As Julius Randle faked a handoff to RJ Barrett and began a drive toward the rim, Tobias Harris tried to slide his feet with the Knicks forward. He ran right into the sturdy, 6-foot-10 frame of teammate Ben Simmons.
Randle coasted in for a dunk, New York took an early 6-1 lead and it seemed very possible the Sixers would begin their 2020-21 road schedule with a game too close for comfort against an inferior opponent.
More breakdowns followed, but the Sixers played tight defense for much of Saturday night, held the Knicks to 38.6 percent shooting overall and won by a healthy margin, 109-89.
“We got the lead, lost the lead a little bit, but I think it was just our mentality, knowing we had to step up,” Simmons said. “We have to hold each other accountable defensively and offensively. … We’ve got to play at a high level every night. We can’t take breaks with anybody, especially with teams that we should beat.”
The Sixers’ enhanced defensive focus coincided with a brilliant second-quarter stretch by Simmons that included a blocked RJ Barrett three-pointer eventually leading to a Seth Curry jumper from long range (assisted by Simmons). Barrett shot 2 for 15 on the night, rarely creating space, confidence or much of anything positive against Simmons, while the Australian recorded 15 points, nine rebounds, six assists, two blocks and one steal.
Given how Simmons’ athletic talents sometimes shine especially bright when he’s playing weaker opposition, one might be inclined to dismiss his performance as a good game against a bad team.
Head coach Doc Rivers, who passed Bill Fitch on Saturday to become the 10th-winningest coach in NBA history, sure didn’t seem to think Simmons’ night should be discounted.
“Ben, he’s got so many skills,” Rivers said. “And we’re trying to get them all out of him. I thought defensively, he was terrific. He used his size, his length. His instincts are unbelievable, something I didn’t know until now coaching him.
"And then on the other end, I thought with the pace that he played and forced actions — we got threes just because Ben Simmons pushed the ball up the floor, created actions in the paint and kicked out to guys. I thought he was terrific tonight.”
As it grows, it’s interesting to observe the relationship between Rivers and Simmons. We figured Rivers’ résumé as a former NBA point guard and accomplished, experienced coach would lend him more authority and credibility than Brett Brown. Successful relationships are not usually one-sided, though. Simmons shared some details Saturday about the early stages of collaboration with his new coach.
“Today at shootaround, me and Doc cleared something up with just some wording,” Simmons said. “We took some words out that kind of confused me with some of our sets and plays. I slowed the game down a little bit more, tried to make better reads and the right reads for my teammates. Playing for a different coach is different. He’s seeing different things; I’m also seeing different things. So I’m just trying to learn as much as I can from him and trying to get better for this team.”
There’s nothing magical about Rivers’ presence. He alone will not unlock nonexistent areas of Simmons’ game or end the Sixers’ road misadventures. The team is now 1-0 away from Wells Fargo Center after going 10-24 in true road games last season. The Sixers’ game Sunday night against the Cavs is a solid chance to take another tiny step in the right direction.
If Seth Curry and Danny Green’s jumpers aren’t falling and Andre Drummond happens to turn in a great effort against old foe Joel Embiid, Cleveland could halt any momentum the Sixers might be building. Rivers, however, likes the idea of the team not being too dependent on its stars.
“If we rely on one guy or two guys, we’re not going to win,” he said. “But when you can get everybody involved … your main two guys are still going to get all their numbers, but what they’re doing and what I love so far, Jo and Ben are making Seth, Tobias (Harris) and everyone else around them better players, and that’s exactly what we want them to do.”
Five Sixers scored in double figures against the Knicks, with Embiid’s 27 points a game-high. The second-half ball movement was crisp.
“At one point it felt like the Harlem Globetrotters, we were passing the ball so much and moving it,” Simmons said.
Rivers has encouraged Simmons to play in a way conducive to that freewheeling style, but the 24-year-old knows he’ll hear about it if he’s not meeting a certain standard.
“… He believes in us,” Simmons said. “He believes in everybody’s ability. He’s not going to lie to you and tell you to do things you can’t do. For me, he tells me certain things. Like tonight, an example would be, ‘Be assertive. Keep being aggressive. Attack the rim.’ And when I’m doing that, he’s giving me praise and letting me know I’m doing a good job. And that just gives me more confidence to keep doing it, getting to the rim and making plays for my teammates.
“But also, on the other side, he’s going to keep it real with you. If there’s a thing you need to work on, things that he sees out there that you might not see, he’s going to let you know. That’s all about just helping each other get better. And he’s doing that with everybody, which is great.”