In some ways, it was a fitting end to a fantastic season for Ben Simmons and the Philadelphia 76ers.
Needing to advance the ball the length of the court with 2.4 seconds left on the clock, Simmons threw a Hail Mary pass into triple coverage. As they had so many times in the Eastern Conference semifinals, the Boston Celtics were back on defense, ready to deny.
Marcus Smart intercepted the pass to end the Sixers’ season on Wednesday night, giving the Boston the series 4-1 to advance to its second consecutive Eastern Conference Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Meanwhile, Philly’s 6-foot-10 point guard heads home with plenty to work on this offseason after the Celtics challenged him in ways he had never been challenged before.
“I’m just learning. This is just the start for me and I have a long way to go,” Simmons admitted in his postgame interview. “There are a lot of things I learned this series that I didn’t against Miami.”
After putting together one of the most impressive regular-season rookie campaigns in recent history and then shining in the first round of the playoffs against the Miami Heat, Simmons’ weaknesses were exposed throughout the second round.
Simmons didn’t just have a bad game or two against the Celtics, he had a horrible series.
Against a Celtics team without Kyrie Irving, we thought he would be the best point guard on the floor. He wasn’t.
We thought he’d be the best rookie in the series. He wasn’t that either.
Jayson Tatum led the Celtics in scoring with 23.6 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 3.2 assists per game. Boston’s rookie left Ben Simmons flummoxed in the half court…
Tatum vs. Simmons 👀 pic.twitter.com/eiWuVVxGWE
— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) May 8, 2018
And torched him in transition, where Simmons was supposed to shine.
— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) May 10, 2018
Instead, Brad Stevens’ young but disciplined defense flexed on Simmons. The Celtics possess the unique ability to match oversized ball handlers from all positions, matching Simmons length with guys like 6-foot-10 Al Horford, and 6-foot-9 Marcus Morris.
That size also helped the Celtics contain Simmons better than most in transition, where the 76ers dropped from a pace of 102.20 (fourth best) to 97.29. One of the Sixers’ unique advantages is the cross-matches it creates in transition; all nullified by Boston’s ability to match it.
In the half court, they sagged off Ben Simmons to protect the paint, giving him little room to use his quickness to drive to the basket, as our own Jesse Blanchard explained earlier in the series:
“Perhaps for the first time all season, Simmons’ lack of shooting range was a glaring deficiency. Horford is the rare interior player quick enough to keep up with Simmons’ first step, strong enough to absorb his superior second step with legal contact, and long enough to contest the ensuing shot.”
— Jesse Blanchard (@blanchardJRB) May 1, 2018
Off the ball, the Celtics often left him open, knowing he was unwilling to take a shot from anywhere outside of 10 feet. It was a stark reminder that the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft isn’t a scoring threat outside of the paint.
This is Ben Simmons' shot chart for the ENTIRE SERIES 😳 pic.twitter.com/HTY71flROD
— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) May 10, 2018
During the regular season, Ben Simmons didn’t need to be. His combination of size, athleticism, vision, and threat to make the quick pass got him to the basket at will. In his rookie campaign, Simmons averaged 15.8 points, 8.2 assists (3.4 turnovers) and 8.1 rebounds with 78 percent of his shots coming from less than 10 feet.
In the playoffs, 82.9 percent of his shots were from inside 10 feet.
Miami couldn’t contain him during the first round, as he elevated his play, averaging 18.2 points, nine assists (four turnovers) and 10.6 rebounds en route to a 4-1 series win over the Heat.
The Celtics held him to 14.4 points, 6.4 assists (4.8 turnovers) and 8.2 rebounds throughout a series in which he increasingly became more of a liability than leader.
Playing in 81 games during the regular season, Simmons only had seven games where his plus-minus rating was minus-11 or worse. In five playoff games against the Celtics, he had four games where he finished minus-11 or worse – including minus-21 and minus-23 outings in the first two games of the series. His minus-12.6 for the series was a team worst and the Sixers were minus-63 when he was on the court and plus-48 when he was on the bench.
With fellow point guard T.J. McConnell inserted into the starting lineup for Games 4 and 5, Simmons played off the ball more and was able to have some success cutting to the basket, making strong drives off the pass and getting open under the rim.
Boston’s defensive game-plan against Simmons will undoubtably be duplicated by other teams next season. And the Celtics aren’t going anywhere. Boston is only going to get better, healthier, and more experienced in the coming years.
To combat that, Simmons is going to have to have a very productive offseason.
Obviously, he needs to work on his jumper so that he is at least somewhat of a threat to shoot from the perimeter. But he isn’t going to go from no threat to a huge threat as a shooter overnight or in one offseason.
So, he also needs to embrace his versatility. He could thrive as the big man in the pick-and-roll, and a few post moves could do wonders for his game against teams with the length and versatility to limit his possessions in the paint off the dribble.
He also must become a better free throw shooter. Simmons shot 56 percent from the line during the regular season, which is almost Hack-a-Shaq bad.
In Game 3 against the Celtics, the Sixers were up 98-97 with 20.5 seconds left on the clock in overtime, and Simmons came up with an offensive board. Instead of holding on to the ball and running the clock out or being fouled, he decided to go right back up with it. He missed and the Celtics would go on to win 101-98 to take a 3-0 series lead.
After that game, Simmons said it was his “natural instinct” that led him to take the ill-advised shot. It was just one of many moments in the season-ending series that reminded you just how young he is.
At just 21, Simmons has a bright future ahead of him. He showed us flashes of how bright that future can be down the stretch of the regular season.
The playoffs expose the weaknesses of even the best in the game. But, the best of the best come back the next postseason and show you how much work they put in during the offseason.
Against Miami, Simmons thrived in the playoffs. Against Boston, he struggled mightily.
Let’s not overreact to either showing.
Instead, let’s let “The Process” play out and see how the sour ending to his incredible rookie year fuels him for next season.