PHILADELPHIA – During pregame on Thursday, Sixers point guard Ben Simmons was spotted having a conversation with legend Julius Erving. What was said conversation about?
“Can’t tell you what he said,” Simmons told gathered media from the podium following Game 6 against the Raptors.
Whatever the gist and whether or not it helped — “it could’ve,” Simmons cryptically said — it certainly didn’t hurt as Simmons delivered the most important performance of his nascent postseason career. The Sixers staved off elimination with a 112-101 victory that wasn’t quite as close as the final score indicated and forced a Game 7 in Toronto. The chorus clamoring for Simmons, who had 33 points combined in Games 2 through 5 against the Raptors, to play with the aggression he put on display during the first round against Brooklyn was finally satiated.
It was clear the Sixers needed their All-Star point guard to deliver in an elimination game, and he answered the call from the opening tip. Simmons scored just 1:47 into the game, and jumpstarted a 10-0 run with a dunk and three straight assists to put Philly up 23-15 late in the first. The 22-year-old had been pressing at times against an at-times stingy Raptors defense, and was exerting a ton of energy trying to stop superstar Kawhi Leonard on the other end, a tall task for anyone.
“Sometimes I get so focused on defending Kawhi and keeping him in front that I sometimes slow down on offense and I lose a little bit of focus or intensity there,” Simmons said prior to Game 6, in a report from Turner’s Rosalyn Gold-Onwude.
It seems the focus and intensity was back as the Sixers pushed the Raptors to a Game 7. Simmons seemed less worried about stopping Leonard (who still managed 29 points and 12 rebounds, but shot just 9-for-20) and more about playing his game from the opening tip, which paid dividends for Philly at home.
Before the game, Sixers coach Brett Brown stressed that he wanted his team to play with “a complete freedom,” which felt like a direct call to Simmons in How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb with his back against the wall. Simmons answered with 21 points, eight rebounds, and six assists, and did a lot to make his coach smile between diving for loose balls, crashing the glass, and generally making things tough on the Raptors.
“He was our bell ringer tonight,” Brown said. “I thought Mike Scott off the bench was outstanding. I mean, it’s stupid when you look at Joel [Embiid]’s +/-. To be a +40 is hard to do. And then you see Jimmy Butler’s performance, and so for Ben to be our bell ringer with some of those other performances sort of confirms what I think he did tonight. His no turnovers, his attack mode – pick them — his four offensive rebounds, his push and pace on missed shots, especially. All those things were what made him be an NBA All-Star at 22 years old. I thought he was excellent tonight and we needed it all.”
Simmons played with the same sort of fire and energy Philadelphia has come to expect from bulldogs like James Ennis, Mike Scott, and especially Butler, and he seemed to channel Butler especially at moments throughout Game 6. The longer the playoffs roll on, the more the Sixers get that Butler thumbprint, and it’s not hard to wonder how those young Sixers players will respond with Butler in a longterm role.
Jimmy has already established a strong rapport with Embiid, and if he’s rubbing off on Simmons as well, the full potential of the Process could be unlocked.
“I mean he wills his way into putting his thumbprint on just the game,” Brown said of Butler after the Game 4 loss. “Like there’s a physicality that he plays with, he’s just a runaway train at times. And him coming up with some rebounds and loose balls, you see his just jaw-dropping athleticism. And then you just his toughness emerge. And, you know, we talk a lot about trying to play to mirror the spirit of the city — this is Philadelphia — and there is a toughness that he has that I think reflects the spirit of the city. “
It was only a matter of months ago when Butler asked to be traded, showed up to the Timberwolves practice facility and beat the starters with the bench guys, gave ESPN an exclusive air-it-out interview, and then continued to play for Minnesota even if it was somewhat under protest. His fierce competitiveness shows through everything he does, and it seems as though he’d play a game of “Name That Tune” to the death if the situation called for it.
So much comes easy for Simmons on the basketball court, it’s easy to fall into the trap of questioning his effort level. If anything, his default setting is “jaw-dropping,” and he unfairly can be placed in chill mode at times. But when he’s able to tap into the level above that, there are only a handful of players who can match what he’s able to do. One of them, Giannis Antetokounmpo, is already in the Eastern Conference Finals. Another, Leonard, he’s been tasked with defending in this series. And a third, LeBron James, is currently out of the playoffs but has clearly had an impact on the young phenom.
For the Sixers to reach that next level, they need Simmons to continue to grow, and performances like Thursday night’s offer a glimpse of what Philly can do even if Ben isn’t pouring in 30 points or dropping a +40 on the stat sheet. By being active, being engaged, being intense, and showing focus, Simmons pulls it all together.
He’s not just critical in a primary ballhandling role; he may be what Brown needs to keep Philly from falling apart in those stretches when Embiid is out of the game. The Ringer’s Jonathan Tjarks wrote this week that Simmons may operate at his best as a center. A smaller lineup — after a disastrous -18 in seven minutes from Boban Marjanovic — with Simmons as the anchor staved off a couple runs by Toronto with Embiid off the floor later in the game, and it’s something Brown might have to utilize more as he searches for his “eighth man,” as he put it after the game.
It’d be a relatively tall order to have one identity, then be asked to form another identity entirely midgame in captaining the bench, but Simmons is a player uniquely qualified to be up for it. His is a career filled with milestones already, and he’s nowhere near his prime yet.
“He’s 22 years old,” Brown stated. “And his game, as he grows his shot and tries to get a better command of his position, and deals with the stage of the NBA Playoffs — shame on us for thinking like he’s going to be all day, every day – here he is and he’s just going to go knock it out of the park. It’s just not fair. So, what he did today was a lot of the reason he was an NBA All-Star at age 22, as an NBA point guard with the ball. And I thought that on missed shots and him pushing it, he was really good. I thought him getting us organized out of our offense after they made a shot was really good. I really loved his no turnovers and I really loved his offensive rebounds. I thought those two things, amongst all those comments I just made, are what stood out the most. It’s the evolution of a 22-year-old, 6-10 point guard [who] used to be a college four man.”
That evolution is part of why the Sixers have pushed the Raptors to the brink, and why another flight to Toronto is necessary in a series that easily could’ve been over with Kawhi’s brilliance and Embiid’s up-and-down health. One more virtuoso performance out of Simmons, and he could help carry Philly to the Eastern Conference. Wouldn’t that be something to talk to Dr. J about?