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Ben Simmons struggles against Boston, but he didn’t the last time they played

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Did the second-year LSU product figure something out?

In just the third game they played together, the Sixers new starting unit of Tobias Harris, JJ Redick, Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and Jimmy Butler had to face the Boston Celtics. They lost at home by three and it was more heart-break and more talk about how Al Horford owns Joel Embiid, Brad Stevens is Brett Brown’s daddy, and Ben Simmons can’t shoot.

But there was one storyline that perhaps went a bit under the radar. Ben Simmons finally played a good game against the Celts.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Ben Simmons hasn’t been good against Boston in his brief career. We can admit this without overreacting. The 76ers are very good. Much better than teams typically led by 22 (Simmons) and 24 (Embiid) year-olds tend to be.

Remember how much less scrutiny players like Kevin Durant, Russel Westbrook, Steph Curry, Kyrie Irving or Giannis Antetokounmpo received as second-year players? None of them even got a whiff of the playoffs this early in their careers.

Simmons has received so much criticism for his inability to shoot it becomes easy to forget he’s only played 148 career games. What’s more, he is attempting to learn the hardest position to learn without having particularly excelled at it even before his pro career. Most young point guards struggle for several years as they learn to transition from running the point in college to running it in the pros. Ben -listed as a forward at LSU- has been essentially learning it on the fly. [1]

But what the heck, the Sixers are in win-now mode and he’s playing in the All-Star game today. He can take it so let’s scrutinize him some more!

Ben Vs. Boston

In Ben’s brief 12 game career vs. Boston his total plus-minus is a -124. His ts% is 0.518. The -124 means that on average, every time Philadelphia plays Boston, the Sixers get outscored by 10.33 points while Simmons is on the floor.

His season averages against all teams are 16.8 points, 7.9 assists, 9.0 rebounds, 5.6 free throw attempts, 3.6 turnovers, with a net rating of +2.0 per game and a ts% of .587.

Against Boston he averages 14 points, 6 assists, 8.4 rebounds, 4.75 FTAs and 4.1 turnovers.

In the playoffs last year, after he destroyed the Miami Heat, it was especially difficult for him to figure Boston out. He posted a -17.7 net rating over the 5 games. The team was better off when led by his backup T.J. McConnell.

Boston does a very good job against Simmons and it’s not just the jump shooting although that dominates the conversation. His assist to turnover ratio on the year is 2.38 but vs. Boston it’s 1.47. They limit him in the half court well and they limit transition opportunities.

Not surprisingly, Boston has won 10 of the 12 match ups since Ben’s career began in November of 2017.

That’s the bad news. And it is bad.

Lion cub learning to hunt

The last time the teams met on Feb. 12th things looked different on film. In the first half, Simmons was a -7 in his minutes [2] and things looked similarly challenging for him.

But after the break we saw a different player. Ben was a +8 in the second half and it felt like a light had come on for the second-year Aussie. He wasn’t perfect but he made lots of high impact winning plays on both ends of the court. It was just the second time he’s finished with a positive +- against the C’s.

Led by Simmons, the Sixers opened the second half with an 18-4 run.

He came out of the break playing high-level and aggressive defense with few lapses. He was still picking up his dribble too early but doing so less often. He was making quick reads on each end of the floor that led to stops and assists or hockey assists. It was his two-way playmaking and energy that sparked the team’s best run of the game and he continued it all well into crunch time.

He also did it despite the team making some major roster changes before the trade deadline. This was just the team’s third game together since the Harris trade.

Let’s take a look at what worked for him in this video-breakdown of his second-half:

In the film you can see some A+ defense. That’s the thing that Brett Brown wants the most from him, per Dave Uram of KYW Newsradio.

He made a huge mistake on the key stop by playing too far out and too upright against Marcus Smart. I suspect he may have blitzed Smart intending to foul then remembered he didn’t have to, but it was too late.

But this just felt different than the previous games.

Now of course, Kyrie Irving was out of the lineup and Boston is much better with him. But Terry Rozier is a better defensive player than Irving yet Ben was able to use size against him (he also used it against Horford, Marcus Morris and Jayson Tatum) a few times.

With 24 games to go before the playoffs, they’re going to need more of this two-way dynamo if they want to make the NBA Finals. Boston isn’t the only challenger, and they’re probably not even the best of the East right now. But the way they defend Simmons will likely be modeled by whomever is tasked with slowing him down come April. If he can continue to be as effective against elite teams as he was in the second half vs. Boston last week, Philadelphia might be headed for a very memorable run.

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[1] Imagine if I told you a couple years ago “a team is going to hand over the reins to a power forward and ask him to play point guard. Oh, and he isn’t going to be able to practice with anyone for a year ‘cause he broke his foot.” You’d think “The Process” was barely beginning. But here we are expecting him to lead us to glory immediately like Magic Johnson (who had Kareem) once did. If Embiid weren’t around our expectations might be more reasonable.

[2] To be fair, Simmons is more likely than Joel Embiid to play a relevant sample of minutes with bench players like Boban Marjanović who Boston had little trouble exploiting in this contest. This did not help Simmons’ +- much.