The questions are legitimate. Nobody has tried to deny it. Not the player. Not the coach. Not the guy who pays their salaries. The resistance that you sometimes encounter when the discussion turns toward Ben Simmons’ jump shot is a matter of proportionality, and in the Sixers’ 107-93 win over the Celtics on Wednesday night, he showed you why.
Simmons was the most impressive player on the court, and it wasn’t particularly close. For four quarters, he pounded a Celtics defense that could not figure out a way to keep him from the rim. No doubt, he was aided by the fact that Al Horford was now playing on his side, and by Boston’s determination to double-team Joel Embiid every time he touched the ball. But you can only play against the guys they put in front of you, and the Celtics could not put enough.
From the Sixers’ first possession, when he lobbed a perfect pass above the rim for a back-cutting Embiid, Simmons attacked the paint like it was a driveway filled with imaginary defenders. His first bucket came when he got behind a distracted Gordon Hayward and laid home an alley-oop. His next one came on a layup in transition. But the sequence that spoke the loudest occurred in the closing minutes in the first half, when he checked back into a game that the Sixers had been trailing since the early portion of the first period. As soon as he stepped onto the court, it was clear that he was determined to put the team on his increasingly muscular shoulders.
Whenever Simmons had the ball, he was looking to attack. He shrugged off an offensive foul and a loud block by Robert Williams. With 4:59 remaining, he made a strong drive into the paint and converted a 7-foot hook that cut the Sixers’ deficit to 40-35. A few possessions later, another slash to the rim resulted in a trip to the foul line. With 50 seconds left, he caught a defender out of position off a pass from Tobias Harris and exploded to his left, finishing with a couple of strong strides and a ferocious one-handed dunk that trimmed the Celtics lead to 1. In all, five of the Sixers last 13 possessions of the half featured Simmons charging downhill in a direct line to the basket.
“He is just so gifted, obviously, physically, but now it’s starting to morph in with a mentality," Sixers coach Brett Brown said. “You take that 6-10 body and that athleticism, that physical tank-like mentality, and it’s a powerful combination. He probably had a few turnovers that we wished didn’t happen, but, by and large, I thought he had an excellent game tonight. I especially liked his mindset, physically, trying to just put his thumbprint on the game from a physical standpoint.”
In short, he was a radically different player from the one we’d seen in his previous 13 games against the Celtics. He’d entered the night averaging 13.9 points per game in his career against a Boston team that consistently relegated him to a lingering role on the outskirts of the Sixers offense. Before Wednesday night, Simmons’ average performance against the Celtics featured 5.6 makes on 11.2 attempts. This time around, he connected on 11-of-16 and finished with 24 points, all of those numbers the highest of his career against this particular opponent.
“Ben was unbelievable,” said Horford, who was a member of those Celtics teams that routinely frustrated Simmons. “Just his pace, getting to the basket at will, tough finishes -- very, very tough finishes around the basket. He really just carried us tonight.”
Which is interesting, because the conventional wisdom suggested that Simmons would not be in a position to do any of that without some help from his jump shot. His previous performances against the Celtics were often held up as the prime example of the limitations of his game. Yet, on Wednesday, all 11 of Simmons’ buckets came within 7 feet of the basket. Not once did he look to shoot from outside the paint. And, not once did you get the sense that such a look would have mattered.
Therein lies the source of the fatigue that both Brown and Simmons project whenever the talk turns to his outside shot. It’s not that they don’t understand the transformational power that such a weapon would have on the game. Rather, it’s that our attention seems disproportionately fixated on the one thing that Simmons doesn’t do when compared to all of the other things that he does. At 23 years old, he is one of the most-efficient players in the game, with a preternatural understanding of how he can best deploy his skill set to help his team win basketball games. Now, combine that with the remarkable combination of aggression and body control that we saw on Wednesday night, and you’d be a fool to wish for a free-wheeling gunner who lacks self-awareness with his shots. “
“There’s things I’ve got to get better at,” Simmons said. "Everybody knows that in the room. It’s shooting. But I’m working. So, it is what it is.”
And in Game 1 of this 82-game regular season, it was everything the Sixers needed it to be.