One of the inconvenient things about life is that multiple things can be true at the same time. Often, these things are contradictory. The sun keeps us alive, and it kills us. Nuclear energy powers cities and it flattens them. Animals are cute, and they taste good.
This might seem like a strange entry point for a discussion about a basketball player, but Ben Simmons is not your average basketball player.
Depending on who you talk to, or what game you happen to be watching, he is either one of the biggest reasons to believe that his team can win its first NBA championship in nearly four decades, or he is one of the biggest reasons to believe that it won’t. Rarely has this divergence of opinion expressed itself more starkly than in the aftermath of the Sixers’ win over the Wizards in Game 1 of their first round playoff series. And rarely has Simmons embraced his antagonism as perfectly as he did in Game 2.
Now, as the series heads to Washington with the Sixers looking to take 3-0 series lead on Saturday night, the pertinent question is: What version of Simmons will we see in Game 3?
“The first game, he took what the defense gave him, he made plays, he got guys open, he had 15 assists,” Sixers center Joel Embiid said after Game 2. “Tonight, he saw that they didn’t want to leave me alone and he had a lot of space with the one-on-one matchups and he took advantage of that.”
At times, Simmons’ performance in Game 2 seemed intentionally constructed to answer the critics who blasted him for managing a mere six points in the Sixers’ 125-118 win in Game 1. He spent the first three quarters of Wednesday night imposing his will on the Wizards, scoring 22 points on 11-for-15 shooting. He then spent the fourth quarter watching his teammates mop up a 120-95 win.
It was a game that laid bare the talent differential between the two teams in this series, and it was Simmons who had the remnants of the Wizards’ shredded legitimacy balled up in his hands. In 29 minutes of playoff action, the fourth-year point guard did all of the things you would expect from a player with his physical gifts. He bullied the small guys. He tripped up the big guys. He finished what he started, and some of what he didn’t. By the time his night was over, he was the indisputable star of a victory that left the Sixers two wins away from their third conference semifinals berth in four years.
Whether Simmons was shushing his critics or trolling them probably depends on where your prior convictions lie. To some, Game 2 will be proof of who Simmons is. To others, it will be evidence of who he should be more often. The possibility that everybody should consider is that both sides are right. Could the Sixers have used to more aggressive Simmons in Game 1? Sure. Did that negate the impact he made with his 15 assists and 15 rebounds? Not even close. Will the Sixers need more of Game 2 in order to win a title? Very likely. Does that make Game 1 an indictment? Absolutely not.
On Wednesday night, Simmons handled these questions the way he always does.
“I’m not trying to stick it to anybody in Philly,” he said. “I thought it was pretty hard to get 15 rebounds and 15 assists in the NBA playoffs ... and we won. I mean, what y’all want? You want to win? For me, I’m here to win, and I’m here to do what I need to help my team win, whatever it is. I’m not trying to prove anybody wrong. I’m trying to do my job and win a championship.”
Basketball players are like all people: The more time you spend around them, the more aware you are of their flaws. Simmons’ biggest problem isn’t his jump shot or his finishing ability in traffic -- it’s observation bias. Doc Rivers wasn’t wrong the other day when he invoked the classic Negadelphia trope while defending his point guard, saying, “If you guys don’t know the treasure you have by now, then shame on everyone because he’s been fantastic for us.”
But Sixers fans aren’t any more negative than most human beings. They just pay closer attention. And they aren’t entirely wrong. Simmons’ own teammates have publicly expressed their desire for him to be more aggressive. Embiid alluded to it again after Game 2.
“He was great tonight,” the big man said, “and we’re going to need him to keep being that way.”
Really, that’s the fairest summation of Simmons. The only difference between his critics and his proponents is which aspect they fixate on.
Simmons has always been a special case here in Philly. Part of it stems from the hype that surrounded him coming out of LSU. Part of it stems from the reflexive opposition to anything that might be credited to Sam Hinkie. Part of it stems from the fact that he contains multitudes, and our brains are hard-wired to pay attention to extremes.
Know this, though. Simmons’ greatest asset as a basketball player -- apart from his raw ability -- is his awareness, both of himself and of the other players on the court. The NBA is filled with guards who put up 20-plus shots per night for teams that never come close to where Simmons has helped lead the Sixers. One of the many ironies of this debate is that two of those guards were wearing Wizards uniforms on Wednesday night.
Simmons sees what the defense gives him. More often than not, he takes things to the appropriate place. It’s this self-awareness that underlies his weakness as a primary halfcourt scorer. But it also underlies all of his considerable strengths. However you reconcile these two truths, a bigger one remains: The Sixers are far better with him, than if he were on the other team.