When Kawhi Leonard goes up against Ben Simmons Tuesday night as a Clipper, he’ll be facing a monster he helped create.
Then a Raptor, Leonard had a series for the ages in taking down the Sixers in seven games. Lost in the Finals MVP’s prolific scoring series and Game 7 dagger was the job Simmons did in defending him.
It’s part of what has led Simmons to putting himself in serious consideration for Defensive Player of the Year.
“Definitely,” Simmons said when asked if guarding Leonard had a lasting impact. “I think he kind of set the tone for me defensively. ... I just tried to carry that energy and consistency to now.”
Early on in that series, Brett Brown tried different players on Leonard. He wanted to show the star different looks and had the likes of Jimmy Butler to also match up. After Leonard scorched the Sixers early in the series, Brown made the decision to keep Simmons on him.
In those seven games, Leonard shot 53 percent (86 of 164). When guarded by Simmons, he shot 40 percent (20 of 50) and just 4 of 17 from three. When anyone not named Simmons guarded him, Leonard hit a scorching 58.7 percent (67 of 114).
While his final shot went down in Game 7, Leonard was held to just 16 of 39 that night. Unfortunately, one of those 16 ended the Sixers’ season.
“We didn't click initially,” Simmons said when asked about last year’s series against Toronto. “I think we all let each other down but at the same time we got to grow. I wouldn't say let each other down. We played hard, we fought. We took them to Game 7 in Toronto, which is tough, especially for a young team. It was a great learning experience and we're just trying to get better.”
Simmons truly has taken that into this season.
When you look at some of the players Simmons has guarded, it’s a murderer’s row. Guys like Butler, Jayson Tatum, Pascal Siakam, Bradley Beal — and Simmons has more than held his own. He also leads the NBA in steals, defensive loose balls recovered and is tied for second in deflections.
On Tuesday, Simmons will be charged with guarding the likes of Leonard and perhaps his new superstar teammate Paul George. Simmons could even be asked to check the super dangerous Lou Williams or relentless Montrezl Harrell.
Whichever player Simmons guards, he understands the importance of trying to get a win against one of the West’s best before the All-Star Break.
“We got to get a win,” Simmons said. “I think it's gonna give us a lot of confidence coming back. To get that mental break, it's like a restart button, refresh button. So that's going to be a tough challenge. We love to compete against the best so we're looking forward to it.”
Competing against the best is what’s helped Simmons become one of the best defenders in the NBA.
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