Greatest Misses: Simmons Shoots, Eventually Scores in Game Four Win as Sixers Even Series
He did it. More than once.
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NBA Playoffs First Round: Sixers and Heat Tied 2-2
If there was something different in the water in Miami tonight, credit two things first and foremost: toxic pollution in the South Beach area, and Brett Brown shaving his beard. The pictures made their way around social media a good 30-40 minutes before tip-off tonight, revealing that for the first time since Moses Malone wore short pants, our fearless leader was sans scruff. You could scarcely recognize the pictures out of context; squint a little harder and maybe it kinda looked like the Flashback Brett they'd cast in the movie version, raving to his Aussie assistant coaches 20 years ago about how someday he was gonna make it in America.
But there the fresh-faced Brett Brown was on the sideline -- suddenly looking more like Heat coach Eric Spoelstra's peer than his Ghost of Coaching Future -- seemingly trying to convey the desperate message to his Philadelphia 76ers that it was time to start anew. And it didn't take long for one particularly beleaguered Sixer to answer that call.
Forty-three seconds, to be exact. That's how deep we were into the first quarter when, on the Sixers' second offensive possession of the game, Ben Simmons dribbled the ball past half-court, jogged his way up to the three-point line (just left of the top of the key), raised his arms as if he was gonna shoot -- and then actually shot the ball. A startled ohhhh immediately rippled its way through the American Airlines Arena crowd (just in case you were wondering if they got Sixers Twitter down there), as Jimmy Butler and the rest of the Heat looked on, stunned. The shot looked on target but bounced softly off the back rim, with Joel Embiid collecting the offensive board for an easy putback and-one. But almost no one paid any mind to Embiid's rat-a-tat-tat celebration, as the arena was still buzzing over Simmons' first jumper in many moons.
Two possessions later, same thing: This time, Butler belatedly lunged at Simmons, but the shot was already off -- around the rim and again out, though Embiid once more fought for the rebound and ended up tipping it off of Bam Adebayo and out of bounds. The resumed possession ended with Simmons scoring a short banker off the glass on a missed Heat assignment, for his first points of the game. The Sixers took off from there, with the normally air-tight Heat defense falling into uncharacteristically farty disarray. Ben and Jo combined for 32 points by the half, while the team also enjoyed one of their better shooting stretches of the series -- thanks to a 3-5 downtown showing from Shake Milton, and another three triples added by one Al Horford, bettering his output from deep in the series to that point in 12 first-half minutes.
To say we've never seen Ben Simmons play this aggressively would do something of a disservice to some of the awesome games he's already had this year -- the Sunday night Lakers win, the 34-12-12 MLK Day game in Brooklyn, the 26-point first half against Cleveland (with his second career made regular season three-pointer). But certainly, this is a Ben we've never really seen in the playoffs thusfar: The one who genuinely believes (or at least plays like) he's unstoppable. Even though his first two jumpers didn't go down, they served as an early Declaration of Business-Meaning, and it's one he followed up with a series of layups, short runners, dunks, kickouts, one beautiful alley-oop to Embiid, a whole lot of free throws drawn (13 total on the night) -- and yes, eventually one made jumper in the third. (Not a three though; gotta save something for back in Philly I guess.)
Simmons ultimately ended up with a 31-13-9, to go with a couple steals (and generally much more physical, punishing defense on Jimmy Butler) and one block on Goran Dragic's stop-and-swoop-back jumper that made it clear Ben had read the move from several passes earlier. It was about as electric a performance as I can remember a Sixer giving in a must-win game -- though for the second time in about a month, Tobias Harris bricked a late three that could've gotten his teammate that tenth assist -- and one that seemed to suck the energy out of the Heat and their fans late. (I don't think I heard a single AAA attendee give Michael Baiamonte's final "TWOOOO MINUTES!" call its obligatory "DOS! MINUTOS!" response.) Miami still kept it close, but the win was decisive: Sixers 110, Heat 102.
After the game, Simmons was asked if Butler's comments after Game Three about the team being "soft" -- which most interpreted as being a shot primarily at Ben -- provided him extra motivation to come out strong in Game Four. Ben gave one of his You Think I Care That Much About Literally Anything? smirks and answered, "Nah, not really like that. I mean, Jimmy likes to talk, that's no secret. He's a great player, and he's got his own style for getting his teammates and himself hyped at this time of year. He's gonna lead his way, and I'm gonna lead my way, which is going out and playing hard, playing smart and doing whatever I can to help my team play winning basketball."
Philadelphia legend G. Love joined the pod to talk about his love for the Sixers and Allen Iverson, why Philadelphians care so much about being from Philly, the Love From Philly Festival and the current situation for musicians.
Embiid, who ended with 26 and 15 himself, also raved about his running mate's performance. "I mean, we all know Ben can play like that -- we've seen him do it many times this year. It's so many ways he affects the game, it's like LeBron James or Kobe Bryant ten years ago when they were dominating. Now he just has to do it every night. And so do I. That's the only way we're gonna go far in these playoffs, is me and Ben leading by example, and just dominating every game like we can." (Joel was also asked if the locker room was affected by Simmons' Game Three comments implying he optionally sat out the first two games in the series: "Nah, nah, we're good," he replied. "We all understand that Ben did what he had to do. All we care about is winning from now on.")
Brett Brown seemed more relaxed in his post-game interview than he has in months -- though again, hard to tell how much of his visible worrying just went with the facial hair. "Look, nothing Ben does surprises me anymore," he offered with an entirely straight face. "Did I expect him to begin the game with two straight jumpers? You know I'd be lying if I said I did, Derek. But after a kinda timid Game Three, did I expect him to have a better game, a more forceful game, a game where he showed the extent of how he can impact winning? You bet I did. And if you were watching Ben this season before he got hurt, nothing about the way he played tonight should have been surprising. When he's playing with that attacker's mentality, pushing tempo, getting to the line, taking that jumper, making things happen on both ends -- I tell you Derek, there aren't five players in the NBA right now I'd rather have on my side than Ben Simmons."
Of course, Brett was also asked about the lack of beard, and that did get a light chuckle out of him. "You know, I was feeling like I needed to bring a little bit of a different energy to the locker room tonight," he convivially explained. "I checked with my assistant coaches, and I checked with my wife, and everyone agreed that now might be a good time to give the beard a little bit of a breather." An NBA TV reporter asked if he now planned on keeping himself clean-shaven for the rest of the playoffs. "Ask me how I'm feeling after Game Five on Wednesday," he deadpanned in response.
How are we feeling about Game Five on Wednesday? Well, the Sixers did what they had to do in South Beach, staving off a potentially crippling 3-1 series deficit and getting the statement road win they've spent forever searching for, seemingly having rediscovered their spark. But good vibes don't always last long with this team, and the momentum in this series has been consistently pendulum-like in its game-to-game swings. A Game Five win would go a long way towards Sixers fans to being able to breathe for the first time since the playoffs started -- maybe the first time since Ben got hurt -- maybe the first time since the season started -- maybe just the first time? Tune in Wednesday to see if we get to find out what it's like.