Life was never going to be easy for Ben Simmons against Kawhi Leonard. In the second round against the Toronto Raptors, it was always going to be essential for the Philadelphia 76ers to run a lot of their offense through Jimmy Butler, and for Simmons to elevate every non-lead-guard element of his game.
As the Sixers looked completely outmatched in a Game 1 loss, Simmons was the team’s best player. He showed promise for his first playoff outing against Toronto’s elite defense, providing more value as a cutter and screener, while flashing some positive defense on Leonard during limited possessions. Along with his defensive efforts, some stylistic tweaks were a pleasant surprise for Philly’s offense, as he went on to finish with 14 points on 7-of-8 shooting. Simmons seeking out ways he can alter plays off the ball, rather than watching from the dunker’s spot (which Philly reduced later in the season and against Brooklyn), is key to his development moving forward, particularly against Leonard in this series.
Take the first play in the clip below. The Sixers run a dribble hand-off for Jimmy Butler with JJ Redick set up in the corner. Simmons sees Leonard helping onto Butler in the lane, so he signals for a pass to Redick and stops Kyle Lowry contesting with a screen. With Leonard now closing out on Redick, Simmons cuts behind the defense for a dunk:
Game 2 was a different story for Simmons’ offense. He finished with just six points (3-of-6 shooting), seven rebounds, and five assists. His aggressiveness and impact dipped again.
That doesn’t mean he didn’t help lift the Sixers to a win, though. After Butler mostly had the Kawhi Leonard defensive assignment in Game 1 and came up well short, Brett Brown switched to Simmons. And it worked.
Simmons fared well in 27 possessions guarding Leonard in the series opener, displaying far more ability to bother him with a blend of size, speed, and effort that no other Sixer — and hardly any players in the NBA for that matter — can match. With 51 possessions on Leonard in Game 2, playing for a grueling team-high 44 minutes, Simmons was even more impressive.
He has now held Leonard to 12-of-25 shooting (0-of-9 from 3) and two turnovers through two games. After Leonard dropped 35 points on 54 percent shooting in Game 2, that may not sound amazing. Really, though, there’s only so much you can do against someone who can score in any fashion. He’s going to get his points. For context of just how big an impact Simmons has made, consider Leonard has torched the rest of the Sixers with 17-of-22 shooting (6-of-8 from 3) and only one turnover. Without Simmons, Leonard would have been walking towards another 40- to 50-point game.
Simmons has made Leonard work harder for everything. He can hang with Leonard on drives and use his size advantage around the rim, deterring layups which others would allow. Simmons holding him to more fading, contested jumpers is a win:
The Sixers made a clear effort to increase the pressure on Leonard’s playmaking, too. Throwing far more double teams at him led the way (another effective adjustment from Brett Brown), forcing him to make more tricky reads out of traffic.
This pick-and-roll defense was spot on as well. Simmons slips past the screen from Pascal Siakam and flies right back in front of Leonard to cut him off at the rim with Joel Embiid. Rather than attempting a risky wraparound pass to Siakam, Leonard resets the possession to go at Simmons again, eventually settling for another contested fadeaway:
As for Leonard’s missed 3s against Simmons, some of them are simply him missing shots. It’s not always due to defense. But there’s no denying that Simmons has been deterring Leonard from driving as often, while contesting incredibly well at the arc as well (Simmons may be the best 3-point shot blocker in the NBA). Simmons has tremendous closeout speed to utilize from distance, with quick-twitch leaping ability and length to catch opponents with tight contests when they try to pull up in front of him. When he puts all that together and fights hard around screens, it’s hard to get clear looks off against him:
Plays like the following represent another valuable wrinkle in the Sixers’ defense: Redick not switching on ball screens. It’s been a great way to prevent so many ugly switches onto the starting five’s weak link, and helps prompt Leonard into another tough 3 here. Rather than giving Leonard the mismatch and an easy chance to drive inside, Redick doesn’t switch and sticks to Danny Green, leaving Simmons in position to contest Leonard:
This season, Simmons was the only player in the NBA to guard each position at least 10 percent of the time and hold all five positions below their normal production level (per 100 possessions), according to Krishna Narsu’s matchup data. In the first round, Simmons locked up D’Angelo Russell (the Nets All-Star shot a mere 33.3 percent against him for the series). Now, he has taken on the task of guarding one of the top players in the league in Kawhi Leonard, and he is making him work as much as possible. The Sixers can’t ask for anything more from Simmons’ defense right now.
The obvious improvements can come with consistent activity and aggression on offense. Even in a more productive Game 1 offensively, Simmons hasn’t always take opportunities to attack. At times, he has powered his way past the likes of Danny Green and Pascal Siakam on drives to the rim. At others, when he has mismatches on Kyle Lowry, he’ll pass immediately without even eyeing up the basket to consider an attack.
More than anything, this can change through a shift in mindset. He was mostly stellar over the final four games against Brooklyn, and played better on offense than many probably would have expected in Game 1 against Toronto.
Even though there still needs to be more consistency, there has been clear growth since last year’s playoffs. And more than anything else, Simmons showing his All-Defensive potential takes his impact to another level. Rather than looking absent on the court when he can’t complete his usual tricks with the ball on offense, he can leave a mark. It’s encouraging for his future, and the Sixers’ improving chances against the Raptors.
All statistics courtesy of NBA.com.