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The best game of Ben Simmons’ career highlights his recent surge

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NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Brooklyn Nets Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Ben Simmons is on a tear. Over his last 9 games, he’s averaged 21.7 points on 61.9 percent shooting (with a 62.3 True Shooting Percentage), 10.2 rebounds, 8.2 assists to only 2.1 turnovers, 2.1 steals and 0.8 blocks. This stretch started on January 3, when the Philadelphia 76ers faced the Houston Rockets and Simmons was used more than ever as a screener and roll man. He powered his way to 29 points, 13 rebounds, 11 assists, 3 steals and 4 blocks that night. Fast forward to Monday, and he had the best all-around game of his career to carry the Sixers past the Brooklyn Nets, 117-111.

Simmons finished the game by tying his career-high of 34 points on 12-of-14 shooting, and set season-highs in makes and attempts at the free throw line by going 10-of-14. He added 12 rebounds, 12 assists to just 3 turnovers, 5 steals and 2 blocks.

At both ends of the floor, Simmons was dominant.

He frequently created open looks for shooters by pushing the pace and collapsing the defense before kicking the ball outside. His intent to attack the rim and get to the free throw line was essential. And unlike some of his recent performances, he didn’t just come out firing early to score most of his points in the first half before fading as a scorer later on. He added 19 points in the second half, including 6 points in the fourth quarter (along with 5 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals, 1 block, and more phenomenal defense).

Simmons' combination of pace, power and craftiness, from euro steps to soft finishes off glass, were too much for the Nets to handle.

Simmons has now scored at least 20 points in each of the last 5 games, which is the longest streak of his career.

One of the keys to Simmons’ success was how the Sixers used him as a roll man and utilized him alongside Raul Neto, who Simmons had played with for only 7 minutes this season before Monday’s game. (A couple of weeks ago, I wrote in more depth about how Simmons was used as a roll man against Houston and why the Sixers need to keep unlocking that part of his skill-set.)

It worked wonders against Brooklyn. Without Norvel Pelle and Kyle O’Quinn only being trusted to play 6 minutes (the center rotation was time-to-play-Jonah-Bolden bad), Brett Brown gave Simmons some run at center instead. Simmons’ usage as a screener and roller only increased. And in 10 minutes playing with Neto, Simmons scored 17 points (6-of-7 shooting) and the Sixers were +13.

Simmons set a host of rock-solid screens, rolled down the lane with purpose, and finished strong — whether he had to fight through contact, or simply beat the Nets’ defense before they could even recover to cut him off. Take the two plays in the next clip, for example. The Sixers wisely put four capable shooters around Simmons. In both plays he screens the ball handler’s man to put them a step behind and rolls down the lane, and as Nicolas Claxton is wary of a potential pull-up, Simmons is able to gather speed and fly to the rim:

Even if Simmons wasn’t able to score, he could draw fouls like the following. Here, he hesitated slightly to let Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Claxton go to Neto, before diving inside and using a nifty fake to send Claxton flying:

This new success with Simmons as a roll man shouldn’t come as a surprise. He’s always had the potential to do more in this regard, and he’s found success when used with Trey Burke this season. In 83 minutes with Burke and Simmons on the floor together (most of these minutes have come over the last few weeks), the Sixers have a 116.2 offensive rating. Even though it’s only a small sample, it makes sense. Using Simmons with another ball handler helps unlock so much of his off-ball value as an improved screener, cutter and finisher. It’s unfortunate for the Sixers that they’ve built a roster lacking high-level ball handling and playmaking, but they still need to continue this trend with what they have.

“Ben was ridiculously dominant tonight,” Brett Brown said after the game. “He played some 4, I played him at a 5, he had the ball. He was just multi-skilled, used all over the place in multiple positions, ball-handler, screen setter, post target. He’s on the 5 man defensively. He was incredible.”

Simmons’ defense was incredible. Since establishing that he’d taken his defense to another level earlier in the season, both on and off the ball with an increased motor to elevate his impact, he’s looked like he could be on his way to making the All-Defensive First Team. He’s been that good, and he proved it yet again to help beat the Nets.

Simmons stopped all kinds of plays throughout the game. He switched all over the floor in isolation, smothered pick-and-rolls, bothered drives with timely digs at the ball, rotated on time, and broke up passing lanes.

The Sixers locked in defensively during the fourth quarter and the Nets committed 10 turnovers. Matisse Thybulle (with maybe the best defensive showing of his young career) and Simmons led the way. They allow Philly to swarm opponents all over the floor with their combined length, versatility, speed and instincts.

The following play is an example of some of their stifling pick-and-roll defense. Simmons starts by pressuring Caris LeVert as he dribbles off Jarrett Allen's screen. With Simmons' massive outreached frame in the way, along with Thybulle switching effectively onto Allen's roll, LeVert is forced to hoist his pass way up in the air. Allen has to gather the ball before going up again to finish, and by the time he can, Al Horford is able to step in for a block:

There were other possessions where Simmons did everything himself, and created turnovers out of nowhere. He pounced on Rodions Kurucs on this play and gave him no room to operate before taking the ball away:

As the shot clock was winding down on this play late in the game, Simmons switched onto LeVert, covered him tightly on a drive, and contested perfectly at the rim to force an awkward miss before snatching the rebound:

This simple play in the final 70 seconds showed off Simmons’ IQ and timing. As the Nets went to inbound the ball, they ran Joe Harris off a screen, which was designed to draw Horford to the strong-side wing as Allen cuts down the lane. It worked, and could have easily created an open dunk. But Simmons recognized what was coming, quickly shifted in front of the rim to cut off Allen, and Josh Richardson helped out Simmons by flying over to switch onto Spencer Dinwiddie:

The main criticisms of Simmons' game are fully justified, and important to make. The lack of growth he's shown with his jumper this season (from free throws, to mid-rangers, to his total of 2 made three-pointers) is disappointing for the Sixers, and there needs to be growth moving forward. His aggressiveness still fades at times, too. Over his 4 20-point games before facing the Nets on Monday, he averaged just 1 field goal attempt and a mere 0.5 points in the fourth quarter. Maintaining his assertiveness, as he did against the Nets, is key to him consistently maximizing his impact. This is also where a better free throw stroke would help him. It could reduce drops in aggression on drives and against mismatches when he's wary of getting fouled and needing to earn his points at the line.

But even with these remaining areas to work on, Simmons has improved this season. And he's showing how he can develop in other areas. His recent scoring surge, increased offensive rebounding (3 per game over the last 9 contests), reduced turnovers, success as a roll man, and consistently elite defense are all part of that. Even when Joel Embiid returns and Simmons won't necessarily need to score as much, these improvements can continue. His altered play alongside an extra ball handler in particular needs to be maintained.

Simmons was always capable of going up another level without adding a jumper. By tapping into other areas of his unique skillset and turning himself into one of the very best defenders in the NBA, that’s exactly what he’s doing right now.

All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.