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Ben vs. Kawhi: the matchup that could define the Sixers-Raptors series

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A comprehensive breakdown of Kawhi Leonard’s defense against Ben Simmons this season, and ways in which the Sixers point guard can avoid past mistakes as the two get set to face off in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Toronto Raptors Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

After a fairly quick, albeit dramatic, dismantling of the Brooklyn Nets in the first round—a series that saw Ben Simmons emerge from media-generated pressure ahead of Game 3 unfazed and unstoppable—the Sixers’ sophomore point guard appears primed for another crack at the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Simmons was frustratingly quiet in Game 1 against Brooklyn, but made up for it in the final four games, averaging 19.3 points on 68 percent shooting, 6.8 rebounds, and 8.8 assists in that span.

While efficient, stat-stuffing performances have come to define the better half of the Ben Simmons experience, his struggles with ball security make up a sizable portion of the other half. Fortunately for Simmons, this issue didn’t rear its ugly head in the first round. He averaged a playoff series career-low in turnovers, and was encouragingly decisive in half-court sets, attacking the space Brooklyn’s defenders gave him to finish at the rim or kick the ball out to open shooters.

Awaiting the Sixers in the next round are the Toronto Raptors, a team that will pose far more daunting challenges than their previous opponent. This is specifically applicable to Simmons, who will be matched up against one of the league’s premier defensive players in Kawhi Leonard. Leonard proved to be one of Simmons’ most formidable adversaries during the regular season, largely serving as his primary defender. In the three games that Leonard played in, Simmons averaged eight turnovers. To put that in perspective, Simmons’ next-highest regular season average against an Eastern Conference playoff team was 3.5 turnovers versus Brooklyn. Leonard missed a late-December game in Philly, which the Sixers won handily. Simmons committed only one turnover.

Before the two face off on Saturday for the fourth time this season, an analysis of on/off statistical data will help to better quantify the role Leonard has played in disrupting Simmons’ ball security.

Per NBA Stats, Leonard and Simmons shared the court for 31.8 minutes per game, which calculates to roughly 85 percent of the total minutes Simmons played. During that time, Simmons committed 20 of his 24 turnovers. In their October 30 matchup, he committed nine of his career-high 11 turnovers while Leonard was on the floor. It was the first time the Aussie point guard had faced Leonard, and it showed in his general carelessness with the ball:

Here, Simmons turns to face Leonard after receiving a pass from Markelle Fultz. As he faces up, he holds the ball out in front of him. Most NBA defenders would hesitate to swipe at the ball, in fear of making contact with the offensive player’s hand or wrist. Most defenders are not Kawhi Leonard. The Toronto forward has lightning-quick, foam finger-sized hands that he will deploy when the offensive player least expects it. These are avoidable mistakes that Simmons has hopefully learned from in their matchups against one another.

Simmons has struggled to create his own offense when Leonard guards him, which shows in his shooting volume. In the minutes Leonard is on the court, Simmons is only averaging 7.3 field goal attempts. If the Sixers have any hopes of advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 2001, their second-year All-Star will need to increase his shot total. He has been especially hesitant when he gets below the foul line on drives:

As Simmons enters the paint, he loses control dribbling behind his back. He hastily collects his dribble to pass it back out to the perimeter, but the ball squirts out of his grasp. Leonard pursues him and pokes it away, which leads to a live-ball turnover and transition basket on the other end. Simmons needs to avoid these types of plays. In the minutes he was on the court with Leonard, the Raptors averaged 23 points off turnovers, per NBA Stats. Simmons isn’t accountable for all of them, but as the primary ball handler, it is his duty to limit these mistakes. Expect Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris to handle the ball more often when Leonard guards him, especially if the same issues arise in Game 1.

When Simmons does function as the primary ball handler in the half court, Sixers head coach Brett Brown should urge his point guard to roll to the basket in dribble hand-off sets:

After handing the ball off to Wilson Chandler on the wing, Simmons dips inside the arc and aggressively backs Leonard into the post, where he seals him off under the basket. He receives the entry pass from Chandler, and using the rim as protection, quickly lays the ball up off the glass. The Sixers can take advantage of his unique combination of size and speed in these types of sets, or as a screen-and-roller when he’s playing off the ball. Leonard, too, has size and speed, but very few NBA players can stop Simmons when he has a head of steam barreling towards the rim.

Despite his physical tools, Simmons is only getting to the line 3.7 times per game when Leonard is on the court, per NBA Stats. Leonard is a disciplined defender who is capable of contorting his body to avoid contact at the rim, but this still goes back to Simmons’ habit of stopping mid-drive to reassess his options. It could also be due to his struggles at the free throw line. He has shown incremental improvement as a foul shooter, but still lacks game-to-game consistency. Shockingly, Simmons hasn’t attempted a single foul shot in the minutes Leonard is off the floor. The Raptors have other capable defenders to throw at him, but none possess the strength and agility that Leonard does. Simmons needs to take advantage of these minutes, especially in the post:

Here, he backs down Pascal Siakam along the baseline until he’s underneath the basket, and lays it up on the other side of the rim. Siakam is a long, agile defender, but lacks the strength to deal with Simmons in the post, especially when Simmons shows this level of aggression. There isn’t a foul on the play, but if he attacks these interior mismatches with regularity, he’ll eventually start drawing contact.

The best place for Simmons to generate offense when Kawhi is on the court is in transition. He is at his best in the open court, and can take advantage of backpedaling defenses with his combination of blistering speed and rim-rattling power:

There are very few NBA players willing to sacrifice their bodies to stop a Simmons fast break dunk, as you can see on this play. Leonard lurks on the periphery, but is forced to account for Jimmy Butler, who is camped beyond the arc on the left wing. Simmons should be able to generate offense against the Raptors’ 18th-ranked transition defense. Most importantly, it gives him the opportunity to attack open space with Leonard preoccupied. If the Raptors are able to get back defensively, then Simmons needs to pull the ball back out or commit to the drive. He has a habit of getting caught in midair when transition defenses wall off his penetration, and the Raptors will feast on those mistakes:

Toronto will look for different ways to slow down Simmons in transition. It is up to him to read and react on the fly.

There are countless variables at play in this series, but none may be more crucial than the Simmons-Leonard matchup. The Sixers cannot afford high-turnover outings from their young point guard. They lost all three games that Leonard played in this season, and many of their offensive woes were due to a lack of stability from their primary facilitator.

With that being said, Simmons has taken better care of the ball recently, committing an average of only 2.8 turnovers in his last 20 games, per Basketball Reference. He needs to be decisive on drives when Leonard guards him. The moment he hesitates, trouble arises. Butler and Harris will allow Simmons to play off-ball more than he did in previous matchups, giving him more opportunities to function as a screener and cutter. When Leonard sits, Simmons needs to attack his defender in the post. Nick Nurse will likely try to match Leonard’s minutes with Simmons’, so he needs to take advantage of every second the Raptors forward isn’t on the court with him.

The Sixers are back in the Eastern Conference Semifinals for the second straight season. Last year, Simmons struggled against the Celtics’ team defense. This year, he is facing an even more redoubtable opponent. He has an opportunity to correct past mistakes and help lead his team to the Eastern Conference Finals. Tomorrow night will be the biggest test of his career.