Kawhi Leonard might very well be the best isolation scorer in the NBA, but that should not take away from the defensive performance in these playoffs by Ben Simmons.
Simmons has taken on the bulk of the job of defending Leonard through the Eastern Conference semifinals and, if you were to look at a box score, you might think that Simmons has not done that great a job. That would be the wrong assumption.
In the first three games of the series, Leonard has scored 45, 35, and 33 points.
“His individual offensive brilliance is daunting, haunting, pick whatever word you want to say,” coach Brett Brown said of the 6-foot-7 Leonard after the 76ers’ Game 3 win on Thursday. “You’re sitting there and you’ve got a 6-10 athlete like Ben on him, and he’s busting his tail to try to do a good job, and he just makes tough shots.”
The Raptors’ centerpiece is nearly unstoppable and is seemingly unfazed by shooting from anywhere on the floor with a hand in his face. When Leonard scores over the top of outstretched hands, fading to his left or right, and off one foot, nearly every person in the building shakes their head as if to say, is there anything that this guy can’t do?
The simple answer is, no. The more complex answer is that while Leonard is capable of anything on the floor and there is no chance of completely shutting him down, it is possible to limit his contributions through the course of a game. And if that is done correctly, the thing that Leonard can’t do is carry a team by himself. That’s where Simmons comes in, and he deserves recognition for his efforts in this series.
For a 6-10 player, Simmons’ recovery time is nothing short of amazing. When Simmons is guarding Leonard on the weak side, he makes sure to have a view of both the play and of Leonard. Even when Simmons sags into the paint to help on a drive and the driver kicks out to Leonard, Simmons needs almost no time to slide back up to Leonard, in a defensive stance, ready to withstand an attack. There’s not really much more you can ask of Simmons in those situations.
Leonard doesn’t take a plethora of three-pointers, averaging just five per game through the regular season. It’s his mid-range game that is unparalleled. Simmons has made sure to push Leonard to either side, making sure that he takes fading or leaning mid-range jumpers, and there is almost always another man to help contest the shot. When Leonard hits those, there is really nothing else you can do. That’s the kind of shot you just have to live with.
Outside of the one-on-one matchup, Simmons and the rest of the Sixers have made more of a priority of limiting Leonard’s non-scoring contributions. That’s a strategy that has the Raptors frazzled when the game is on the line.
“I thought we were throwing the ball to Kawhi and letting him go to work, just for a few moments there,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said Friday. “It was kind of weird because there was one stretch where we weren’t. He went a long time without touching it and then there was one stretch where he touched it every time down and he was bringing it up and we were at the point where we needed a bucket from him or not. That’s fine at points, but both of those were on the extreme, I think.”
In other words, the Sixers weren’t allowing the Raptors any sort of offensive rhythm. It was either Leonard playing hero ball, or nothing at all. Standing in front of him for 47 possessions on Thursday was Simmons.
Even on plays when Simmons gets switched onto a different player, it’s the rotation speed that impresses with Simmons, and he still maintains an awareness of where Leonard is, should he choose to double-team Leonard and forgo his new assignment.
Denying passing or driving lanes for players not named Leonard has become one of the most valuable pieces of the Sixers’ defense in this best-of-seven series. Here’s a list of Raptors players who are averaging fewer touches and far fewer points in this series than they did in the first round of the playoffs against Orlando: Marc Gasol, Danny Green, Serge Ibaka, Fred VanVleet.
“We got to do a better job of continuing to help him, myself included,” Green said. “I got to make some more shots, do some more cutting, some more moving, put more pressure on the defense somehow, other than just standing and watching.”
Some of that could be argued away by saying that Philadelphia is a stronger opponent for the Raptors, or that they are just missing open looks. But some of that is by the Sixers’ design and is often in large part thanks to the defensive efforts of Simmons.
The biggest talking point going into this series was the offensive struggles of Simmons when facing Leonard in the past. Rather than shrink behind the brilliance of Leonard, Simmons has let his defense do the talking.