blocked shots in 37.4 minutes, all while playing with torn cartilage in his right knee. He did not appreciate Simmons’ dereliction of duty.
O’Neal’s cohost on TNT, former Sixers star and lesser god Charles Barkley, agreed with Magic and Shaq and, apparently, Embiid. “You can’t have a guy on the court who’s afraid to shoot the basketball,” Barkley said.
Before Sunday’s game, O’Neal had a message for his Baton Rouge brother: “You went to LSU. Man up!”
Simmons did not listen.
Asked after the game why he didn’t dunk Sunday night, Simmons said he feared Danilo Gallinari might block it from behind.
This, of course, was absurd. Gallinari is an unathletic 32-year-old shooting specialist who has 15 blocked shots in the past two seasons combined. In truth, Simmons passed up the dunk and passed the ball to Matisse Thybulle because Simmons was afraid he’d get fouled, then would have to shoot free throws. Simmons shot 34.2% from the line in 12 postseason games this year. He was scared.
Thybulle missed one of the two free throws. That cut the Sixers’ deficit to one, 88-87, but the score of the game was less significant than the shame of the play.
It is, says the gods, the moment that defines Simmons’ four seasons in the NBA, and a moment from which Simmons never will recover.