Playing postseason basketball Sunday for the first time in two years, Ben Simmons shot 3 for 9 from the floor and 0 for 6 from the foul line.
His head coach was more than satisfied with the 24-year-old’s performance.
“It’s funny, I thought he was special (today),” Doc Rivers said after a 125-118 Sixers win in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series against the Wizards. “Whoever he guarded struggled scoring. He created so many points for us tonight — off the glass to three; off transition to three; creating switches that they didn’t want to have.
“He’s a treasure. He’s something that you don’t see a lot in this league, and he has such a skill set that is so different. There’s a lot of people that can’t make what of him. All I see is greatness in him, and I just want him to keep doing what he’s doing.”
Simmons recorded 15 assists, his most in any game since Dec. 23, 2019, and grabbed 15 rebounds, including a career-high eight offensive boards. After 223 three-point dishes during the regular season, Simmons assisted on 5 of the Sixers’ 10 threes.
He was the top-class defender the Sixers have come to expect every game. Bradley Beal scored 33 points, though only two of those were directly on Simmons. According to the NBA’s tracking data, Beal made 1 of 6 field goals and turned the ball over three times when Simmons guarded him.
In short, Simmons’ performance epitomized the idea that he can be (and often is) very valuable even when he scores much less than the typical All-Star. On Sunday, he had four of the Sixers’ first eight points, then didn’t score again until a right-handed put-back dunk in the third quarter over former teammate Raul Neto.
“I just try to make winning plays and do what I can to help the team win,” he said. “And be the point guard and run the team. Put guys in the right positions, run the right sets. If somebody’s feeling it, keep getting them the ball. And I think overall, today we did a good job of that.”
Simmons is not flawless in every way besides his shooting. He committed turnovers on 16.8 percent of his possessions this season, in the ninth percentile among point guards, per Cleaning the Glass. To his credit, he only had two of the Sixers’ 11 Game 1 giveaways. He’s sometimes been a loose decision-maker when trying to play fast, and he’s sometimes faded from the game for long stretches instead of using physical advantages to overwhelm defenders.
A simple and rather accurate distillation of Simmons’ weaknesses, however, is that he does not take or make many shots outside of the paint and is a subpar free throw shooter. That was true Sunday, and it doesn’t render Simmons’ multiplicity of positive contributions irrelevant.
Simmons can be more than merely a Defensive Player of the Year finalist, a transition offense and drive-and-kick force, an occasionally passive offensive player, an unreliable foul shooter, and a great complement this year to Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris.
Define him as you wish, but none of that is false or should be discarded completely.
“He did what he does,” Danny Green said of Simmons, who missed the Sixers’ dreadful postseason last year following left knee surgery. “He’s going to settle in. He’ll be fine. The biggest thing for us is to get him mentally ready, prepared and confident. Step to that free throw line, knock ‘em down. But he got in the paint and he pushed the pace. Defensively, he was active. He made it tough on Brad, even though Brad did what he does. But that’s a hard assignment for any individual.
“I know he’ll settle in with each game. The key for us is to build the momentum. We know our first game isn’t going to be our best. We want our last game to be our best, and hopefully that last game is in the Finals, where we’re trying to be the last team standing.”
While he ended the regular season with a 7-for-8 run at the foul line, Simmons shot 53.3 percent there after the All-Star break. He was at 67.1 percent before the break, seemingly on track for a third consecutive season of modest improvement. The regression isn’t what anyone associated with the Sixers wanted to see. There is no sunny spin on an 0-for-6 free throw afternoon in the playoffs, except perhaps that things can only get better on that front.
Rivers’ characterization of Simmons as “special” is not off base, though.
In every sense of the word, he’s extraordinary. And he’s a big reason why the Sixers hold a 1-0 series lead.