"I think that Ben Simmons is a great player in transition," Jared Dudley said in advance of Game 3 between his Brooklyn Nets and Simmons' Philadelphia 76ers. "Once you slow him up in the half court, I think he's average."
That quote got a lot of airtime, but it didn't seem like Dudley was trying to stir the pot. He was just laying out the indisputable disparity in Simmons' situational impact and explaining that the Nets needed to account for that discrepancy in how they defended him.
Now, we can quibble over the accuracy of "average" as a descriptor for Simmons' half-court game, but he is dramatically more effective in the open floor, where his combination of speed, size, and vision make him an undeterrable homing missile. A scrunched floor cages Simmons and highlights his one massive weakness: his complete lack of anything resembling a jump shot. His short postseason history is peppered with games in which he's been rendered a nonfactor, if not an outright liability, in the half court.
But there are workarounds for that deficiency, especially for someone as physically gifted as Simmons. He and the Sixers demonstrated as much in Game 3 on Thursday. With Joel Embiid sidelined, the 22-year-old had the best playoff game of his young career, pouring in 31 points on 18 shooting possessions, plus nine assists and only three turnovers in a 131-115 win.
Here's how he did it.
The biggest advantage Simmons loses in the half court is his speed. But just because he doesn't have as much space to zoom around doesn't mean his speed can't be hugely valuable.
He made a point Thursday of effectively simulating the effect of being in the open floor. He used as much space as possible, giving himself a running start from midcourt and gathering a head of steam.
Simmons isn't an especially effective post scorer for a guy his size - his touch is only OK - but when he gets deep post position early in the clock, he can usually work his way to a good shot with his right hand (his more effective finishing hand) at the rim.
He was decisive about taking the ball straight into the post when his defender was sagging off him and the Nets weren't fully set, pushing all the way into the paint before turning and backing his way a few feet closer to the hoop. Simmons is better at those off-the-bounce post-ups than he is when he needs to jockey for territory while waiting on an entry feed. He even managed to flip in a baby skyhook over Jarrett Allen.
If Simmons doesn't have the ball in his hands, the best way to mitigate his lack of shooting is to have him screen. Too often, he drifts into no-man's land or chills in the dunker spot, which doesn't do a whole lot for Philly's offense. Simmons has become a really solid screener, and when he isn't initiating a sequence, using him as a roll man can still put his size and on-the-move playmaking ability to good use.
Simmons has rarely been as active a screener as he was in this game. He finished with seven screen assists after recording just three in the first two games of the series combined. (He averaged 1.8 per game during the regular season.)
A lot of that was screening on-ball for Jimmy Butler and off-ball for JJ Redick, sometimes on the same possession. The Sixers ran this set twice in a row to help gain some separation in the third quarter, with Simmons setting a dummy screen for Butler before pivoting into a down screen for Redick.
Considering the amount of space he's given on the perimeter, dribble handoffs are always going to be a good way for Simmons to make himself valuable in the half court. He picked up a handful of his assists that way in Game 3, mostly to Redick and Tobias Harris.
In the fourth quarter, rather than wait for Redick to come take the ball, Simmons started bringing it to him, with urgency. This is another example of how having a runway comes in handy. Simmons starts from midcourt, but look how quickly these plays develop after he sprints into the handoff, and how he basically lets his momentum carry him from one action to the next.
It didn't take long for him to leverage the threat of that running handoff when the Nets' defense started anticipating it. On the very next possession after the one above, Simmons started sprinting toward what appeared to be another pitch-and-roll with Redick, only to completely hoodwink Rondae Hollis-Jefferson by keeping the ball himself.
You might notice that in those last three clips, Simmons is the tallest player on the floor. The Nets went small and the Sixers matched them, surrounding Simmons with Redick, Butler, Harris, and Mike Scott. That fivesome basically put the game on ice for Philadelphia.
When Embiid went down with a broken orbital bone at the end of last season, Simmons subsequently played some of the most inspired basketball of his life, running amok in lineups that flanked him with shooters at every position. With Simmons playing point and Ersan Ilyasova at center, the Sixers could invert the floor, freeing Simmons to claim the area inside the arc and make plays from the inside out. It was something of a prototype for what the Bucks have constructed around Giannis Antetokounmpo this year.
Simmons isn't quite the physical force Giannis is, but he has a lot of the same strengths and the same (if more exaggerated) weakness. Using the same formula makes a lot of sense.
The Sixers have been far better with Simmons and Embiid on the floor together than they've been with just Simmons out there, but it might be worth reconsidering their staggering patterns to give Simmons more time without a traditional center. He and Embiid are usually paired together in transitional lineups, but Embiid likes to work out of the post, which limits Simmons' range of motion. His lack of off-ball gravity also just frees up a help defender to double Embiid.
Boban Marjanovic had a nice game Thursday night, but he's going to be unplayable in a lot of matchups, and the center options behind him are underwhelming, to be generous. Simmons is big enough to guard most centers, and could probably stand to see more minutes as the nominal five. The Sixers have run those lineups for only nine minutes this series and played to a 49.4 net rating.
Simmons has shown he can be good - dominant, even - in the half court, with the right approach. The goal, of course, is repeatability. Game 3 was a great sign, but the Sixers aren't simply out to beat the Nets in the first round; they have higher ambitions, and Simmons may hold the key to achieving them.
He needs to be able to do this against the Raptors and Kawhi Leonard, who have typically opted to pick him up early and take his dribble away. He may need to do it against the versatile and sophisticated Celtics defense that basically played him off the floor in last year's playoffs, or a Bucks defense that's been better than any other at walling off penetration and protecting the rim this year.
To call his half-court performances against those teams "average" would be charitable. Let's see if he can make Thursday's form the rule, rather than the exception.