“Mentally, I was thinking too much,” said Ben Simmons following the Sixers’ Game 2 loss to the Boston Celtics Thursday night.
Philadelphia’s second-year point guard was coming off what was probably his worst game as a professional, scoring one point, committing more turnovers (five) than shot attempts (four) and finishing with a -23 in 31 minutes.
The Celtics have set up prime real estate in Simmons’ head. After averaging 18.2 points and nine assists with a +42 in the first round vs. Miami, Simmons is down to 9.5 points, 6.5 assists and six turnovers with a -44 plus/minus. Brad Stevens has neutralized the Sixers’ primary playmaker en route to a 2-0 series lead.
In Game 1 of the first round against the Miami Heat, Simmons brought the ball up the court with Josh Richardson waiting for him around the left elbow. Simmons took a hard crossover dribble, blew right by Richardson and powered himself right to the rim for an easy dunk. Richardson couldn’t hope to knock Simmons off his path without fouling him.
Erik Spolestra tried a number of different looks throughout the five-game series to slow down his penetration, but nothing had sustainable success. Justise Winslow tried to play Simmons tight but couldn’t stop the 6’10, 230 pound guard with blazing speed from getting to the rim.
Others tried, others failed. James Johnson didn’t have the foot speed, and Dwyane Wade just isn’t what he used to be. The Heat couldn’t keep Simmons contained so he ended their season swiftly. Stevens has had success all year stifling Simmons. His averages against Boston (12.5 ppg, 4.8apg, 47.8 FG %) are well below his numbers for the season (15.8 ppg, 8.2 apg, 54.5 FG%).
In a playoff setting where key players’ weaknesses are exploited to the fullest, Simmons certainly has a glaring one. Not only does he struggle to make perimeter jump shots, he refuses to even take them. During the regular season, he took a total of 11 threes and 78.7 percent of his field goal attempts came from within 10 feet of the rim.
So far in the postseason, over 86 percent of his field goals are attempted within that same region. Simmons was very effective throughout the year getting to the rim, making his scouting report very clear. Dare him to shoot. Unfortunately for the Heat, they didn’t have the personnel to successfully keep Simmons in check. With Marcus Morris, Al Horford, Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown, Boston has made Simmons look like a shell of himself.
In the plays above, you saw Simmons blow by Richardson and bully Winslow inside. On Thursday night, Morris used his size, quickness and physicality to make Simmons uncomfortable all while keeping up with him on his drives.
Stevens is daring Simmons to score when given space to shoot. On both occasions shown above, Morris is left on an island while the rest of the Celtics on the floor are attached to shooters. Simmons is an excellent passer already as a 21-year-old but Morris being able to stop him by himself without help eliminates some of the kick outs that make the Sixers offense difficult to stop.
Having a defender like Marcus Smart helps as well. Not only can he handle Simmons’ strength as a ball handler, Smart continuously makes plays to mess with his head.
In this play Simmons gets Smart on a switch after a JJ Redick screen and barrels towards the basket with the smaller player on him. In the Heat series this might have been an easy finish or even an and-one with a player like Richardson or Wade on him. Smart is a different animal though.
It was a great play by Smart to get the Celtics another possession, jumpstarting their run at the end of the first half. What happened a few minutes later is telling to how the Celtics began to enter Simmons’ psyche.
Same play with Redick screening for Simmons. Smart switches on with a potential driving lane available. Instead of heading towards the basket, Simmons picks up his dribble as Smart slides in front abruptly and throws a lob pass to Redick who is covered by two Celtics defenders at that point.
Another example of Smart halting Simmons’ rhythm can be contrasted to a similar sequence against Miami.
In the first clip Simmons isn’t picked up in transition and gets an easy dunk after blowing by Kelly Olynyk. Then you see the Celtics make it a point to stop the ball while Smart just takes it away with a cobra strike.
After that turnover, Simmons was pulled from the game until the last five minutes of the fourth quarter. He reentered the game after TJ McConnell led the Sixers to a 93-91 lead, but the Celtics proceeded to outscore Philadelphia 17-10 in the closing minutes. Whether he should have been subbed back in or not, McConnell, an undrafted back-up known for his scrappiness above all else was more affective for the Sixers than the former top pick in Simmons.
Simmons has not been on point with his play so far this series and the Celtics have taken advantage every time he slips up. Playing in your first conference semis can be a tough adjustment for a young player with such a pivotal role so it’s not surprising when we start to see Simmons unravel mentally.
Outside of the wide open miss, Simmons should not be that hesitant when getting Aron Baynes in a switch. It just goes to show what can happen when you scheme a player into a corner.
Look for the Sixers to run some sets to open up driving lanes for him to get his confidence up in Game 3. Simmons’ shooting won’t get better overnight, so that might be Philly’s best shot at getting one of their best players back on point. Simmons has to find his rhythm if the Sixers hope to win this series. Most of their offense comes from him making plays for others based on his own penetration. If the Celtics can continue to succeed with one defender giving him space and stopping his drives then Simmons will almost certainly stay invisible.