Ben Simmons had a succinct self-assessment Tuesday night after the Sixers’ 104-95 loss to the Nuggets.
“There’s a lot going on, but it is what it is,” he said. “I’ve got to get my s--- together and we’ve got to get back on track as a team.”
The Sixers have won six of nine games since Joel Embiid’s left knee injury, although Simmons’ offensive level has dipped. He’s averaged 14.5 points and 6.6 assists on 48.4 percent shooting from the floor over his last eight games. His 22.6 turnover percentage during that period is the worst of any player classified as a point guard by Cleaning the Glass.
Simmons missed the Sixers’ first two games following the All-Star break after his barber tested positive for COVID-19. He later sat out the team’s March 20 contest against the Kings with left knee soreness. The 24-year-old had season-ending surgery last August to remove a loose body from his left knee.
Is health an issue?
“I think he’s healthy,” head coach Doc Rivers said. “He’s got to play better. We all have to play better.”
Not that Rivers is known for sugarcoating unpleasant realities, but he’s been eager to defend Simmons this season against any scrutiny that he perceives to be unfair, and to laud all the things Simmons does to help the Sixers besides scoring. If he thinks Simmons must play better, it’s not a controversial opinion.
This stretch without Embiid always figured to be challenging for Simmons individually, and not just because he’s one of the players who’s been tasked with replacing Embiid’s considerable offensive production.
When Simmons has shared the floor with Dwight Howard this season, the Sixers have a minus-10.6 net rating, an effective field goal percentage of only 50.6, and a 17.8 turnover percentage, per Cleaning the Glass. The Sixers don’t often grow a lead or trim a deficit in Howard-Simmons minutes.
Those numbers are indicative of somewhat self-evident facts — that the importance of complementary shooting and spacing rises when Simmons is on the floor, and that Howard doesn't provide those qualities. However, Simmons identified a separate, Denver-specific problem when asked Tuesday about the biggest difference in the game.
“S---, the altitude,” he said. “I think that was the first thing. I think guys were just a little shook and tired at the start. That also affected communication — guys were a little tired. We just didn’t come to play. That first period, I think they shot 70 percent from three or something like that. That’s tough, especially when they got up 20 points early. That’s tough. They really punched us, and we didn’t really fight back until the third.”
Simmons obviously wants to halt the Sixers’ first losing streak since mid-February and help the team seal a winning road trip with a victory Thursday in Cleveland. Still, he had a veteran’s perspective on the current state of the Sixers, who sit at 32-15.
“We just stay together,” he said. “You can’t let the lows get too low and the highs get too high. It’s a long season. If you’re going to judge us based off one game, I don’t know what to tell you. There’s plenty more basketball to play. I think we’re tied for first with Brooklyn right now. It could be worse, but we also want to be better and get to the next level. It is what it is.”
The Sixers are 0-2 against the Cavs this season. Their Feb. 27 overtime loss is likely one of the few performances Rivers would feel comfortable categorizing as “awful” like he did Tuesday’s. Among his criticisms after that defeat at Wells Fargo Center were “flat,” “zero energy” and “lack of effort.”
That means there’s a few trends Simmons would like to reverse Thursday.
“I say after tonight, we can’t wait to play them,” he said. “They’ve got the number on us right now. Obviously we believe we’re the better team, so we’ve got to go prove that and show that and be ready. We know we’re going home (after the game), so maybe that’ll give us a little more energy.”