The Sixers Need More from Ben Simmons

Joel Embiid woke up Sunday morning feeling like death.

The Philadelphia 76ers star center texted head coach Brett Brown after a sleepless night and said he was unsure whether he’d be able to suit up for Game 4 in his team’s second-round series against the Toronto Raptors. Although he gutted it out and finished a team-high plus-17 in 35 minutes, he had only 11 points on 2-of-7 shooting, eight rebounds and seven assists—a far cry from his dominant 33-point, 10-rebound, five-block showing in Game 3.

Meanwhile, fellow Sixers cornerstone Ben Simmons was nowhere to be found.

The 22-year-old point forward chipped in a quiet 10 points on 5-of-10 shooting, five rebounds, four assists and two steals, finishing a horrendous minus-16 in what ended up being a five-point loss.

If Embiid remains limited during Game 5, the Sixers will need a far better showing out of Simmons on both ends of the court in order to wrest home-court advantage back from the Raptors.

Simmons has been predictably quiet on offense throughout this series, what with two-time Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard glued to him for much of the first four games. Instead, the Sixers have increasingly relied upon Jimmy Butler as their primary ball-handler and pick-and-roll creator, which propelled them to a 2-1 series lead heading into Sunday.

Apr 29, 2019; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Philadelphia 76ers guard Jimmy Butler (23) controls the ball as Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard (2) and guard Jodie Meeks (20) defend during the third quarter in game two of the second round of the 2019 NBA Playoffs at Scotiabank Arena. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

While Brown kept Raptors head coach Nick Nurse off-balance with his adjustments in Games 2 and 3, Nurse returned the favor in Game 4 by shifting Leonard onto Butler early in the second half. He also prioritized size after the Sixers beat the Raptors up on the glass for much of the series, playing Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol alongside one another for 23 minutes after they didn’t log a single minute together in Games 1 through 3.

With Leonard switched off of him and onto Butler, Simmons should have had a green light to attack the basket while taking over a larger share of the ball-handling responsibilities. Instead, Toronto still managed to keep him in check with a combination of Danny Green and Pascal Siakam, the latter of whom was hobbled by the calf injury he suffered in Game 3.

Simmons had his fair share of unforced offensive errors, too.

Midway through the second quarter, James Ennis intercepted an errant Leonard pass and took off on a four-on-one fast break. He dumped the ball off to Simmons for what should have been an easy layup, but Simmons overpassed to Tobias Harris (perhaps in fear of being fouled?), which allowed Serge Ibaka to catch up to the play and block the shot.

During the regular season, Simmons averaged 5.4 free-throw attempts per game. Through four games of this series, he’s taken three total (and missed all three). In five games against the Brooklyn Nets during the first round, he attempted 24 free throws, including 11 during his Game 3 tour de force (also sans Embiid).

Simmons shot only 60 percent from the charity stripe this year, so his hesitation to draw contact is understandable. But getting key Raptors players in foul trouble may prove equally important to canning freebies.

That aversion to contact may have played a role during another snafu later in the first half, too.

Here, Simmons beat Danny Green off the dribble and had a clear path to the basket. Rather than elevating for an emphatic one-handed slam, he went for an off-the-glass layup that rimmed in and out and cost the Sixers two points:

Was Simmons reluctant to soar for a dunk in case Ibaka closed out and fouled him? Perhaps. But with Gasol already in foul trouble by that point—he picked up his third less than 30 seconds later—getting a second foul on Ibaka could have proved critical.

The Sixers did attack the Simmons-Green mismatch later in the game, clearing out the paint and using Embiid as a screener to create a wide-open driving lane to the basket.

That’s something they should run time and again to punish the Raptors for hiding the smaller Green on the 6’10” Simmons.

Butler, who finished with a team-high 29 points on 9-of-18 shooting and 11 rebounds, knows the Sixers need more of a contribution offensively from both Simmons and Embiid in Game 5 to have any chance of toppling the Raptors.

“I want Ben to be aggressive just like I want Jo [Embiid] to be aggressive,” he told reporters after the game. “Attack. We’re not gonna win without you guys. You have to be ready to attack it at any point in time. If he has the ball in transition, [I’m like] ‘Ben, don’t pass the ball in transition. Attack every single time’. That’s how we’re gonna win this game.”

Of perhaps even greater concern? Simmons wasn’t much better defensively in Game 4.

While he’s been doing yeoman’s work to make life difficult on Leonard for much of this series—despite what Leonard’s preposterous scoring tallies and shooting efficiency might otherwise indicate—he fell asleep far too many times Sunday. His passivity was on full display early in the game, as he was slow to fight through a screen (that didn’t even connect) and allowed Kyle Lowry to blow right by him on the way to an easy deuce:

Early in the second half, he gambled for a steal while trailing Leonard, which left him woefully out of position. A lack of communication between him, Embiid and Harris resulted in Leonard canning a wide-open 3-pointer:

Later in the quarter, poor communication between Simmons and Ennis again resulted in Leonard drilling a wide-open triple:

Embiid is the Sixers’ defensive “crown jewel,” as Brown is wont to say, but he was nowhere near 100 percent Sunday. He needed his teammates to pick up the slack in terms of communication and energy, but Simmons fell far short in that regard.

All hope is not lost heading into Game 5: The Sixers already won one defensive slugfest in Toronto. Just one non-historic performance from Leonard could help swing the series back in Philly’s favor. Brown won’t be caught off-guard by the supersized Gasol-Ibaka frontcourt again, either, and the Sixers will do everything they can to continue drawing Gasol out of the paint and attacking him in pick-and-rolls.

Assuming the Raptors do switch Leonard onto Butler again—particularly in late-game situations—Simmons will have to help guide the Sixers home Tuesday. He isn’t going to start pulling up and draining 3-pointers, but playing aggressively and attacking the basket would go a long way toward helping Philly retake control.


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