Earlier this season, I wrote a column on why an aggressive Ben Simmons is good news for the Philadelphia 76ers. At the time, the Sixers were riding a four-game winning streak. Simmons was slowly evolving into a go-to scoring option in the fourth quarter. If he was not scoring points, Simmons got his teammates involved.
Fast forward to the NBA playoffs. The rookie point guard has carried that same aggression over to the Sixers’ first-round series against the Miami Heat. This matchup has had its ups and downs, but Simmons remains a constant playmaker for Philadelphia in his first-ever playoff action.
From the opening tip in Game 1, the Rookie of the Year frontrunner did not look fazed by the bright lights — precisely the opposite.He relished them. When the Sixers needed a bucket, Simmons attacked the paint with speed and power.
When he was not scoring, the former LSU product was finding his teammates with ease. Heat defenders were sagging off him due to his refusal to shoot long jump shots. That seems to be the natural way to defend Simmons, but what opposing teams have had to learn the hard way is that playing off Simmons allows him to see the passing lanes more clearly and create great shots for his teammates.
Simmons showed a wide array of skills in Game 1 and just missed out on a triple-double with 17 points, 14 rebounds, and nine rebounds. However, if you thought his Game 1 performance was impressive, he took it up a notch in Game 2.
Both Simmons and the Sixers struggled in Game 2 as Miami did a better job on defense. The Heat became more physical and crowded him, not allowing Simmons to see passing lanes as easily.
The physical and aggressive defense by the Heat disrupted the Sixers’ shooters, causing them to shoot a horrendous 11.1 percent from 3-point range in the first half.
Would the rookie adjust? It didn’t take long to find out. In the second half, Simmons took over for his team and unleashed “Playoff Ben Simmons.” He went on the attack, bullying Heat defenders in the paint, pushing the pace off rebounds, and running the floor.
In the second half alone, Simmons compiled a stat line of 15 points on 7-of-9 shooting from the field, three rebounds, and five assists. He finished the game with 24 points, eight rebounds, and eight assists.
Do not get me wrong: While Simmons played well enough to bring the Sixers back, he did get taken to school by Heat guard Dwyane Wade, who showed flashes of Playoff Wade and scored 28 points with a jumper which — when Simmons develops it — will make the Philadelphia rookie even better than he is now, a scary thought for the rest of the Eastern Conference.
Playoff Simmons was not enough in Game 2, but he has shown that he is not easily deterred by bumps in the road. Simmons’ time would come on Saturday afternoon in Game 4.
The Sixers won Game 3 on Thursday night, getting a big game from All-star Joel Embiid, who scored 23 points and eight rebounds in his playoff debut. Simmons was not too shabby himself, just missing out on a triple-double with 19 points, 12 rebounds, and seven assists.
However, Playoff Simmons rose to the occasion in Game 4. He chased down a triple-double on Saturday in a game that had everything: blood, a Simmons-James Johnson fracas, and 27 turnovers by the Sixers. Somehow Philadelphia pulled off a 106-102 victory.
“Somehow” was another word for “Playoff Simmons.”
The Australian notched his first playoff triple-double with 17 points, 13 rebounds, and 10 assists. The 6-foot-10 point guard was the first rookie to record a triple-double in the NBA playoffs since Hall of Famer Magic Johnson in 1980.
This time, the Sixers had the magic-maker on their side of the court, instead of watching an opponent carve them up 38 years ago.
It was a special moment for Simmons, who made key plays down the stretch to help the Sixers win. With 6:15 left in Game 4, Simmons hit a runaway, fadeaway jump shot over Johnson to give the Sixers a 91-85 lead.
If that wasn’t impressive enough, Simmons followed up that acrobatic shot with an emphatic dunk with under a minute to go in the game, leaving the Miami crowd stun.
It was a Playoff Simmons moment. It was a moment that we’ve seen from Wade, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, and Michael Jordan over countless times in their careers.
The amazing thing about Simmons is that unlike those great players, he is only a rookie and has not reached his full potential yet. On Tuesday night, the Sixers will have a chance to close out the Heat in Game 5 and advance to the Eastern Conference semifinals.
For the Sixers to capture their fourth win of the series, they will need Simmons to continue to produce the signature playoff moments great players are able to replicate time and again. If Playoff Simmons can do this, then the Sixers could be a threat to not only make the Eastern Conference Finals but possibly them.
Then, Ben Simmons will have a chance to do what Magic Johnson did in his 1979-1980 rookie season: Win a world championship.
The party would be held in Philadelphia, but this time the Sixers would pop the champagne.