Winston Churchill once said of Russia: “It’s a riddle wrapped in a mystery within a riddle.” If there’s an NBA equivalent to that quote, it’s Philadelphia 76ers star Ben Simmons.
There is perhaps no more confusing player in the NBA than Simmons. He has the size and strength of a center, but plays with the speed and passing sight of a point guard. He can run and is able to guard all five positions on the field in a way that no one else in the competition can.
But at the same time he doesn’t shoot 3-pointers – or often even midrange jump shots. And despite all the things he does to help win, his offensive attack has become an endless source of discussion in Philadelphia and beyond – especially playing alongside Sixers star Joel Embiid.
Case in point: On Monday night, with Embiid a late scratch due to back tightness, Simmons was in the middle for the Sixers at the Utah Jazz, the team with the best record in the NBA.
So what did Simmons do? Have the best game of his career and rack up 42 points in your career with nine rebounds and 12 assists – all without taking a single shot outside the paint.
In the end, the Jazz was victorious, beating the Sixers 134-123, claiming their 19th win in the past 20 games.
The story, however, was that Simmons was playing with the kind of aggression that Sixers fans rarely see.
“I mean, if you put it that way, probably not,” Simmons said with a smile when asked if he has ever been that aggressive in offensive play in his NBA career.
“… There are nights when I feel like I’m dominant, but it might not look like a 40-point match. I might have a triple-double and we can win with 20, which is the case. It could be on the defensive. [But], yeah, I definitely had to pick up the slack with Joel out. “
Simmons is right. His game is so often about doing things that don’t show up in the box score, be it the way he can lock elite scorers on the other teams or set up his teammates for wide open 3-pointers.
But the reason Monday’s performance was so eye-opening was that, despite his miraculous physical gifts, Simmons rarely imposes his will on the game like he did against Utah, especially in the first quarter. While Philadelphia rode to a 42-35 lead, Simmons finished with 19 points and four assists, scoring or creating 12 of Philadelphia’s 16 baskets.
In his first 24 games this season, Simmons had scored at least three times as many in an entire game. Monday night he did it in 12 minutes – all while taking on Jazz center Rudy Gobert, the best defensive player in the league (and sometimes by scoring straight over him).
“We expected that once Joel was scratched, we tried to create a line-up where Gobert would guard Ben,” said Sixers coach Doc Rivers. ‘That happened, and the key for us was to make stops and take it to Ben and get it on the floor.
It just felt that no one was going to stay with him, especially no center. So I thought Ben had handled that very well. ‘
Monday’s loss marked the third consecutive time for Philadelphia, which still tops the Eastern Conference thanks to recent scuffles from the other contenders. But in those three defeats, Simmons slowly looked more offensive. While that was clearly the case on Monday, he scored 23 points in Thursday’s loss to the Portland Trail Blazers – his highest season in the previous season – and followed that with 18 points in Saturday’s loss to the Phoenix Suns.
He had scored no less than 18 points in a game all season before the game in Portland. Now he has done that three consecutive times.
And according to Simmons, that trend is no coincidence.
“To be honest, I’ve been working on my mindset, my mental [game], a lot in recent weeks, ”said Simmons. I think my way of thinking … it’s not easy to do that, to change the way you play, or to change certain things in the game that are obvious to certain people.
Ben Simmons tosses a powerful jam as part of his best 19-point career in the first quarter.
“I feel like I’m figuring it out. Obviously my score has been a lot higher in the last five, six games. So as long as I can keep doing that, and stay locked up and my mental [game], I find it scary. “
There has been endless research into Simmons’ play in recent seasons, such as the lack of a jump shot or the times he will disappear within the Philadelphia attack.
As a result, nights like Monday, when Simmons was the best player off the floor, are all the more puzzling. Why, if he can do this one night, can’t he do it more regularly? His last coach, Brett Brown, openly begged him to shoot 3-pointers. And he did – about once a month. His new coach, Rivers, has gone the other way.
The obvious question, in the wake of Monday’s performance – and Embiid’s absence – is whether Simmons can produce like that when he plays alongside the league’s top interior scorer. According to Tobias Harris, Simmons delivered that performance because the Sixers needed it.
“Ben is a man, he pretty much evaluates the game as he plays, and you could tell right from the start of the game: he knew he could save those guys with his speed. And we were just starting to find different ways to get him. involve it., ‘said Harris.
“… I saw him working on some stuff, and that was coming in the post and using his body down there that probably isn’t as busy as him and shooting over. It’s just an evolution of his game coming together over and over. game after game and he just had that mentality today.
“He wanted to do everything he could to help us win tonight. And that was it, more than anything else. ‘
In order for the Sixers to be a championship-level team, they need the version of Simmons that appeared against the Jazz to be present when playing alongside Embiid. Before Monday night, however, it was unclear whether Simmons was able to deliver this kind of performance.
Now that he’s done that, the question shifts to when – and if – he’ll do it again. So it goes for the NBA’s ultimate conundrum.
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