Ben Simmons generally warms up an hour before opening tip.
He works on his jumper, taking a bunch of fadeaways, threes and, yes, plenty of free throws.
Before Thursday night’s Game 6 win, Simmons took time from his routine to chat with a legend. He sat down courtside next to Julius Erving and the two spoke for a few minutes.
Whether it was that conversation or the criticism he’d been facing, we saw a completely different Simmons than we had through the first five games of the series.
The second-year point guard was all over the place, finishing with 21 points (8 of 13), eight rebounds and six assists in the Sixers’ 112-101 win over the Raptors to force a Game 7 (see observations). The only player to match that stat line in a playoff game at the age of 22 or younger is Magic Johnson.
Simmons was in the company of legends before and during the game.
“He was our bell ringer tonight,” Brett Brown said. “His no turnovers, his attack mode — pick 'em — his four offensive rebounds, his push and pace on missed shots, especially. All those things were what made him be an NBA All-Star at 22 years old. I thought he was excellent tonight and we needed it all.”
Simmons had by far his best game of the series and not a moment too soon. He’s been tasked with chasing around the red-hot Kawhi Leonard — who’s cooled over the last two games — and has been bottled up on the offensive end.
He came into Thursday night averaging just 10 points a game for the series. So much of Simmons’ offensive success relies on him getting out on the break. The Sixers haven’t been able to get out and run much and that seemed to be hurting Simmons. He almost looked reserved to the fact that he wasn’t going to be able to get going on that end of the floor.
Then Game 6 happened.
Simmons is always better when he’s looking to attack the rim and get his. The assists come naturally because he sees the floor so well.
The change in mindset and the understanding that his team needed him keyed his brilliant performance.
“Before I came on the floor, I kind of just looked at the starting five, our starting five,” Simmons said. “I was like, ‘We’ve got a lot of talent.’ And with that comes responsibility. Everybody has to do their job. It goes back to starting with defense, playing together, sharing the ball and moving it. It’s special.”
Simmons was certainly special Thursday night.
Of course, this series brought back visions of last year’s problems against Boston. Brad Stevens and the Celtics stifled Simmons and there was concern that he hadn’t taken the necessary steps to avoid a repeat performance.
What people seem to forget is how young Simmons is. He’s playing in just his second postseason and is playing a position he never played until he reached the NBA.
He’s 22 years old,” Brown said. “His game, as he grows his shot and tries to get a better command of his position, and deals with the stage of the NBA playoffs — shame on us for thinking he’s going to be all day, every day, here he is and he’s just going to go knock it out of the park. It’s just not fair.
What he did today was lots of the reasons he was an NBA All-Star at age 22, as an NBA point guard with the ball. … I really loved his no turnovers and I really loved his offensive rebounds. I thought those two things, amongst all those comments I just made, are what stood out the most. It’s the evolution of a 22-year-old, 6-10 point guard that used to be a college four man.
Simmons looked like a different player in Game 6 — literally. He wasn’t wearing his usual compression sleeve and instead of wearing three-quarters length tights, they were above the knee.
It may be a silly thing to point out, but it was noticeable. He’s had that look all season and really for most of his career. Whether it was for physical or superstitious reasons, Simmons was better.
He didn’t really have a great answer for why he did it, but his teammates noticed the difference.
"Hell yeah,” Mike Scott said when asked if Simmons had set the tone Thursday. “He played how he's supposed to play. He's an All-Star. He didn't wear no sleeves, no long sleeve pants. I told him that's how he's gotta wear it for the rest of the playoffs. Just bare. Maybe it was that."
Maybe it was that. Maybe it was a conversation with one of the greatest players to ever wear a Sixers jersey.
Simmons won’t divulge what Dr. J said to him, but did the conversation help?
Whatever it was, the Sixers need this Ben Simmons Sunday in Toronto.
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