Ben Simmons was a first-team all-NBA defensive selection a year ago, and in Saturday’s 109-89 win over the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden, the 76ers point guard was at his smothering best.
The Knicks are a team that will struggle for offense, but one of their chief threats is second-year swingman RJ Barrett, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2019 NBA draft from Duke.
In New York’s opening 121-107 loss to the Indiana Pacers, Barrett was on fire, scoring 26 points and shooting 11-for-15 from the field, including 3-of-3 from three-point range.
Simmons spent the bulk of Saturday’s game on Barrett, although Shake Milton also spent some time on him. Barrett missed his first nine shots from the field and ended 2-for-15 from the game.
Last year, Barrett shot just 32% from beyond the arc, and opponents are often going to give him that shot instead of dealing with him driving to the basket.
Simmons wasn’t one of those opponents.
He contested his three-pointers and even blocked one and made it difficult for Barrett to drive to the basket. Barrett finished 0-for-6 from three-point range.
This was a way Simmons can dominate the game on the defensive end.
“He’s got so many skills, and we’re trying to get them all out,” coach Doc Rivers said of Simmons. “I thought he was terrific. He used his size. He used his length. His instincts are unbelievable, something I didn’t know until now coaching him.”
Simmons said he wasn’t trying to do anything different in defending against Barrett.
“When you are out there playing basketball, instincts kick in,” Simmons said. “[Barrett] is a good player. He’s not a bad player. He can knock down those shots. I just tried to show him different looks, made sure he felt me and made sure I have that presence every night no matter who is out there.”
Simmons is still finding his game offensively. He has a tendency to drive to the basket, and instead of finishing the drive to kick the ball out.
He finished with 15 points, nine rebounds, six assists, three turnovers, one steal and two blocked shots in just under 33 minutes. Simmons scored seven of his points in the fourth quarter when the Sixers outscored New York, 23-20.
Rivers wasn’t limiting his praise to Simmons’ defense.
“On the other end, I thought with the pace that he played in forced actions, I mean we got threes just because Ben Simmons pushed the ball up the floor, created actions in the paint, and kicked out to guys,” Rivers said. “I thought he was terrific tonight.”
Simmons only took nine shots from the field, making five, but he also went to the foul line a team-high eight times, making five.
He also had a plus-22 rating.
Simmons says a key is learning where his new teammates are most comfortable on the court.
“That is one thing Doc has talked to me about. I got to be the leader of the team as the point guard, so I got to get guys into spots,” Simmons said. “Make sure guys are organized. So I fell like, if I am able to do that, get them in their right spots, it is easy to flow and get in our sets and plays.”