It’s nearly impossible to duplicate the offensive firepower that Kevin Durant brings, but if the Nets are to stay near the top of the Eastern Conference in his absence they’ll need more production from Ben Simmons.
Simmons at times wasn’t even looking to score or use his 6-foot-10 frame to get to the rim on the offensive side of the ball. That’s why he attempted just three shots and scored zero points in Brooklyn’s 118-109 loss to the Boston Celtics on Thursday night.
The former No. 1 overall pick acknowledged his passive offensive mindset after the game.
“Just pushing the ball, finding my guys. Probably finding them too much,” Simmons said. “Probably need to get my own, get myself going, which I didn’t. I’m playing with a lot of guys who like to catch and shoot. Just knowing who I'm playing with, what tempo we need to play with.”
In 30 games this season, Simmons is averaging just 7.7 points per game, and has scored only 10 points over his last three. With Durant out for at least a few weeks due to a knee injury, the Nets will need more scoring from the third piece of their retooled Big Three.
Simmons knows this. He also believes he knows he can get himself going offensively.
“Being assertive, being aggressive and knowing that my team needs that,” Simmons said. “I’m giving up the ball way too many times when I know who I am. Get to the rim and get some buckets. It’ll also help my teammates and get them going.”
Simmons says he doesn’t feel pressure to score with Durant out, but he recognizes that his team will need him to do so. The 13 assists he had Thursday night, while impactful, can only take him and the Nets so far.
Head coach Jacque Vaughn believes Simmons’ contributions to the team are on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball.
“Whether that’s a box out, whether that’s getting to the rim more. It fits all in the same category,” he said. “Love the contributions from the assists part of it, but we will continue to challenge him, challenge the group and continue to hit first.”
But can the Nets win without Simmons giving the team some sort of consistent offense? Vaughn looks at his forward’s game more than just what he can do from a scoring standpoint.
“I always look at it as ‘what does the possession render?’ He got guys shots throughout the course of the night. My thing is going to be on the defensive end for Ben,” Vaughn explained. “The impact he has to have without Kevin on the floor. We’re asking Nic [Claxton] to be at the rim and protect the rim. Ben’s gotta protect the rim. He’s gotta be a full force on the defensive end of the floor so that we can play small and have three guards shooting around. We have to be up to having more force on the defensive end of the board and hopefully make some shots. That would help.”
Kyrie Irving, who scored 24 points on 9-of-24 shooting, echoed many of his coach’s sentiments towards Simmons, and puts the onus on scoring on the team. The offense will find Simmons with time.
“[Simmons] just gotta be himself. We’re not going to put too much pressure on him,” Irving said. “We’re not going to look at this one particular game or any other game where he scores four, eight points, whatever. It doesn’t really matter. It’s about us as a team to collectively put points on the board. When he gets his opportunities, we just want him to be aggressive.”
Durant will be reevaluated in a little less than two weeks, and the Nets should have a better timeline for their top scorer’s return.
After Thursday’s loss, Brooklyn is 0-1 without Durant this season. They were 8-19 without him last season, and crawled their way into the postseason. With the way they’ve been playing -- at 27-14 and the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference entering Friday -- it feels like this season will be different.
But if they want to prove it, they’ll have to get Simmons more involved in the offense.