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BOSTON – With 5:29 to play in the fourth quarter of Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, with the 18,624 in attendance roaring and Philadelphia clinging to a two-point lead, Sixers coach Brett Brown made a critical mistake.
He subbed in Ben Simmons.
That’s right — Simmons, the transcendent talent, the presumptive Rookie of the Year, the heir to LeBron James’ throne — and half of Philadelphia, maybe more, wondered why Brown would take out T.J. McConnell. McConnell, the undrafted third-year pro, the (listed) 6-foot-2 backup, the heir to JJ Redick’s hair products.
Simmons will play some great playoff games in what will likely be a long, decorated career. Thursday wasn’t one of them. With the Sixers in a 1-0 hole, Simmons submitted a bona fide clunker, a one-point, seven-assist effort in Philadelphia’s 108-103 loss Thursday night. When the Sixers needed a big shot, Simmons — who attempted just four — wasn’t looking to take it. Believe in plus-minus? Simmons was a team-low minus-23. McConnell? A team-high plus-16.
Folding his 6-10 frame into a chair after the game, Simmons denied that Boston’s defense was affecting him. “I think it was mainly what I did to myself,” Simmons said. And, look, the Celtics are not reinventing the wheel here. The priority, players say, is to keep Simmons in front of them, and Boston has waves of defenders able to do it.
“It’s hard to do,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “He’s a heck of a player, and obviously he didn’t play as well tonight, but good players always respond. We’re going to have to be even better in Game 3. He’s really hard to guard with a smaller player because he’s so big and strong and shifty. So we’re fortunate to have a bunch of bodies to be able to kind of rotate guys.”
The Celtics aren’t the first team to be physical with Simmons, either, but in this series the physicality seems to be having an effect. Marcus Morris scored 11 points, pulled down six rebounds and spent 28 minutes in Game 2 attempting to occupy space inside of Simmons’ head. On dead balls, he hit Simmons with forearms; in the paint, he wrestled with him; coming out of timeouts, he bumped shoulders with him. If there was an opportunity to make contact with Simmons, Morris took it.
“They are elite guarding their own men,” Brown said. “I think there’s a physicality and switchability that they got apples for apples on many, many different matchups. With Ben, I give them credit. They do a good job defending him. There’s an element of physicality that I feel that they have applied to all of us and tonight Ben struggled, as we see. I do give Boston’s defense a lot of credit and respect.”
Did Simmons think Boston’s physicality affected his game?
“No,” Simmons said. “I think, the first series, the way the Heat played, it was nothing compared to the Celtics. Physically, the Heat were on another level. I think [tonight] was self-inflicted, my own game.”
There’s history between Simmons and Morris, however. In January, in London, Simmons dug a shoulder into Morris on a screen, dropping Morris and sparking a brief melee. Privately, Morris has not forgotten that shot, those close to him say. Publicly, Morris is diplomatic.
“No, we played them [after] that,” Morris told Yahoo Sports. “It was a good sneak, but I’m on my toes now. None of that is going to go down again.”
And the physical play?
“Business as usual,” Morris said. “I’m doing what my team needs me to do. I have no issue or anything like that with him. He’s a great young player in this league. That’s what I need to do for my team. I’m not trying to get into his head. I’m just trying to do what my team needs me to do. If that’s being overly physical, so be it.”
The Sixers’ loss isn’t all on Simmons, but Philadelphia needs the NBA’s top rookie more than ever. The Zombie Celtics — seemingly one injury away from holding Invincible-style tryouts at the practice facility — won’t go away. The Sixers built a 22-point lead in the second quarter; the Celtics whittled it to five by halftime. Offense can come from anywhere. Marcus Smart, a dismal 3-of-12 in Game 1, had 19-points on 6-13 shooting in Game 2. Jaylen Brown, scratched from Game 1 with a hamstring injury, hobbled through long enough to score 13 points on Thursday.
“Once we started getting stops and pushing the ball, it was history from there,” Celtics guard Terry Rozier said. “Obviously at the beginning of the game they were scoring, they were doing whatever they wanted, pushing us out and that is just part of the game, them being physical. We had to settle down and be tougher with the ball. … Coach was saying whoever brings the fight and whoever is the tougher team is going to win, and they definitely punched us in the mouth in the beginning of the game. We just had to bounce back and get things together.”
The Sixers say they aren’t worried about Simmons. “Ben is very mature, very poised,” Redick said. “I know he will bring it on Saturday. I have no doubt. I will encourage him like I always do, but there is nothing that I need to say. He brings it night in and night out. It wasn’t his best night but he will be fine.” But they have never needed him more. Adversity has hit Philadelphia, and its co-franchise player needs to respond.
“I’m going to have bad games,” Simmons said. “It happens. Obviously, it’s not the perfect timing, but we’re heading home now. We have two home games that we need to take care of and handle business. We have the team to deal with [it]. Just got to go do it.”
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