Winston Churchill once said of Russia: It’s an enigma wrapped in a mystery within an enigma. If there’s an NBA equivalent of that quote, it’s the star of the Philadelphia 76ers, Ben Simmons.
Perhaps there is no more confused player in the NBA than Simmons. He has the length and strength of a center, but plays with the speed and passing of a playmaker. He can run and is able to hold all five positions on the field in a way that maybe no one else in the league can.
But at the same time, he doesn’t shoot the 3 pointers and often on mid-range jumpers. And despite all his contributions to victory, his physique has become an inexhaustible source of discussion in Philadelphia and beyond – especially when playing alongside Sixers star Joel Embiid.
For example: Monday night, while Embiid sat out with a back injury, Simmons played center for the Sixers against Utah Jazz, the team with the best record in the NBA.
So what did Simmons do? He had the best game of his career, with 42 points, 9 rebounds and 12 assists – all without taking a single shot out of the paint.
In the end, the Jazz defeated the Sixers 134-123 for their 19th win of the season. Victory in the last 20 games.
The deciding factor, however, is that Simmons played with an aggression that Sixers fans rarely see.
I mean, to put it that way, probably not, Simmons said with a smile when asked if he had ever been that aggressive in his NBA career.
There are nights when I feel dominant, but it may not feel like a 40-point game. I can get a triple double and we can win by 20, no matter what. It could be the defense. But] yes, I absolutely had to bridge the gap with Joel.
Simmons is right. His game is often focused on things that don’t show up in the goal area, whether it’s how he blocks other teams’ best players or how he prepares his teammates for the 3 point.
But the reason Monday’s performance was so revealing is that Simmons, despite his tremendous physical gifts, rarely imposes his willingness to play like he did against the Jazz, especially in the first quarter. With Philadelphia leading 42-35, Simmons finished the quarter with 19 points and four assists, scored or created 12 of Philadelphia’s 16 baskets.
In his first 24 appearances this season, Simmons has scored at least as many points per game three times. Monday night he did it in the first 12 minutes – and he did it by playing against Jazz center Rudy Gobert, who at times scored just above the league’s best defender.
Ben Simmons, who played without Joel Embiid, scored 42 points against the Jazz, the highest score of his career. Alex Goodlett/Getty Images
We expected that once Joel was deleted, we would try to put a team together with Gobert to protect Ben, said Dr. Rivers, coach of the Sixers. It happened, and the key for us was to stop, get to Ben and go upstairs.
I felt like no one could stay with him, especially the center. I think Ben did very well.
Monday’s defeat is the third loss in a row for Philadelphia, which remains at the top of the Eastern Conference thanks to recent struggles by other rivals. But over the course of those three defeats, Simmons slowly began to become more aggressive on the offensive front. While that was evident in Salt Lake City, he scored 23 points in Thursday’s loss to the Portland Trail Blazers – his highest point total from last season – and followed with 18 points in Saturday’s loss to the Phoenix Suns.
Simmons scored just 18 points per game twice in the season prior to the Portland game. So he did it three times in a row.
And according to Mr. Simmons, this trend has not come about by accident.
Honestly, I’ve been working a lot on my mentality, my mental game, the last few weeks, Simmons said. I guess I don’t just want to change the way the game is played, or some things in the game that are natural to some people.
I think I get it. In the last five or six games, of course, my score has been much higher. As long as I can continue to do that and work on my mental [game], I think it’s scary.
In recent years, there has been criticism of Simmons’ play – particularly his lack of suspension shots or the times he disappears into the Philadelphia offense.
That makes nights like Monday’s, when Simmons was the best player on the field, even more confusing. Why, if he can do it one night, can’t he do it more regularly? His former coach, Brett Brown, openly implored him to shoot three-pointers. And he did… about once a month. The rivers went the other way.
The obvious question after Monday’s performance – and Embiid’s absence – is whether Simmons can achieve that result by playing alongside the league’s top striker. Philadelphia forward Tobias Harris said Simmons played along because the Sixers needed him.
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Ben is a man who evaluates the game as it goes along, and you can see that right from the start: He knew that with his speed he was faster than these guys. And we started looking at different ways to get him involved, Harris said.
I’ve seen him work on some things, and it was getting on the post and using his body there [against players who] probably aren’t as busy as him and shooting at them. It’s just the evolution of his game that goes from game to game, and he had that attitude today.
He wanted to do everything he could to help us win tonight, Harris said. And that was, more than anything.
If the Sixers want to become a championship-level team, they need a version of Simmons, who showed against the Jazz that he’s there when he plays alongside Embiid. However, it wasn’t until Monday night that it became clear if Simmons was capable of such a performance.
Now that he’s done it, the question is when… or when… he does it again. So it’s an NBA conundrum.