Doc Rivers shook his head Sunday as he faced another question about Ben Simmons, this one in his final Zoom press conference of a season colored by the COVID-19 pandemic.
A reporter wanted the Sixers head coach’s thoughts on Simmons’ only attempting four goals and passing up an apparent open late-game layup or dunk in the Sixers’ 103-96 Round 2, Game 7 loss to the Hawks.
“I don’t know,” Rivers said. “I don’t know. Obviously he struggled from the free throw line and that became a factor in the series. There’s no doubt about that. I still believe in him, but we have work to do. We’re going to have to get in the gym, put a lot of work in and go forward.”
Asked later if Simmons could be a point guard on a championship team, Rivers did not offer an endorsement of a player he praised so often this season for valuable non-scoring contributions.
“I don’t know that question or the answer to that right now,” he said. “I don’t know the answer to that.”
Though everything positive surely feels hollow minutes after an elimination as devastating as the Sixers’, Simmons did play strong defense on Trae Young, who shot 5 for 23, and he dished out 13 assists.
Simmons took two foul shots in Game 7, splitting a pair of free throws after he came up with a steal and Kevin Huerter wisely fouled him to prevent a fast break with 1:48 remaining. For the playoffs, he shot 34.7 percent from the foul line. He scored four points in Game 2 against Atlanta, eight in Game 5, six in Game 6 and five on Sunday night.
The 24-year-old, who has four years left on his rookie maximum extension, said he’d like to stay in Philadelphia. He recognized that intense criticism is inevitable with playoff disappointments.
“Yeah, I love being in Philly,” he said. “I love this organization. The fans are great — great people. I had a bad series. I expect that (criticism); it’s Philly.”
Though Joel Embiid did not solely identify Simmons, he described his fellow All-Star’s decision to pass the ball to Matisse Thybulle with about 3:30 left in the game instead of scoring it as a pivotal moment.
“I’ll be honest, I though the turning point was when we … I don’t know how to say it, but I thought the turning point was just when we had an open shot and we made one free throw and we missed the other, and then they came down and scored,” Embiid said. “And we didn’t get a good possession on the other end, and Trae (Young) came back and he made a three. And then from there, down four … it’s on me. I turn the ball over and try to make something happen from the perimeter. But I thought that was the turning point.”
Many of the areas where it’s important for Simmons to improve are practically self-evident. While there are subtleties of off-ball spacing and movement, screen setting and post footwork that could strengthen his game, those don’t stand out.
Jump shooting, foul shooting and consistent aggression would seem to be high on the list.
“You hit on all of it,” Simmons said to a reporter who listed a few of those categories. “I didn’t shoot well from the line this series. Offensively, I wasn’t there. I didn’t do enough for my teammates. There’s a lot. There’s a lot of things I need to work on.”
He disagreed with the notion there might be something distinct about the playoffs that makes him an inherently worse player than in the regular season.
“No, I’m not going to let you say that,” he said. “We lost. It sucks. I am who I am. It is what it is. It’s not easy to win, and it shows. The Nets got finished by the Bucks. It’s not easy to win. And I work, so the first thing I'm going to do is clear my mind and get my mental right.”