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How Celtics are making life difficult for Ben Simmons

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NBA: Playoffs-Philadelphia 76ers at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

TJ McConnell, with a team-high +16, outplayed Ben Simmons. That pretty much tells the story of the Philadelphia 76ers' two point guards in their 108-103 Game 2 loss to the Boston Celtics.

Simmons finished with one point, five rebounds, seven assists, five turnovers, and shot 0-of-4. It was his first game without a field goal, leading to the worst plus/minus of his career so far at -23 (which was also the worst on the team, with Dario Saric next at -12).

In other words, it was probably Simmons’ worst game yet. He was oddly passive throughout, especially as the tide turned as he showed no real assertiveness or intent to score at all.

“I think it was mainly what I did to myself,” Simmons said to reporters after the game. “I think, mentally, I was thinking too much, overthinking the plays. I wasn’t just out there flowing and playing the way I play.”

But it's not all on Simmons. The Celtics continued to execute their defensive game plan in Game 2 and did all they could to disrupt him. They’ve consistently prevented him from getting where he wants to be and exploited his complete lack of a jump to no end.

While Boston has thrown some aggressive on-ball defense at Simmons to keep him guessing, their main recipe for success has been to, as Stan Van Gundy would say, “form a f***ing wall” across the paint. Having so much size, length and versatility gives them almost perfect personnel, whether it’s Marcus Smart in the backcourt, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum on the wing, or Al Horford at center. When everyone shifts around the floor, using their physical tools and cohesiveness as a unit, they can shut all the windows Simmons likes to drive through to free up shooters or score at the rim.

Simmons got a pair of free throws off this possession in the first quarter, but it’s a perfect example of how the Celtics sag off him like he's got the plague, giving him no chance to beat someone off the dribble or get a clear lane to the basket:

JJ Redick and Robert Covington are tightly covered on the wings, while Horford is hanging so far back off Simmons that Saric might as well not bother posting up — there’s no way to make an entry pass without Horford snatching it. Simmons opts to do what he does best (drive), but Horford is in position to take the contact and force a miss. The Celtics are happy to send a weak free throw shooter to the line in these situations, seeing as he could easily just miss or get a turnover in the heavy traffic instead.

Then, of course, there’s also the problem of stopping Simmons from driving altogether, which stops him from scoring and pulling in extra help defenders to create space for shooters.

The Celtics switch perfectly on this play as Smart leaves Redick to close Simmons’ opening in the lane. Marcus Morris then shifts around a Joel Embiid flare screen and, with the help of Horford, smothers a Redick 3-point attempt:

Another drive is stopped, another contested 3 is the result. This led to yet another long rebound for the Celtics and an easy pull-up transition triple for Terry Rozier.

On the next play, it was obvious that Simmons wasn’t in attack mode. The Sixers effectively used a dribble hand-off and staggered screen from Embiid and Simmons to get Horford switched onto Redick, pulling him far from the basket. After using another screen from Embiid to switch Simmons’ defender from Smart to Baynes, a mismatch looked to be set up perfectly (this is something that needs to be done more to help Simmons moving forward). Instead, the offense stagnated, Saric forced an ugly post up, and the shot clock expired:

Even though the blame isn’t all on Simmons here (Embiid hanging around the elbow means Smart is closer to the paint to bother a drive and Saric’s post-up keeps Tatum nearby, too), he has to be more assertive to attack this mismatch. Try directing Embiid out to the arc for more room and at the very least go after a good chance for free throws to avoid the shot clock violation.

Transition is another area where the Celtics have outplayed the Sixers so far, both offensively and defensively, to earn a 16 to 11.5 fastbreak point advantage through the first two games. The Celtics have played with high effort and they’ve been far more disciplined than the Sixers when it comes to getting back in transition, not going for risky offensive rebounds or steals after a miss, and cutting off easy lanes to the rim or corners by picking up players quickly.

As a result, Philly have translated less than 22 percent of their defensive rebounds into transition opportunities in Games 1 and 2, down all the way from 29.7 percent in the regular season.

In this instance, Smart decided to get physical with the rattled Simmons and catch him off guard, bullying his way towards one of his two steals:

Smart and Rozier were already waiting in position to bother Philly’s fastbreak here. If Simmons isn’t able to burst through their defense as easily in transition and he’s expecting space when he gets to the half court, plays like this can throw him off.

Horford deserves a lot of credit, too. He’s had a brilliant all-around series (and playoffs), which includes how he’s handled Simmons. Horford has the agility to be a nuisance at the perimeter and on drives, with impeccable timing and positioning to disrupt Simmons around the basket and in the post. On his 45 possessions guarding him, Horford has helped force 1-of-5 shooting (the lack of attempts is more important than the percentage), four turnovers and only five assists.

With all that said, there are ways the Sixers can adjust to Boston’s defense. They don’t just have to roll over and live with Simmons’ troubles.

Running through more dribble hand-offs to get Simmons’ man, such as Horford, switched onto shooters can create more favorable matchups around the floor (or quick 3s), and lighten the Celtics’ rim protection in the process. Simmons needs to stay active off the ball, setting all the flare screens he can and diving hard to the rim after screens/dribble hand-offs to create extra opportunities if shooters are contested. Redick in particular can be used as an effective secondary playmaker to mix things up at times (the clip below shows how easily these things can work):

Ultimately, as terrible as Simmons’ performance was, this isn’t a time to fall prisoner to the moment and completely lay into him. Overreactions and tiresome “choker” labels are always the worst part of the playoffs.

His Game 2 outing doesn’t change the fact that he ascended to top-25 player status as the deserving Rookie of the Year to be, helped lead his team to the second round to begin with, and is facing an immense learning curve against the NBA’s best defense and coach. Doing all that without the threat of a jump shot? Obviously there are going to be challenges.

Without doubt this series has prompted the need for him to develop his range this summer. Until then, the pressure is on Simmons and the Sixers to adjust their offense as the chess match moves back to Philly. There are still ways to overcome what the Celtics are doing, and this series isn’t over just yet.

All statistics courtesy of NBA.com.