PHILADELPHIA — His temperament is best described as even-keeled, but in the moments before his first playoff game, Ben Simmons was unusually hyped. So hyped that the normally quiet Philadelphia 76ers guard went so far as to make demands of backcourt mate J.J. Redick, who had only 11 years of NBA playoff experience going into this postseason.
“I’ve never seen him so demonstrative before a game,” Redick said. “Three separate times he was pushing me and urging me, and it was awesome to see.”
Everyone else was able to witness that awesomeness on Saturday as Simmons flirted with a triple-double (17 points, 14 assists and 9 rebounds) in Philadelphia’s shockingly easy 130-103 win over the Miami Heat in Game 1 of their opening-round series.
If the never-afraid-of-the-spotlight Joel Embiid has emerged as the solo lead of “The Process” in Philadelphia, Simmons emerged on Saturday — and over the last weeks of the regular season, which ended with a 16-game winning streak — as “The Problem” for opponents and the Philadelphia player most important to the team’s playoff success.
“I felt good, but I’m not satisfied,” Simmons said of his Game 1 performance. “For Game 2, we have to make sure we’re locked in the whole game.”
Simmons should know about the importance of being locked in for an entire game — he had five turnovers in the first half of Game 1 and a plus/minus of minus-12 as the Sixers went into the locker room down by four points.
In the second half he had nine assists and didn’t commit a turnover, and his plus/minus at the completion of the game was plus-15.
Simmons’ share-the-ball mentality and the potential of these young Sixers are why veteran free agents Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli decided to join the team midseason, two moves that may prove instrumental in shifting the balance of power in the Eastern Conference.
“When you look at this locker room and see the guys we have, it was an easy decision to come here,” Ilyasova said. “And Ben, the way he plays, his basketball IQ, his size and maturity, he’s incredible. The talent is there; all we have to do is help guide him. I think he’s going to get even better as the series goes on.
Embiid’s expected to play at some point this series as he recovers from his orbital fracture, and at that point the Sixers, the No. 3 seed, just might emerge as the team to beat in the East.
Think that’s premature?
The Cleveland Cavaliers, in losing Game 1 of their opening-round series against Indiana, showed that LeBron James’ dominant season might not be good enough to overcome a team with a lot of young players possessing little postseason experience.
The Boston Celtics had their chances of making a serious run sidetracked by the season-ending injury to Kyrie Irving.
The Toronto Raptors earned the top seed for a reason, meshing a combination of playoff-tested veterans (led by DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry) with a group of relatively unknown young players (including Delon Wright, OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam). But do the Raptors create a fear factor? Hardly.
But the more you watch these Sixers, the more you realize there may not be a year or two needed for this team to reach its potential. In a metropolitan city of winners (the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles and the NCAA men’s basketball champion Villanova Wildcats) the Sixers have an opportunity to extend interest in basketball here deep into May and possibly into June.
If that ride occurs, Simmons has to lead the team.
Redick, for one, thinks he’s ready.
“He has a quiet cockiness that I just love, and his approach and competitiveness never wavers,” Redick said. “He’s not afraid of the moment.”
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