Simmons feels ‘a little bit of disrespect' and makes a point (or 42) vs. Gobert


Ben Simmons let it be known last week that he feels he’s the league’s best defensive player. Rudy Gobert, meanwhile, has won the Defensive Player of the Year award twice and looks likely to be in the running again at the end of this season. 

When Simmons recognized the 7-foot-1 center was guarding him Monday with Joel Embiid sidelined by back tightness, he sure didn’t mind having the opportunity to show off his superior speed and versatile offensive game — and perhaps make a point in the process.

“I loved when I saw Rudy was guarding me,” Simmons said after recording a career-high 42 points in a 134-123 Sixers loss, along with 12 rebounds and nine assists. “I love being able to go at somebody like that. I feel like it was a little bit of disrespect putting him on me, but it is what it is.”

Gobert is most renowned for his rim protection, not his multi-positional defense. With Embiid out, head coach Doc Rivers thought the Sixers’ best bet was forcing Gobert from his comfort zone of guarding a conventional center like Tony Bradley or Dwight Howard and patrolling the paint. He started Mike Scott for only the third time this year and hoped Gobert would match up against Simmons. 

“Once Joel was scratched … we were trying to create a lineup where Gobert would guard Ben,” Rivers said. “That happened. The key for us was getting stops, getting it to Ben and getting up the floor. We just felt there’s no way anybody was going to stay with him, especially a center. I thought Ben handled that very well.”

Simmons’ efforts weren’t enough to beat the Jazz, who now hold an NBA-best 23-5 record, in large part because of problems with the Sixers' bench and three-point volume that featured prominently in each of the team's last three losses. The Jazz took 22 more threes than the Sixers and converted 10 more, while Utah’s bench managed a 57-25 advantage over the Sixers’. Jordan Clarkson scored 40 of those points and only required 20 field goal attempts to do so. 

Though a Simmons three-point attempt still qualifies as an incident outside of the game’s typical rhythm, he’s created many of the Sixers’ outside shots. To be precise, he’s assisted on 112 of the team’s 290 made threes (38.6 percent). The Sixers have shot 41.0 percent on three-point attempts off of Simmons passes, per

If he’d wanted, Simmons could have fired away from long distance in Utah, as Gobert was happy to give him space at the top of the key. Instead of shooting jumpers, though, Simmons drove into and past Gobert, picked out passes and reminded viewers of his talent as a screener and roller. We’d seen Simmons’ potential as a roll man last season under Brett Brown to the extent that Brown decided to use the Australian as a “point forward” after the NBA’s hiatus. 

“I’m a basketball player at the end of the day,” Simmons said when reporters learned of the shift in July. “You know me, you put me on the floor, I’ll make anything happen, whether it’s plays, buckets, stops. I’ll guard anybody one through five, I’ll run the floor, I can get to the rim, I can score the ball and I make plays happen. Wherever you put me — one, two, three, four, five — it’s going to happen. I don’t really look at it as a title or position. That’s mainly for you guys to put down in your articles.” 

Rivers has thus far eschewed labels with Simmons outside of “facilitator,” which still seems to fit well after he nearly pulled off a 40-point triple-double.

“From the start of the game, he was just on a mission out there,” said Tobias Harris, an excellent No. 2 scoring option Monday with a season-high 36 points. “You just saw another element of his game, I think, him being at the five and being a roller, and how fast he was rolling to the basket. That opened the floor for everybody, pretty much, out there tonight. His pace and his ability having Gobert on him, a center ... (setting) a lot of screens but then also being aggressive offensively, it was pretty amazing.”

Over his last seven games, Simmons has averaged 21.3 points, 8.3 assists, 8.1 rebounds and 1.9 steals. He’s made 70.7 percent of his free throws and, per Cleaning the Glass, scored 133 points per 100 shot attempts while posting a 13.3 turnover percentage. Both figures are significantly better than his norm. 

One logical explanation for this recent success could be that Simmons, playing under a new coach following knee surgery in August, was bound to hit his stride once he felt at his physical peak and attuned to Rivers’ expectations. 

Simmons, however, pointed to the mental side of his game in response to questions about his increased aggression and 12-for-13 performance at the foul line. 

“Honestly, I’ve just been working on my mentality … a lot these past few weeks,” he said. “It’s not easy to do that, to change the way you play or certain things in the game that come natural for certain people. I feel like I’m figuring it out. Obviously, my scoring’s been a lot higher the past five, six games. As long as I can keep doing that and stay locked in and keep working on my (mentality), I think it’s scary.”

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